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MessagePad 2000: New Newton Exceeds Expectations

It took a long time, but I'm finally the proud owner of a slick MessagePad 2000 (MP2K). Getting it was a challenge. The original unit I purchased was stolen en route from NewtonSource to my office, but after a week or so (and thanks to a harried NewtonSource employee), a unit is in my hands. Although I've had the machine for a short time, I can definitely say it's pretty cool.

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MessagePad 2000 Hardware -- Compared to my previous Newton (a MessagePad 120), the MP2K is about three-eighths of an inch wider, a tad taller, and about the same thickness, although most reports claim it's thinner. Using the always-scientific "heft test," the MP2K (with batteries) feels slightly heavier than its older cousin. [The spec sheet claims a height of 1.1 inches, width of 4.7 inches, and depth of 8.3 inches, with an overall weight (batteries included) of 1.4 pounds. -Tonya]

Despite the small physical size increase, the screen real estate has grown dramatically from 320 by 240 to 480 by 320. The added pixels fit nicely into a similar physical display space because the new screen has a resolution of 100 dpi. It was neat seeing my to do list (which had previously spilled over the bottom of the screen) fit inside the available space. Comparatively speaking, you get about as much additional screen space as you would if you jumped from a 640 by 480 monitor to 800 by 600.

The display also now supports 16 shades of gray, which provide a slight improvement to some interface items (like the Newton Works scroll bar), but the various grays become somewhat difficult to see in less-than-perfect lighting.

Though the MessagePad 130 featured a backlit display, this is my first experience with one. As I sit at Bennigan's (a restaurant) gobbling appetizers, I can finally clearly see my MessagePad's screen. It's even bright enough to use in the total darkness of my car.

Handwriting recognition is fast (especially if you turn off the delay option), thanks to the MP2K's 161 MHz StrongARM processor. When writing long notes in the MessagePad 120's NotePad, I often experienced lags; this problem does not occur on the MP2K, and I'm happily writing this article in the new Newton Works word processor.

The MP2K looks different than its predecessors. The pen drops in from the top and has a nifty pop-out stand. The screen cover opens like a book from the side. With a bit of creativity (propping it up on the keyboard case and rotating the screen), the door becomes a stand that holds the Newton at the right angle for typing on the optional external keyboard.

Taking honors as the first Newton with sound input capabilities, the MP2K includes a new NotePad paper that records sound for up to sixty seconds per sheet. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to start recording without going to the NotePad and clicking the record button - which means it's tough to do one-touch recording while driving.

Docking Port -- A small door located at the top of the MP2K opens to reveal a power tap and a mini-bus that's now called a "docking port." The earlier mini-DIN serial port now comes in the form of an easy-to-lose dongle that plugs into the docking port. As soon as they become available, I plan to buy several dongles for when I lose the original.

The MP2K includes an auto-docking function that activates the connection utility when the dongle is plugged in. That's not necessarily exciting in its own right, but I hope that some enterprising firm builds a complete docking stand that takes advantage of this feature.

PC Card Slots -- A real win is the addition of a second PC Card slot. It's finally possible to put a modem in one slot and a memory card in the other. This will come in handy as you make use of EnRoute i-net (an email client) and NetHopper (a Web browser). EnRoute has a robust set of rules to process incoming mail, but I also want to see how Eudora Pro for the Newton stands up.


Battery Power -- The MP2K uses four off-the-shelf alkalines (AA) to power its hungry processor. Though marketing hype claims three to six weeks of life during normal use, I worry about it. After a week, the battery indicator shows I've consumed half the available power, leading me to believe I'll be swapping batteries at least twice a month.

There's no support for a charging station (although the docking connection could conceivably be useful here), so it's not possible to drop the MP2K onto the charger when you return home at night and know there will be juice in the morning. Apple offers a Newton 9W Power Adapter that's supposed to charge a set of nickel-hydride batteries, but neither the battery nor the charger I ordered showed up with the Newton. In the interim, I've installed a 4 MB memory card, and I'm going to initiate a backup each morning.

Button Panel -- Instead of the silk-screened button panel, the MP2K renders a "soft" panel on the display. At first I wasn't impressed with the grayscale shading of the panel, but it grew on me as I discovered some of its secrets, such as:

  • When you rotate the screen, the panel rotates as well, so the buttons and associated text face the right direction.

  • You can drag & drop items from the Extras drawer onto the button bar, and - in this way - customize the bar to contain the goodies you want.

Since the button bar is a function of software, we can expect to see replacements and enhancements in the future.

(Ah, the perils of mobile computing. Bennigan's is closing, so I'll continue this review somewhere else... and here I am a few days later having breakfast at Friendly's.)

Newton Works -- An important new feature, Newton Works appears at first to be a simple word processor (like the original MacWrite). But if you look at the New pop-up menu, you'll discover you can create a new paper or a new spreadsheet, thanks to the optional QuickFigure Works. There's now enough screen space for a reasonable number of cells, so a Newton spreadsheet is finally practical. According to the documentation, QuickFigure can read and export to Excel.

I'm not sure why QuickFigure Works is part of the Newton Works program. There's no provision for intermixing spreadsheet data and word processing documents (or I haven't found any), and though the word processor requires the Newton Keyboard (there are some downloadable utilities to get around this), the spreadsheet recognizes handwriting. Interestingly, the paper document object has a subordinate object called QuickSketch that enables you to put a drawing in a word-processed document.

Other Installed Software -- The traditional Newton applications haven't changed in any discernible way. The In Box and Out Box icons have been combined into InOut; the Connection icon has become Dock, and (depending on which Newton bundle you purchase) you'll also get EnRoute, NetHopper, and QuickFigure Works.

After crashing my Newton badly on the first day (I kept popping out the battery pack to show it around), I was concerned I'd lose the installed software on a system reset. Fortunately, I didn't have to reset the MP2K back to bare hardware to restore the system. If it has been necessary to zero the system and restart it, I could have downloaded the spreadsheet, email software, and Web browser from a desktop computer, and Apple provided PC and Macintosh floppies with copies of the add-on software.

Newton Connection Utilities -- Because I'm thrilled with my MessagePad 2000, I hate to end this review on a sour note, but I'm disappointed with the long-awaited Newton Connection Utilities (NCU), which comes as a beta release with the MP2K, complete with a "special, limited time offer" that gives users the "incredible opportunity" to upgrade to version 1.0 sometime between now and November.

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I find shipping a beta version inexcusable. Users are spending nearly a thousand dollars on what, for many, is a luxury item, and they shouldn't have to worry that the software for moving personal data between a desktop computer and the Newton is unfinished and subject to known problems.

NCU is huge. Weighing in at over 4 MB (for a data transfer program!), NCU supports backup, synchronization, package download, and remote keyboard functions. I tried a backup and it failed twice. The third time NCU successfully accepted a backup session from the Newton.

NCU provides synchronization functions for only Claris Organizer 2.0 and Now Contact/Up-to-Date 3.5. I own version 3.6 of Now's products, so it's not clear if I'll be able to do a successful synchronization.

I considered purchasing a U.S. Robotics PalmPilot because of its one-touch synchronization feature (and the little dock is sexy). However, I didn't want to learn Graffiti, it didn't include an outliner, and its the desktop computer software is single-user only. [TidBITS will review the Pilot in the near future. -Jeff]

By contrast, the Newton has everything - except quality synchronization. NCU could have provided it, but although there's an auto dock feature on the MP2K, there's no corresponding functionality in NCU, and you must launch NCU by hand. Further, NCU has no facility for automation and no scripting support.

Conclusions -- The Newton MessagePad 2000 is an exceptional piece of hardware. The fit and finish of the device is everything we've come to expect from Apple. Even so, I am disappointed with Apple's performance in providing supporting resources: rechargeable batteries, docks, replacement dongles, and a better version of Newton Connection Utilities.

Given Apple's inconsistent long-term approach to the Newton platform, I worry about relying on the product. On the other hand, I'm extremely happy with the device, and I'll continue to use it constantly.


DealBITS -- Through the URLs below, Cyberian Outpost is offering TidBITS readers deals on the Newton MessagePad 2000. The basic MP2K is $939.95; the enhanced model with keyboard, case, and spreadsheet, is $1,079.95.

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