Special Report: Apple's Newton Branches Out
By Cameron Crotty
Sometimes, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. While several manufacturers have licensed the rights to make Mac clones, the number of mainstream Newton licensees remains limited. So Apple is extending its own product line. Early next year, it will ship the next two Newton-based products: the business-oriented MessagePad 2000 and the education-bound eMate 300.
With the MessagePad 2000, Apple has continued to resist pressure to reduce the size or restrict the function of its flagship personal digital assistant (PDA). Recently, U.S. Robotics garnered attention by offering the Pilot, a pen-based device that is smaller, simpler, and significantly cheaper than the MessagePad. But Apple's new Information Appliance division, now responsible for Newton development, believes that mobile workers are looking for more powerful tools.
The MessagePad 2000's design reflects this sentiment. For starters, the chip driving the MessagePad 2000 is a powerful 160MHz StrongARM from Digital Equipment Corporation.
Apple claims that the new CPU makes the MessagePad 2000 up to ten times faster than its immediate predecessor, the MessagePad 130, and cursory tests performed by Macworld on a prototype machine confirm that the new MessagePad is significantly more responsive.
The MessagePad 2000 also features a new, larger LCD screen. The display, which required that the 2000 be slightly longer and wider than the 130, is 480 by 320 pixels, or precisely one-half of a VGA screen. The display supports 16 levels of gray, and the screen resolution is sharper (100 dpi, compared with 72 dpi on the MessagePad 130). The display's larger size and improved resolution give users more room in which to work, and simplify such common tasks as viewing incoming faxes. The screen is also backlit, which improves readability in many lighting situations.
While the screens of earlier MessagePads using version 2.0 of the Newton operating system could be physically rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise, the MessagePad 2000 screen can be rotated in software to read out in any direction (a bonus for lefties), and the navigational icons at the bottom of the display are no longer permanently silk-screened on but are instead displayed by the OS.
Long Battery Life
Long-distance travelers should note that the additional computational and visual horsepower apparently will not come with any sacrifice in battery life; Apple expects the MessagePad 2000 to operate continuously for 24 hours on 4 AA batteries, or for 3 to 6 weeks under typical use.
The basic MessagePad hardware has also undergone a slew of less obvious but no less dramatic changes. There are now slots for two Type II PC Cards, and the serial port has been replaced by the Newton InterConnect port at the top of the device. Through adapters, the InterConnect port will support serial and LocalTalk connections (with autodocking), power in and out, and audio in and out. Additionally, the infrared transceiver now supports the industry-standard IrDA mode, so the MessagePad 2000 can communicate with properly configured IrDA devices. Several printers, such as the Hewlett- Packard LaserJet 5MP and DeskJet 310, support printing directly from IrDA beamed transmissions, and the MessagePad 2000 will work with those printers.
The MessagePad 2000 is configured with 8MB of ROM, 1MB of volatile system RAM, and 4MB of user-accessible flash RAM.
The Newton 2.1 operating system, which will ship with both the MessagePad 2000 and the eMate 300, incorporates only minor changes, primarily intended to deal with the hardware differences from previous Newton generations.
In the case of the MessagePad 2000, Newton 2.1 adds a new type of note: a condenser microphone in the MessagePad 2000 can be used to record audio notes. The audio is compressed on the fly, and Apple claims that one hour of voice audio will fit on 4MB of flash RAM.
Apple has always seen the Newton as a replacement for the laptop computer, and software bundled with the MessagePad 2000 supports that vision: a spreadsheet (with a Microsoft Excel 5.0 plug-in for your desktop), a word processor, and an E-mail client (EnRoute). Users will also get version 1.1 of the Newton Connection Utilities (upgraded to allow automatic docking) and the NetHopper Web browser.
Apple expects the MessagePad 2000 to ship by March 1997 for less than $1000. One of the available configurations will include an optional keyboard.
The eMate 300
By the time the kids are headed off to college, mom and dad might consider springing for a laptop, but what parents (or teachers) in their right mind are going to hand a $3000 portable computer to a seventh-grader on a field trip, and what school budget could handle a purchase order for even 5 laptops, let alone the 25 it would take to equip an average-size classroom? Apple is hoping that the Newton-based eMate 300, with an expected price of around $800, will let schools put powerful portable computers in the hands of students.
Despite its Newtonian soul, the eMate 300 has a clamshell design with a keyboard on the lower half and a display on the upper, like a traditional laptop. PowerBook veterans can rest easy, though--Apple's Information Appliance division uses a different source for its keyboards than the one that produced the delicate, defect-prone keyboards that are standard equipment on PowerBooks.
The hands of children might be the hands of the future, but they can also be the hands of destruction. Apple built the eMate 300 with an abusive environment in mind, with steel-reinforced innards, a shock-mounted display, and an ABS-plastic housing with rounded corners. The eMate 300 is designed to appeal to kids, not just survive them; your first thought when you see the eMate 300 will probably be, "Batman is back," followed quickly by, "Cool. Let me play with it."
Heart of a Newton
Underneath that protective shell is a true-blue Newton-based system, running on a 25MHz ARM 710a chip, which Apple says should be two to three times faster than the MessagePad 130.
The standard memory configuration is 1MB of volatile system RAM and 2MB of flash RAM. Like the MessagePad 2000, the eMate 300 has a 16-shade gray-scale and half-VGA-resolution screen (480 by 320 pixels), but it comes in at 72 dots per inch instead of 100 dpi.
To connect it to the outside world, the eMate 300 has both a Newton InterConnect port and a standard serial port (mounted together under a nifty sliding door that prevents access to one while the other is in use). There is also the ubiquitous IrDA-compliant infrared transceiver, as well as a PC Card slot that will accept either one Type II or one Type III card.
The eMate 300 shares its operating system with the MessagePad 2000 but comes with a slightly different set of included applications, the better to serve its young audience. Users will find the same word processor, EnRoute E-mail client, and NetHopper, but the eMate 300 also comes with an object-oriented drawing program and a graphing calculator.
The Bottom Line
With its latest Newton offerings, Apple is still showing a marked penchant for high-function, premium-priced devices. But while the MessagePad 2000 is simply a next-generation technology tweak, the eMate 300 is a dramatic design departure--an attempt to create a new niche. Perhaps Apple's bold moves will inspire other developers to take the Newton architecture into uncharted territory.
Copyright © 1997 Macworld Communications, Inc.