Considering the purchase of a Newton? Don’t miss this week’s detailed review of the Newton MessagePad 2000, written by a long-time Newton owner who recently bought the latest model. This week, we also examine each of the entries in our TidBITS Search Engine Shootout, and bring you news about the upcoming PowerBook 2400c, and Aladdin Systems purchasing Rev.
A PowerBook for Tiny Fingers — Apple and IBM officially introduced the PowerBook 2400c last week, filling the sub-notebook category left vacant by the discontinued Duo line. The machine runs on a 180 MHz 603e PowerPC processor with a 256K Level 2 cache, and supports a 10.4-inch active-matrix color display. Weighing only 4.4 pounds and smaller than notebook-sized paper, the 2400c should be a relief for travelers burdened by shoulder-straining loads of equipment. Some concessions Apple made in the 2400’s size are a smaller keyboard (originally designed for the Japanese market, where hunt-and-peck typing in Kanji is more common than touch typing in English) and a lack of an internal floppy drive. Prices should start around $3,500; units will start shipping in Japan at the end of the month, and are expected be available in the United States at the end of July. [JLC]
Aladdin Revs Up — Aladdin Systems has acquired publishing rights to 6prime’s Rev, the $99.95 easy-to-use revision control software I reviewed back in TidBITS-362. Rev saves intermediate versions of frequently saved documents, making it possible to return to one of those intermediate versions in case of otherwise irrevocable mistakes. Even though Nisus Writer provides unlimited undos that work through saves, I still use Rev with documents I work on frequently, and on several occasions Rev has saved me from recreating work. I’m pleased to see Aladdin picking up Rev so it can benefit from the additional support. [ACE]
The deadlines for our TidBITS Search Engine Shootout contest announced in TidBITS-368 have come and gone, and it’s time to share the results. To begin, we want to thank each and every entrant personally. These folks put tremendous effort into creating search engines that would serve the Macintosh community, and for that alone they all deserve kudos. Overall, the quality of the search engines was great, and we enjoyed reading about how the entries were constructed.
In this week’s article, we’re going to spotlight each entrant and provide comments about each search engine. Then, next week, after we’ve had more time to chat with the top entrants, we’ll announce the winner (or winners, if necessary). Feel free to visit the sites (listed below in no particular order), but don’t worry if you can’t connect – because some entries are running on personal machines, they may not be available full time. You can also refer to TidBITS-368 for the contest criteria.
Scott Ribe & WebServer 4D — By far the snappiest entry came from Scott Ribe, who wrote a text indexing extension that works with MDG’s $295 WebServer 4D to provide a blindingly fast, full-text search engine for TidBITS. Although Scott had to write the code, which took a few weeks (and it’s still relatively hard-wired to TidBITS, but he plans to generalize it for commercial release), the setup seems simple, with the text indexing extension looking for TidBITS issues in a specific drop folder.
We liked this entry quite a bit, in large part thanks to its speed. It has a relatively spartan results page, with the issue number and the article title, but I imagine it could fairly easily add the author, or perhaps the first line of the article to a summary list. Results are sorted by reverse chronological order, and Scott plans relevance ranking for a future release. The search finds articles containing all the search terms, and although you can search for issue dates, neither Boolean nor phrase searching is available. Oddly, it also can’t handle hyphenated words, like "Ashton-Tate". [ACE]
Ethan Benatan, Frontier & Phantom — Ethan Benatan came up with a creative, highly functional solution for searching TidBITS issues: using Userland Frontier, Ethan wrote a scheduled script that uses Fetch to download new TidBITS issues, and (when a new issue appears) breaks it up into articles and saves the resulting files in a local directory. Each night, Maxum’s Phantom adds any new files to its cumulative index, while continuously serving as a CGI to handle queries from users. Frontier also uses Eudora Light to send status reports. Phantom is about $300, while Frontier and other components have little or no cost.
The result is a spiffy TidBITS search engine, offering word-stemming, Boolean and phonetic searching capabilities from Phantom, plus "convenience" features for searching just 1996 or 1997 TidBITS issues, searching only URLs or headers, detailed or compact results formats, and relevancy-ranked search results (expressed in percentages). To our delight, Ethan went to the extra effort of breaking MailBITS up into separate articles so they can be matched individually. Although the detailed search results are marred by navigation links showing up in the three-line previews, all in all, Ethan’s effort is outstanding. [GD]
Andrew Warner & FoxPro — You don’t hear much about the Mac version of FoxPro since Microsoft purchased Fox back in 1992 (see TidBITS-113). But, it’s still out there, and Andrew Warner has shown that it can still perform. This search engine was written entirely in FoxPro and is highly customizable. It reads TidBITS issues from a drop folder, and provides dynamic headers and footers. The system includes a file parsing program that reads the HTML of each issue and parses them into separate articles. Then, Phdbase, a text searching library add-on for FoxPro/Mac, does the indexing.
Since Andrew had to run this on his personal machine, we couldn’t do much testing in the time available. Boolean and phrase searching (via quotes) were available, and you could limit the searches to specific fields (such as article title or, hypothetically, date) as well. Andrew didn’t spend much time on this solution, but he said he could easily add or modify many features, given more time. The results list included the article title and issue date, and articles displayed relatively well, with an occasional glitch or inappropriate search hit. [ACE]
Ole, David, FileMaker & Frontier — Ole Saalmann and David Weingart harnessed Userland Frontier not only as a CGI engine for returning search results, but also as a parser and scheduled retriever for new TidBITS issues. Frontier scripts grab TidBITS issues, break them into articles, and stores them in a simple FileMaker Pro database. When search requests come in from users, Frontier tells FileMaker what to search for, then returns the results in HTML.
Ole and David’s project offers a pleasing AltaVista-like interface, detailed and compact results pages (plus an Advanced Search option with some Boolean and phrase-searching operations, plus searches in articles titles, issue ranges, and date ranges). Although the service displays some HTML oddities and doesn’t offer relevancy ranking for articles, it’s speedy, offers excellent search results pages, and has a particularly elegant scripting setup on the Web server. [GD]
Duane Bemister & WebSonar — Duane Bemister created his entry using Virginia Systems’ WebSonar Professional. Products in the WebSonar line make it possible to search large quantities of documents via the Web, and those documents can be in many different formats, making it possible to place documents online without converting them to HTML.
Although WebSonar offers many sophisticated options, it suffers under the burden of so many possibilities that casual users may become discouraged with the complex menu- and toolbar-driven interface. Further, WebSonar uses a page metaphor which causes search results to not appear to return discrete articles. WebSonar represents a powerful tool, but we aren’t convinced that casual searchers will wish to devote the mental cycles necessary to jump its learning curve. [TJE]
David, Curt & Apple e.g. — We received two entries that used Apple e.g., a CGI (currently freely available and in beta) from Apple that adds search features to Macintosh-based Web sites. Technically speaking, Apple e.g. uses technology from Apple formerly codenamed the V-Twin text indexing engine, but now saddled with the rather dull appellation of Apple Information Access Toolkit. From a backend standpoint, we like the way both entries integrate Apple e.g. with TidBITS, and we also like the user experience. It’s easy to find articles, and the results list gives a relevancy score for each found article. Plus, there’s a feature for checking off particularly relevant documents in a results list, and then finding similar articles to those checked. We were rather impressed at how well that feature works.
The first entry, created by David Clatfelter, gives results in table or text format. Table format uses graphics to create a relevancy score fill bar and gives information about each found article. Unfortunately, the information begins with a jumble of text from the top of the issue containing the found article. The text format uses asterisks to indicate a relevancy score and gives the title of the issue in which the found article resides.
Curt Stevens submitted the second Apple e.g. entry. Users can choose from full or compact format for viewing results. Full format returns a list of found articles, each with a fill bar indicating a relevancy score. After the score, each entry begins with the article title, and includes the first few lines of the article, making it easy to determine if the article is of interest. Compact format is much like David’s text format, except it lists the article’s title instead of the title of the issue that containing the article. Overall, we are impressed with the performance and possibilities of Apple e.g. and plan to take a closer look. [TJE]
Jacque Landman Gay & LiveCard — When I wrote about LiveCard, the $150 CGI from Royal Software, in TidBITS-338 I mostly noted its ability to put HyperCard stacks on the Web with little or no modification. Little did I expect one of the most noted members of the HyperCard community would use it as the basis for a TidBITS search engine.
LiveCard acts as an intermediary between a Macintosh Web server and Jacque’s custom HyperCard stack that indexes issues, performs searches, and report results. LiveCard presents a simple search form for entering up to three sets of search terms. Quoted phrases can be used, and Boolean search options are available. Search results are displayed as a list of article titles, and clicking a title takes users to the appropriate location in a TidBITS issue. Although HyperCard is sometimes maligned as a CGI engine in comparison to Frontier or compiled solutions, this LiveCard tool searches more than 10 MB of TidBITS articles and returns search results with surprising speed (and my server, where it’s temporarily being hosted, isn’t particularly fast). Although this search engine doesn’t let users restrict searches to particular ranges of dates or issues and only presents a bare-bones results listing, it’s a surprisingly smooth effort given the small amount of time Jacque was able put into it, and an apt demonstration of the kinds of Web services that can be produced with off-the-shelf authoring software (especially since LiveCard is included in Apple’s HyperCard 2.3.5 Value Bundle). [GD]
Glen Stewart & WarpSearch — Glen Stewart’s WarpSearch CGI works differently from most of the other entrants. Other solutions usually index the entire TidBITS archive, which makes for fast searches, but requires weekly additions to the index and can use a fair amount of disk space. In contrast, WarpSearch just searches the entire archive each time. That might sound slow, but it still manages to search the 10 MB of TidBITS issues at roughly 700K per second.
WarpSearch only allows phrase searches, and no Boolean or multiple non-contiguous word searches. The results list provides the issue name, the size of the issue, the modified date, and the number of matches in that issue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t break articles out of the overall issues, sometimes returns unintelligible issues, and because it uses text from our setext files rather than the HTML versions, the found text doesn’t look as good as it could. [ACE]
Nisus Software & GIA — Although Nisus Software’s GIA (Guided Information Access) technology isn’t precisely a full-text search engine, we decided to let them compete anyway. GIA provides keyword-based live filtering, so as you select keywords from a predefined list, the lists of matching TidBITS articles and available keywords both shrink. Selecting additional keywords decreases the number of articles and keywords until you’ve narrowed the search to a manageable set of articles. The hardest part of setting up a keyword system is selecting the keywords, and the system seemed to work best for relatively broad searches. Looking for a specific article was sometimes frustrating if necessary keywords weren’t present.
I continue to be impressed with the possibilities of GIA, but its reality lags. Nisus Software has implemented GIA entirely in Java, and although we used it with a different Java VMs (including Internet Explorer on a PC), it was continually plagued by interface glitches. Some can no doubt be easily fixed, but others may be more basic to Java or current tools. In the end, although GIA is fascinating technology, it doesn’t meet the shootout criteria, since the server doesn’t currently run on a Mac, and it’s not providing a full-text search. [ACE]
Roger McNab & NZDL — Roger McNab at the University of Waikato integrated the text of TidBITS issues with the search engine of the New Zealand Digital Library (NZDL). The NZDL enables users to search specific collections of documents (including Project Gutenberg, FAQ Archives, others only available in PostScript or TeX formats), and permits ranked or Boolean queries, additional search options, and compact results pages that identify article titles and authors.
Although the NZDL archive is functional, useful, and offers an attractive query interface, it also violates one of our contest’s ground rules: it doesn’t run on a Macintosh. Although core portions of the project are written in Perl and the author doesn’t anticipate problems with a Macintosh port, the simple fact is that a Mac version doesn’t yet exist. [GD]
Tune In Next Week — There you have our contest entrants – tune in next week for more details on our favorites and the eventual winner or winners.
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.
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.
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.