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Taking E-Mail on the Road

By: Bruce Murray

Happens every time. Just as I figure it out, they change the rules!

In the area of PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistants), rules are changing even as I write these reviews. My evaluations of the Newton 130 and the SONY Magic Link that follow will, however, get you up to speed on the current technology and give you a look of what's to come in the very near future. History of PDA's

The APPLE Newton 130 and the SONY Magic Link are portable hand-held computers that allow you to pickup your internet e-mail while on the road. These small, light-weight, $600-$800 devices are excellent alternatives to carrying a large and heavy $3,000 laptop with you as you travel.

Software giant Microsoft has announced a new operating system designed specifically for hand-held devices. Windows CE will be a scaled down version of Windows 95; an environment that will reside on a single memory chip. Several dozen software and hardware companies have announced support for this new operating system.

The first real-world incarnations of this product are expected to be displayed at this fall’s COMDEX in Las Vegas. It appears that Windows CE devices will be designed to be peripherals connected to a traditional PC running Win95. My best guess is that these Windows CE hand-held PDA's, (Personal Digital Assistants), will be similar in design to the Sharp Zarus.

Rumors are flying across the internet regarding APPLE's changes to it's NEWTON line of hand-held computers. Apple has been producing and refining this product for several years and is ready for a major advancement. They recently upgraded the NEWTON operating system and it appears that hardware advances are just around the corner. These improvements should include faster processors and improved displays.

Other companies are also rapidly adding internet e-mail to their portable platforms. This feature is quickly becoming a REQUIRED feature for portable computing devices. Nokia, manufacturer of cellular phones, is merging PDA's into their phones to create multi-purpose devices. Research by International Data Corporation predicts shipments of Personal Communicators will grow from 48,000 units in 1995 to 2,450,000 in 1999.

APPLE Newton Message Pad

APPLE Newton 130 MessagePad’s Internet capabilities are new to the Newton platform and the software applications available for the Newton are in their initial versions. They are catching up quickly, however. GoFetch from Fetch Software was one of the first e-mail clients for the Newton and is a premier e-mail application for personal computers. Eudora, a world e-mail leader, has just become available for the MessagePad. Apple Newton Web Site - Newton Links - NewtNews

Both of these software products use the new Newton Internet Enabler (NIE), 1.0 transport from APPLE. (Apple’s NIE Software) This software is the TCP/IP stack and dialer for the Newton 2.0 operating system. At the time of this review, it seems to be its weakest point. NIE does eventually work well on the Newton 130 MessagePad but only after a complicated installation, worsened by poor documentation and little support from Apple.

The other negative is that NIE requires lots of memory and, as a result, other open applications on the Newton must be frozen to release enough memory for the NIE and e-mail application. (NOTE: NIE requires too much memory to work effectively on the older, limited RAM 120 MessagePad models. It is rumored that APPLE is working to improve the NIE and that this new version will allow for more reliable operation on the Newton 120. I was able to get NIE and GoFetch to work fairly well on a 120, but it required all other applications to be frozen. Eudora specifies that they require the 130 unit.)

GoFetch (web site) and Eudora (web site) offer all the basic features needed to process e-mail. Eudora seems to have more advanced features, and I suggest you check out the specs on both of these products to find the one that best suits your needs.

Tech support at GoFetch was quick but tried in vain to help me get the APPLE NIE online. Since I eventually figured out NIE myself, I didn't get to test Eudora's support, but other messages sent to the Eudora Software group were responded to quickly.

AOL Users. Even thought I was focusing on Internet mail, the SONY Magic Link unit has AOL mail built in, so I tried ALOHA from Catamount Software (web site), the America On-line e-mail software, on both a Newton 120 and 130. It worked well on both machines. ALOHA does not use the APPLE NIE TCP/IP stack, it has its own dialer. Now if I can only get rid of that AOL junk mail...

As for hardware, the Newton 130 is a great little device. This hand-held unit already has thousands of applications available for it. The 130 uses the new 2.0 operating system from APPLE. It has greatly improved handwriting recognition, more memory, and a much easier-to-read backlit screen. When using it for e-mail make sure you add a PCMCIA modem that is on the list of compatible modems.

Three things I don't like about the Newton.

The first major weakness with this unit is its single PCMCIA card slot. Most users I've talked to soon run out of internal memory and insert a memory card into this single slot. When collecting e-mail you must remove that memory card and insert the modem card. This means that all your communications programs, which are very large, MUST be located on the internal RAM pushing other apps to the memory card. I've had reports from a small group of users that some apps don't like being installed to memory cards, and that when the card is removed some programs located on the card crash the MessagePad OS.

The second drawback is the processor built into the unit. I understand that APPLE has placed the same CPU in the last four Newton models. This processor, with the much more demanding 2.0 operating system, is now very slow. It is usable, but you are often forced to wait while the CPU processes your handwriting or opens applications.

Number three on my don't-like list is that the connection utilities that allow my Windows machine to connect to the MessagePad are somewhat limited. The Newton Install and Back-up Utility from APPLE worked about 60% of the time. I understand that Landware’s XPort utility offers a much improved appellation for moving files data from a Windows PC to the Newton. I've been told that the Newton utilities for Apple computer owners are far superior.

Rumors are that APPLE will be correcting all of these problems with soon-to-be-announced units. But, with all of the above said, the bottom line is that if you need e-mail on the road, in a compact machine, the Newton 130 will do it for you, today.

Additional Comments:

  • If you plan on doing lots of data entry, get the optional compact keyboard.
  • Search the net and try out the dozens of shareware apps that are designed to make MessagePads easier to use.
  • If you’re trying to stay on schedule, don't use your MessagePad in public. You'll just be stopped by people wanting to know "What is that thing?".
  • Monitor the Newton related newsgroups. Lots of helpful folks and good information.
  • You will need a PC or Mac to effectively use a Newton.
  • If you will be running on battery power often, consider staying with a 14.4 modem, 28.8 modems suck down loads of power.
  • SONY Magic Link PIC-2000

    Running General Magic's Magic Cap operating system, this SONY unit is a cool little device. On the hardware front it has a built in 14.4 modem and two SRAM PCMCIA card slots. As for the rest of its capabilities, it is not much different from the Newton. It could also use a faster processor and more RAM. As for software, the selection for the Magic Link is somewhat limited when compared to the Newton. But you should be able to find all the traditional applications available for this platform. The operating system uses a desktop motif, at first it seems pretty lame, but after using it awhile I like it. SONY Magic Link - General Magic

    The primary text input method is via an on-screen keyboard. Optional software is available that allows you to add handwriting recognition to the Magic Link.

    Presto!Mail (web site) is the Internet e-mail software that runs on the Sony Magic Link. It includes the dialer and TCP/IP software. As with GoFetch and Eudora on the Newton, Presto!Mail handles all of the basic e-mail functions well. Also like the Newton, it stresses the hardware to it's limits. The Magic Link frequently goes into "clean up" mode as the operating system does some housekeeping functions and soon restoring its stability. I never lost any messages during these brief interruptions.

    AOL Users - The Magic Link comes with AOL access software installed. Three AOL features are available, only 2 work. You can pick-up your AOL e-mail and obtain stock quotes using the built in software. Several months ago the Headline News feature stopped working. It is designed to download the top news stories from AOL's news service into your Magic Link. AOL says they are having a "technology problem" and that they do not have an estimate on when the problem will be resolved because they have not started working on a fix. People (not just AOL users) wishing a far superior news feed can find it in Farcast which offers a service designed for the Magic Link.

    Additional Comments:

  • If you plan on doing lots of data entry get the optional compact keyboard.
  • Monitor the Magic Cap related newsgroup. Lots of helpful folks and good information.

  • SURFING THE WEB with these two PDA’s

    Both the Newton and the Sony have World Wide Web viewers available. I tested both and they provided marginal results. They both worked, but both stressed their hardware platforms to the limits. I installed NetHopper on the Newton and Presto!Links on the Magic Link. The major difference between the two is that the Magic Link has a more sophisticated screen than the Newton. As a result it is better-suited to displaying web images. I feel future models of both machines will do a better job of web browsing.


    The SONY Magic Link with the Presto!Mail software is the best out-of-the-box solution for the general public who want access to e-mail while on the road. Third party software is limited, but numerous developers are now focusing on this platform.

    The Apple Newton 130 MessagePad requires a little more coaxing to be useful, but the rewards are greater. Thousands of software options, plus a large seasoned-user base make this platform more viable for those looking to do more than the basics. You will need to purchase a modem card, rechargeable battery pack, protective case, and possibly a memory card to have a fully functional on-the-road e-mail machine.

    Final Note: neither of these machines are full fledged computers compared to a laptop, but for a much lower investment, they can provide many of the basic computing and communications tools required by frequent travelers.

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