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Portable Dilemma

Sunday, April 20, 1997

I've spent the weeks since my last installment fighting Apple exhaustion (for examples of other souls in similar fixes, see columns by the SJ Merc's Dan Gillmor & MacFixit's Ted Landau).

I think plenty of Mac users are probably in the same boat; it's draining to deal with a world that keeps telling you you're engaged in a futile endeavour. Journalists are constantly pointing to various signs of Apple's impending death or irrelevance (which they have been doing for about twenty years now), and even though Apple is still around and innovating, no one seems to care about anything but the bad news. It's exhausting to constantly try to overcome the negative images presented to me from all sides, and I don't have the strength or patience right now to analyze all this in detail.

Instead, there's a purchase I've been considering...

I want to be free!

I'm seriously considering getting some sort of portable device so I can be less tethered to either my work or home desks. However, I don't have the cash for a Mac laptop (Apple, would you clone the #%^&* things already!) and I cringe at the thought of buying a Windows laptop primarily because of the lack of decent HTML-writing software -- the best I've found on the Windows side is HTMLed (from, but I still feel like I'm typing with very thick mittens on when I use it; it doesn't have the power & extendability & capability for automation of the BBEdit/Frontier combination I use on the Mac side. So a Windows laptop computer will not be useful to me, and a Mac laptop is too expensive.

But honestly, when it comes right down to it, I don't need a complete portable computer system; I just want something I can write essays or web pages or notes on and transfer them back & forth between my various desktop computers at home & work, not something that can do everything that a desktop can do. Running Excel or Photoshop on a beach isn't anywhere on my list of priorities, and I certainly don't want to pay extra for computing capacity that I won't use.

So It's Not a Laptop that I Want

Truth is, I've been thinking about a Newton MessagePad 2000 or an eMate. Despite the early Newtons' deservedly poor reputation for handwriting recognition, the latest Newtons have the processing power and software sophistication to handle handwriting with fabulous accuracy, or so I hear (see MacUser's MessagePad 2000 Review). They can also use a PC Card modem (or wireless modem) to hook up to the Net...e-mail or surf the Web from anywhere!

One problem, though, is still price - a Newton MessagePad 2000 is around a grand - hardly pocket change! Why not just go for a U.S. Robotics Pilot (in the $300-500 range)? or a Windows CE device ($500-900)? Well, the Windows 95 interface barely gives me enough screen space to work comfortably on an 15-inch 800x600 monitor; how usable will it be on a much smaller screen? Also, WinCE ('wince'? hmm...) devices don't exchange data with Macs, so that pretty much makes them useless to me.

A U.S. Robotics Pilot is a cheaper, less capable option; I may want to take a closer look at it to see how easy it is to write on. However, I have a feeling that I would feel cramped on that as well: the screen is so TINY. The Newton display is massive compared to Pilots and WinCE devices, and that's a definite plus. Plus, the Newton operating system is well into its second major revision now; it's a pretty mature handheld OS. To quote Steve Capps in Wired Magazine on the Pilot, "what do you want from a modem company, right? They think that a [user interface] is a bunch of blinking LEDs." Going with a first-generation handheld OS (and user interface) when a great second-generation one exists doesn't make sense to me.

Sizes and Weights and Keyboards and Speeds.

The Pilot conveniently fits in one's pocket, but I'm not looking for something that fits in my pocket. I'm looking for an alternative to a notebook computer. No one expects a Windows or Mac laptop to fit in their pocket, and I don't expect that the best device for my purposes will either.

The Newton is smaller and much lighter than a notebook (only 1.4 pounds!), and you can attach a full-size keyboard to it when you've got the urge. By contrast, Windows CE devices generally have teensy! tiny! painfully cramped! little keyboards. I'd much rather write with a pen on a large surface and have the option of using full-size keys when I want them.

Oh, I almost forgot - the MessagePad 2000 has a 160MHz ARM processor under the hood, which has been compared to a 133MHz Pentium in performance (which means it's in the same ballpark as a 120MHz PowerPC 601 - my home computer only has a 100MHz 601!). This helps it recognize handwriting just about instantaneously, and the quality of the Newton's handwriting recognition is finally up to where it was supposed to be when it was introduced, i.e. it works.

The unknown fate of the eMate

An eMate uses the same Newton OS as the MessagePad and has a solidly built case and keyboard (with full-size keys) to go with it; I don't think the keyboard is detachable. Right now eMates are only available to K-12 education markets, but that will change in late summer (so says the rumor mill). Also expected to change is the fact that the eMate 300 (the only model out right now) has a much slower processor than the MessagePad 2000. I'm not clear on what the price will be of the eMate 1000 (that is, the business version of it coming out this summer); but it could be my first choice among all my options depending on speed and price. Am I willing to wait? I'm itching for something right now; I don't think I'm willing to wait much longer.

Half the cost of a tolerably fast Windows notebook; a third the cost of a MacOS notebook; works with both desktop platforms

The eMate and MessagePad 2000 can connect to and share data with both Macs and PCs. A Newton would therefore be a handy holding area for any of my data, because I work with both platforms all day. The Newton ads say it can communicate with Schedule+, so I take that to mean it will also be able to pull down my calendar & task data from Microsoft Outlook (Schedule+'s successor), which we use extensively at work.

Oh, and here's a MAJOR advantage over traditional laptops; one that PC Week and anyone else who deals with laptops regularly will appreciate: battery life. Wait, let me emphasize that a little more: BATTERY LIFE. You're lucky if you get a laptop's battery to last more than a few hours - MAYBE you can get it to last five or six if you use every trick in the book. According to Apple, under typical conditions the Newton's power will last three to six (hours? no. days? no.) WEEKS. Three or more weeks. The MacUser review linked above says it's more like one to two weeks, but that's still an order of magnitude greater than typical notebook computer battery life. Take it on a trip and don't worry about plugging the dang thing in the whole time! I'd like that a lot; it's already a pain to have to constantly recharge my cell phone and I don't want to have to add another task to my 'must remember to do every other day' list.

So why not just do it?

One obstacle to making this decision is that I don't know what sort of writing applications are available for the Newton OS.

(as an aside - does anyone know if there's a decent HTML-writing app for the Newton? or at least a customizable word-processor that lets you build macros for things so I can build my own basic HTML editor? I'm not talking about a WYSIWYG editor; I'm wanting a great text editor along the lines of BBEdit that gives me immense control over the raw text that I write.)
Even given all things I like about the Newton, without a good writing environment I'm not likely to use it for long.

I'd really like to get my hands on a new MessagePad and TRY it. I haven't yet seen a recent Newton up-close, and no matter what I read about it, I really want to try it out before I commit to plunking down the cash. Apple's site says I can check one out at Computer City here in St. Louis; I haven't made it out there yet.

Finally, I can't decide if I should wait for the eMate 1000 to come out later this year instead. Will it be superior to the Newton MP2000? Will it cost more or less? When exactly will it be arriving? I don't know the answers yet.

Anyhow, that's the news from here. I'm sure I'll come back to this topic as I get closer to making a decision.


More pointers for reference:

Official sites: Reviews: Internet Resources: Comparisons of Newton MessagePad 2000, Windows CE, and the Pilot
As always, for more news, pointers & commentary, see Steve Bogart's home page.

Handy Official Disclaimer: Steve's Scribbles are my own personal work and not meant to be taken as official Olin School of Business pronouncements. They are, however, © Steve Bogart (original publication date is at the top of each Scribble).
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