---------- ---------- PC Pro Realworld Computing: Paul Lynch - PDAs

Newton Quick Spin Around the Block

I've been using the new Newton Message Pad 2000 for about four weeks and 1,000 miles so far, and I've burnt out three sets of batteries. An Apple Developer conference in Nice seemed to be an excellent opportunity to run it in for my preferred uses, which are taking notes in meetings, and keeping up with email.

The MP2000 is the largest ever Newton, and the largest current PDA. A USR PalmPilot will fit comfortably with room to spare on just the screen of the MP2000. I was very surprised to find that the MP2000 is a reasonable fit in the inside breast pocket of most of my jackets, although it won't fit comfortably into a normal suit jacket. But then, not much else will. The larger size has several advantages: the large screen size means that your writing on the screen can flow reasonably fluently, and the body of the pad carries a brushed aluminium full-sized, non-collapsible stylus that is the most comfortable and elegant I have used to date. Using a suitable font, a text display can contain 80 x 25 characters.

The MP2000 is clearly intended much more for use on a table rather than in your hands. The stylus is similar to the one that came with the old range's desk stand, and the MP2000 has a pull out bracket to use as a stylus stand. This only makes sense if you leave the Newton parked on a desk for use. Newton OS 2.0 introduced the ability to rotate the display by 90 degree increments; on the larger MP2000 this is much more practical to use, espcially now that the slik screen buttons are part of the screen image, and rotate along with the display. As such, the MP2000 is more suited than previous models for table top operation versus hand held operation. Although Apple have said that the MP2000 is bigger because it is intended for less portable applications, I have to wonder if that is post hoc reasoning, and in fact the MP2000 is less suitable for handheld use because it had to be made much bigger.

Compared to older models, the MP2000 has some additional software. The Newton Internet Enabler is preinstalled; you still have to configure it for your preferred ISPs, though. You also get NetHopper, a web browser, and the EnRoute POP/SMTP Internet emailer. The final addition is the Newton Works package, which includes a word processor, and an integrated version of QuickFigure Pro, the spreadsheet.

Now that the silk screen buttons are no longer part of the casing, but are displayed on the screen, they rotate along with the display. You can also drag and drop items from the Extras drawer to the new button bar, and reorder icons on the button bar.

Drag these icons to the button bar if you wish
Drag these icons to the button bar if you wish

Newton on the Net

NetHopper is a competent PDA web browser. Like Windows CE Pocket Internet Explorer, it doesn't support frames, aminated GIFs or Java. Also like PIE, it supports images and cacheing. There's not much else to say about it; it ranks well above the very primitive browser in the Nokia 9000, and exactly on a par with Windows CE. The Newton has a slight edge over Windows CE for Internet uses, as it can drive a PCMCIA modem card from batteries for a resonable amount of time. In this case I define reasonable as long enough to allow it to make a connection to the ISP, which Windows CE won't do! One minor differences from older versions of NIE is the PCMCIA modem sound while dialing is now annoyingly loud, with no obvious way to reduce the volume.

EnRoute is well integrated with Newton's In/Out Box
EnRoute is well integrated with Newton's In/Out Box

The EnRoute mailer integrates with the Newton's In/Out Box, giving an extra option on the routing and envelope slips. As such it works exactly the same as sending a fax, beaming a message, or most other email alternatives. You configure EnRoute operation under the Owner Info application. Each owner can have a POP mailbox defined for them (only one each, unfortunately), and NIE will take the ISP details from the Worksite location also defined in Owner Info. Apart from the set up being scattered widely (much less widely than with Windows CE), it is quick and easy to set up.

EnRoute has more advanced options available, although I haven't come to grips with them yet. This allows you to create a set of rules that will read or skip a message according to the header contents. Personally, as I contol the server that runs my POP mailbox, I use a Unix utility called procmail to handle all automatic message filtering before it reaches my mailbox.

Using the MP2000 to read email was a big improvement over older models; processing a mailbox was much faster, for example. However, I did experience a disturbing number of crashes; this may have been due to the extremely poor telephone lines I was using, but given the number of crashes I have experienced in other applications on the MP2000, I doubt it. I would rate the MP2000 as on a par with Windows CE machines in general for remote email and Internet uses.

Newton Works?

I don't feel entirely happy with the idea of Newton Works. It is a combined word processor and spreadsheet package. Both are competent PDA packages in their own right; the word processor is on a par with the ones supplied with Windows CE and Psion, and QuickFigure Pro happily beats Pocket Excel - you can freeze titles, for a start.

Newton Works includes a fully capable word processor9
Newton Works includes a fully capable word processor

However, the word processor is intended to be used without handwriting recognition, and so will only work with the additional keyboard. This is fine if the keyboard is bundled with the package, but it isn't. The rather creative band of Newton developers have come up with any number of freeware packages to enable handwriting recognition, so it isn't a complete loss. I installed HWRWorks from Stand Alone Inc., which is freeware. Not all of the HWR features that are so useful in other parts of the Newton work inside Works, so double tapping on a word will not bring up the recognition alternatives, for example.

Newton Works includes a version of QuickFigure Pro
Newton Works includes a version of QuickFigure Pro

With QuickFigure Pro, the large screen overcomes many of the objections against using a spreadsheet on a PDA. On smaller screens, being unable to view many cells defeats the object of a spreadsheet. QuickFigure Pro allows you to import and export with Excel sheets.

I have mentioned a couple of freeware products from Stand Alone Inc above, and many of the software enhancements in the MP2000 are third party products licensed by Apple. The Newton has a strong body of third party applications available, a lot of it freeware and shareware. I will be taking a deeper look at the Newton software market in future columns; as with both Psion and now PalmPilot, one of the best indications of a successful product is the strength of third party support. For now, I'll suggest that any new Newtoneers take a look at the other products of Stand Alone Inc and also of Catamount Software. Both companies provide freeware and shareware software, mainly utilities, for Newton.


The MP2000 comes with a beta version of the new NCU (Newton Connection Kit). This worked to transfer my address book and appointments from a PalmPilot via Microsoft Schedule+, although not without one or two small hiccoughs. I had a problem with Contacts being added twice on a second run of the software, Companies were often added as people, and the Owner record could easily become duplicated in the Names soup, which would cause inexplicable errors when Names would try to update birthday entries in Dates.

The solutions to these problems are, fortunately, simple. First of all, make sure that you have no duplicated names, including the Owner information in your check (which is very easy to overlook). Secondly, download and install Person <-> Company, by Stand Alone Inc., which is free. This doesn't prevent the problem, but it does make it easy to correct.

The NCU is a new release from Apple for all of the Newton models. For a long time only the free Newton Backup Utility (NBU) has been available. This was adequate to make backups and install new software, but not to synchronise with desktop packages. Apple have promised the NCU for Windows and Macintosh for a long time (since the Newton was first released in 1993!), and the success of the USR Pilot has placed heavy pressure on Apple to improve the quality of synchronisation with desktop computers to match the ease of use offered by the Pilot.

NBU was released by Apple for free to fill the gap incurred by the delays in releasing NCU, which was originally going to be another relatively expensive addon product. It is adequate to install a package onto a Newton, make a full back up of a Newton and memory cards, and carry out full or selective restores to the Newton. That is all. It sounds very little, but in reality is enough to qualify the Newton as a device you could write your life to, and risk failure, loss or breakage without having to pick up the pieces of your life again, as well as those of the Newton.

NCU has gone through many versions, and has evolved into something that now bears comparison with the Pilot. In some ways it is better, as the Pilot software can only synchronise with its own desktop software, whereas NCU can synchronise with many common packages (including Schedule+, Outlook, Sidekick and Organizer).

Operation of NCU is intended to be as simple as possible. You connect the cable, bring up the Dock panel by pressing the icon on the buttons area of the Newton screen, and press again on the Connect button to start a connection. The NCU software must previously be running on your desktop machine, of course. This is one extra press that is required with a Pilot; the Dock application could quite reasonably attempt to autoconnect when it is launched.

Once the connection is made, you must press a button (on either the desktop machine or the Newton) to select between synchronisation, backup or one of several other options. As with Intellisync for the PalmPilot, you can vary the field mappings, and can choose the form of conflict resolution you prefer. This means that if the records on the Newton and the Computer differ, you can choose to have either prevail, or to completely ignore the differences. I find this less useful than the option on Intellisync for PalmPilot which allows the user to select between differing sets of data.

The MP2000 has a Preferences setting for AutoDocking, but this doesn't seem to do anything on my system.

Compared with the standard Pilot software, the Newton's NCU is much better in that it permits synchronisation with third party applications, although the PalmPilot's operation is slightly slicker. Compared with a PalmPilot used with Puma's Intellisync, then the Pilot combination wins, but at a price.

Words and design by:
Paul Lynch
Last updated: July 30, 1997

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