Ten years with the Newton

MessagePads and PowerBook

Current setup — MessagePad 2100 (in a 2000 case), Original MessagePad, and PowerBook 5300.

The other day I was cleaning one of my drawers, going through old stuff, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, when I found the postal documents which came with the package when I purchased my first Newton (a MessagePad 2000), and I discovered that I got it in July 2001, a few months before I used to remember. Which means that I’ve been a Newton user for more than ten years.

I never stopped using it. There have been times I’ve used it more rarely or more intensely, but never a long period of inactivity. But most of all, there has never been a moment in which I doubted its usefulness or reliability. It has never been put aside in favour of some more powerful device. I’ve always believed that we should make the most out of every device by taking advantage of its strongest points. For instance, I use my iPhone for many things: it’s quite versatile and a real digital Swiss army knife. But it doesn’t do handwriting recognition the way the Newton does (at least with NewtonOS 2.x) — and, more importantly, I cannot just write on the iPhone as if it were a common note-book. With the Newton I can, and that’s what I’ve used it for all these years. Once the Newton was able to understand my handwriting more precisely (by mutual adaptation), my writing speed has increased accordingly, and now the experience is pretty much similar to writing on a paper note-book.

There is no particular ‘sweet setup’: having many vintage Macs around, most of them regularly networked, when I need to transfer notes or data from my Newton to a Mac, I can hook the MessagePad or eMate to my clamshell iBooks, or to the PowerBook 5300 (pictured above), to the Titanium PowerBook or to the Duo, or even wirelessly via Bluetooth to more modern Macs. Anything goes. If you want to follow the same path, I suggest you get a vintage portable Mac capable of both serial and Ethernet connectivity. You connect the Newton to the PowerBook via serial, then you connect the PowerBook to your home network or to a more modern Mac via Ethernet. Perhaps less fancy or convenient than attempting the wireless route, but once you’ve set it up, it’s a foolproof method to get your notes and files transferred from your Newton to your latest MacBook Pro.

I’ve already talked about how I use my Newton daily in a piece I wrote a year ago, Digital notebooking, so I’ll just point you to that if you want to know more about it. The following is an excerpt of a message I wrote in the NewtonTalk mailing list back in 2004:

…I also collect old hardware and I believe that nothing is really old if it still does its job pretty well (like the Newton), so I started using my MP2000 as a very portable, very handy word processor. I brought it with me everywhere, writing or reading ebooks while commuting, taking notes during meetings with clients, reading/sending emails, and the like. At that time I wasn’t really using it as a PIM: for that I still had my trustworthy Moleskine. The address/calendar syncing has never been a real issue for me. I effortless transferred my txt’s and rtf’s serially, first on my Quadras (700 and 950), then on my clamshell graphite iBook G3 (using the Keyspan adapter).

When I purchased my PowerBook G4 12″, it being such a wonder in lightness and portability, I put the good old Newton to some rest. But soon I was missing my Newton, so I started putting it back in my bag — “just in case”, I said to myself. And of course it proved to be useful in many occasions: taking quick notes and memos on the go, scribbling down titles while browsing books in a bookshop, or camera models and prices while visiting a store, or simply some ideas for a short story or for a poem, all this in situations where opening the backpack and taking the PowerBook out would be impractical/difficult/better to avoid.

Now that I have relocated in Spain, and being very close to the University library where my significant other works, I often go there to write and work, and since I’m allowed to browse, search and borrow books, the Newton — once again — comes handy. I can wander among books and write down titles and/or signatures of interesting finds which I may want to borrow later, sometimes even parts of Tables of Contents for future reference. There are days in which I go to the library without carrying too much with me, no iPod, no PowerBooks… Just the Newton and its keyboard, and maybe I consult a book or two; maybe I don’t want to borrow them because I’m interested only in some bits here and there, and voilà, I type those bits in Newton Works. Everything I keep in my MP2000 is then transferred to at least two other Macs…

Over the years I’ve upgraded and expanded my small array of Newton hardware. Now, along with the first MessagePad 2000, I have a MessagePad 2100 (inside a 2000 case), an eMate 300 and an Original MessagePad (I’ll never be able to thank Frank Gruendel and Grant Hutchinson enough for their generosity).

Fun fact: that MessagePad 2000 I purchased ten years ago still works perfectly and never lost one bit of data I entered on it. Same goes for every bit of Newton hardware I own (the PDAs themselves but also the Flash cards they came equipped with). How’s that for reliability?

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing the Minigrooves ebook and/or subscribing to Vantage Point magazine. Thank you!