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The "FatNewt": The MessagePad Scribbles On!

Apple introduced Newton MessagePad 110 in early March, and it was immediately picked up and put through its paces by an eager contingent of Newton fans. The Classic Newton could be seen as the 128K Mac of the line; Apple’s first different machine of the 90s. Carrying this analogy further it could be said that the MessagePad 110 is the Newton’s "Fat Mac."

I’ve only had my MessagePad 110 for a few days and never did own an original, although I managed to play with one for over a half hour when they were introduced in Boston last August. Let me try to make some comparisons.

The first difference you notice on looking at the 110 is the new form factor. I think the MessagePad 110 looks better than the Classic MessagePad, since the longer look gives it a greater sense of professionalism. The Classic MessagePad in comparison looks slightly stocky. While the slimming seems minimal on paper, it becomes more important once the MessagePad 110 is in the hand, especially for people with small hands like mine. I found it difficult to hold the Classic MessagePad, but the new 110 is quite good in this regard.

The other great physical difference is the addition of the screen cover. The screen cover enables you to carry around the MessagePad without the screen getting dirty. Several people have complained that starting the MessagePad now takes an extra step, but since the cover folds out of the way and attaches to the back of the MessagePad when open, simply leave it open to avoid the extra step.

The 110’s pen changed for the better as well. Instead of the triangular plastic pen, we have a round aluminum pen. It’s heftier and feels like a real pen; so real, in fact, that there have been two incidents when I picked up an actual pen and tried to use it on my MessagePad, not realizing the difference until too late! The pen now lives along the top of the MessagePad in a way that preserves the form of the unit on both sides.

Upon turning on the new MessagePad you’ll find everything looks exactly like it did with the Classic MessagePad. However, if you go into Memory Preferences, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the much larger piece of real estate.

A few months before the Boston unveiling of the Classic MessagePad I saw demonstration of one of IBM’s pen-based unit’s handwriting recognition. I left the demo with my mind screaming, "This still belongs in a lab!" I’d never been so disappointed with a demonstration. With this background, I was skeptical about the MessagePad’s handwriting recognition. Although the Classic MessagePad’s recognition is an order of magnitude better than that IBM demo, it is still difficult. I was as pleasantly surprised by the improvement Apple made with the MessagePad 110’s handwriting recognition as I was about the Classic’s over the IBM demo. However, it’s still not perfect. MessagePad fans are correct when they say that the Newton takes some training. This was graphically demonstrated to me in inputting my names file. My MessagePad simply didn’t like "NY," but after a few tries it now gets it over 90 percent of the time.

My most pleasant surprise with the new MessagePad 110 came with its power management. In comparison to the MessagePad 110, the Classic MessagePad is a power hog! I’ve had my MessagePad four days now. During that time, I’ve engaged in an inordinate amount of data entry and general playing. Even after all that usage time I’m still at a 50 percent battery level using alkalines!

The smaller screen could be a problem, since some applications use a hardwired screen size, resulting in off-screen elements on the 110’s smaller screen. I’ve tried a couple of applications that seem to be affected by this problem, but so far, all the needed buttons are at least part way on-screen, so the applications are still usable if you can figure out what the obscured buttons do.

Interestingly, the MessagePad 110 has another compatibility problem beyond the screen size. One of the "Easter eggs" of the Classic MessagePad is its ability to inform you of the temperature if you hold your pen on the clock icon. The Classic MessagePad uses a temperature sensor to regulate the screen’s contrast via software as the ambient temperature fluctuates. The MessagePad 110 includes a dial to regulate screen contrast, so the temperature sensor no longer exists and software that took advantage of the sensor will not work.

Have there been any disappointments? Realistically, I have a couple. The MessagePad supposedly can dial a phone via DTMF tones sent out of the speaker, but so far, I can’t make the feature work. The screen is the part of the MessagePad most in need of improvement. Apple must also find a way to apply a non-glare coating to the screen. The type of screen Apple uses is fine for small screens such as those on watches, but is totally inappropriate for a non-backlit screen of this size. Also, the MessagePad 110’s letters appear to "shadow" more than on the Classic MessagePad, which makes them more difficult to read in the wrong light.

So what is the final analysis? Although the MessagePad 110 is a great improvement in nearly all things Newton, at this point it still is, as one of my friends so eloquently puts it, the ultimate "geek toy." There are more cost-effective ways of accomplishing what the Newton MessagePad was designed to do, even if they aren’t as much fun. Even so, the 110 demonstrates Apple’s continued support of a line and a technology of the future. We must look at the MessagePad 110 as the Fat Mac of the Newton line – the second generation but still far from the ideal. Its users will be the chip pioneers of the last decade of the 20th century, but the average person won’t buy one for another few years. Am I sorry I bought it? No way! It has already caused the same stir on my campus that my PowerBook did a year ago. In the final analysis, you probably can find a more cost effective way to do what the MessagePad does, but if you want to spend the money, grab a piece of history while you can. The early MessagePads will be something to tell the grandchildren about!

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