Retro-Tech: the Newton eMate 300 for Writers Today

I’m constantly looking for new ways to write. Sometimes, of course, paper is my first and most effective resource, but there are other times when I just want to pound away at a keyboard with a digital end in mind. I do have a nice shiny MacBook Pro, but between its bottom searing the flesh of my lap, its bevy of powerful applications, and the network access chiming the arrival of my email and luring me into the world wide abyss, well… focus becomes an issue. I’ve thought for years about getting an Alphasmart Neo or Dana, but I’m not sure the usage will warrant the cost.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my new(-to-me) Apple Newton, and how I’ve recently become smitten by this ten-year-old technology. Since then, I’ve received a near-mint Apple eMate 300 Newton for roughly $10, and have decided to use it as a writing platform. In fact, this post is entirely written with its built-in word processor. Consider it a little experiment.

When the price of laptops was still far too prohibatively expensive for schools, Apple (during the Great Steve Jobs Hiatus) decided to gamble upon the production of a low-end laptop based upon its Newton technology. The resulting product was the tough little eMate 300, which may perhaps best be described as the illegitimate love child of “Aliens” artist H.R. Giger and Kermit the Frog. Aimed squarely at educational institutions, this rugged but curvaceous little beast sports several shades of viridian green, mixing translucent housing with solid coloured keys, along with a battery-saving LCD screen that glows a soothing phosphor when backlit. While my wife isn’t too enamoured of its look, I find it quite beautiful in its uniqueness. (Of course, my wife didn’t find me too attractive at first either, so perhaps she’ll come around….) As a bonus for long-time Apple geeks, the former multi-coloured Apple logo is atop the keyboard and on the lid, bringing us back to a kinder, gentler time in the evolution of personal computing.

eMate 300Because it was a product aimed at the educational market, where hard knocks and wildly-slung backpacks could reduce a less rustic machine to shattered plastic and silicon, the eMate’s designers had the foresight to produce a shell that seems destined to withstand a minor atomic blast, and the keys are firm, albeit a little cramped for large hands; it took me about an hour of typing before I became truly comfortable with the layout. The four-pound machine is solid-state, so there are no moving parts like hard drives or fans to break down or suffer abuse from continuous usage. While there’s no mouse, there is an attractive pen-sized stylus (part brushed metal, part greyish-green rubber) which operates well with the eMate’s touch-screen, allowing excellent handwriting recognition and simple sketches. The LCD screen may be small, but –at several times the size of a Palm’s screen– it allows me to easily view 16 lines of text with about 12 words per line at my favourite size font, which is more than adequate for most “first cut” writing.

In an effort to cut production costs and lessen the budgetary barriers for schools, Apple ultimately made two decisions which impact the usefulness of the machine today. First is its processor. Unlike the last-generation, high-powered 2000 and 2100 Newton MessagePads, the eMate 300 was shackled with a 25MHz ARM processor, which is quite slow by most modern PDA and tablet standards. For myself, who was searching for an off-board writing solution, this wasn’t a dealbreaker: I type roughtly 80 WPM, and the word processor seems able to keep up without stuttering unduly. By comparison, it feels no slower than my modern Palm and keyboard.

The other design problem is related to having only one PCMCIA slot. Unlike the MessagePads, which have two slots, the eMate will only let you have one card, so you must choose among a memory card, a network card, a modem, a BlueTooth card, and so on. Since there’s only 2Mb memory in the machine (which is still large enough to hold quite a number of documents and a few applications), one ultimately has to choose which is more important: storage space or network connectivity. Since I don’t intend to do much online with this machine, it’s a non-issue for me.

So, how does it perform as a writing platform? The word processor is more than capable for note-taking, writing and basic editing, and thanks to the United Network of Newton Archives, you can also download spreadsheet and database modules, and various add-ons like spell-as-you-go. As an added bonus, the built-in “Notes” outliner, address book, calendar and to-do applications can be extremely useful for organising thoughts, keeping in touch, and managing your schedule. It can also beam notes, documents and applications to another Newton, should one wander into the room. Surprisingly, although my own machine arrived with a seemingly dead battery, a few charge/discharge cycles has brought it up to about 4 hours with backlight, 12 hours without. I’m told that a fresh or re-celled battery does much better: 24 hours of use. (Try that with most Tablet PCs!) In short, its rough-and-ready portability, long battery life, low cost, and no-frills word processing environment make it a dandy tool for a writer like myself.

Lest you dash off half-cocked to eBay, I should advise a note of caution. As with all Newtons, the biggest issue is connecting it with modern computers. The eMate 300 uses a 8-pin mini-DIN connector, which is a round serial connection found on older Apple computers. If your Windows box has a regular serial connector, you’re in luck: there are still lots of cables around (usually called a “PC-to-Newton serial cable”) that can do the job. Modern Mac users will probably fall back to the “Mac-to-Newton serial cable” along with a USB to Mac serial adapter. By sheer coincidence, I actually had one of these kicking around, a Keyspan USA-28X (roughly $25-$50 street), and it worked like a charm. As software goes, Windows users can still (I think) run the original Apple Newton connection utilities –see UNNA– while Mac OS X users can use software like Newten, NCX and NewtSync. (NCX is being used to export this NewtonWorks text file into RTF on my Mac.) The UNNA WikiWikiNewt has plenty more information, and the NewtonTalk mailing list is filled with helpful and enthusiastic Newton users.

Another possible issue is a problematic hinge which may eventually puncture a display cable. There are Newton specialists and users who can fix the hinge before it becomes a problem, or –with a little bit of elbow grease and some Torx screwdrivers– you or a friendly neighbourhood techie can fix it yourself.

So, down to brass tacks: what would be the total cost to give this a whirl? Well, one can actually purchase an eMate 300 on eBay for roughly $10-$40. quite a bargain from the $800 when it was first introduced. Many of these come from schools that are no longer using them, and thus are selling them in large quantities for just enough to cover base costs. Pay attention: some come without a stylus or AC adaptor, and you’re going to need those bits, which generally total from $15 to $35 dollars. If it doesn’t come with a serial cord, expect to pay between $10 and $25 dollars, plus a little extra for the Keyspan adaptor if you have a Mac. For missing parts in your kit, you may need to look in separate auctions, or you can find them at specialised Newton vendors like the Notwen Store, J&K Sales, GEM Enterprises or NewtonSales.com. In total, expect to pay roughly $40-$80 for a fairly complete near-mint eMate 300 with AC and cords; that is, notwithstanding a timely eBay bargain.

Having used this strange little green creature for a week, I must say that I’m enjoying writing with it. The desktop connectivity took a day or two of research, but now I’m bashing away regularly at the keys, brainstorming articles, pounding out rough drafts, and generally taking advantage of a newfound focus. Who needs an Alphasmart Neo or Dana when you can get a similar machine at a mere fraction of the cost?

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