Apple Newton (8/2/1993–2/27/1998)

The Newton was arguably the best PDA ever made. And that’s despite the – partly justified – misgivings about the initial performance of its handwriting recognition, and despite the fact that technology-wise, about one decade after its official demise, the Newton leaves a lot to be desired, especially vis-à-vis current offerings.

It is true that the Newton doesn’t do colour (even when there is full colour support in the operating system), it doesn’t natively support USB, WiFi, or Bluetooth, and relying on NiCd batteries as its power source hasn’t been the state of the art for quite some time. The Newton’s synching capabilities are weak and there is no browser available supporting current web standards.

My Newton collection

My first Newton was a MessagePad 120, bought in 1995, together with its programming environment Newton Toolkit – true to my motto that I wouldn’t buy a computer I couldn’t also develop for. NTK was still quite costly then; it would be re-released as freeware only later. Back then, version 1.3 of the Newton Operating System was still current, but when version 2.0 became available, I sent it in to have Apple exchange the ROM.

In February 1998 it transpired that Apple had already secretly disbanded its Newton division and that the Newton’s official demise was only a few days away. Out of spite, I ordered the MessagePad 2100, the dream PDA I had longed for. The previously available MP 2000 had never made it to the German market, forcing me to wait for its improved successor. This turned out to be a good thing, as the increased heap size of the 2100 made it a much more capable machine. Despite its size, the MP 2100 soon replaced the MP 120 as my main PDA, just one reason being its much more comprehensive support for the external keyboard. Thus the MP 120 became redundant and I passed it on within the family.

But there was still another model I just had to own, namely the eMate 300 originally targeted at the educational market in the US. Only for a short time had Apple marketed the eMate 300 in Germany (NB its US version, as the eMate had never been localized), and having spent my money on the MP2100, I had missed that window of opportunity. But I was lucky: a Newton enthusiast from the Netherlands had been scavenging the market for all remaining stock of the eMate, and he sold the units at a sensible price within the Newton community. This way, I eventually got my eMate 300 in early 1999, completing my collection.

Quite unexpectedly, in 2002 I came by another, virtually new MP 120 with NOS 2.0: The (at that time) editor-in-chief of ComputerFoto had stumbled upon this MessagePad while tidying out his desk, and he had the good sense of unloading it on me (thanks, Andreas!). When I opened its leather case, out fell a mummified spider, and it goes without saying that the MessagePad’s batteries were just as dead. But after connecting the MP 120 to a charger, it immediately sprang to life, and a first look revealed handwritten notes of its previous owner dating back to 1996! In sharp contrast to the Handspring Visor that I owned as well, the loss of power had not been fatal; thankfully the Newton relied on flash memory for long-term storage.