From Pen Computing Magazine #21, April 1998

Newton Notes

The Big Test, Part II

©Copyright 1998 David MacNeill

Pilot to Windows CE
The next most important thing I needed was to move my checkbook register data. LandWare makes a Quicken-compatible client for Windows CE called Pocket Finance. Since the PilotMoney app I used on the Pilot has no QIF file export function, I had to re-enter two weeks of Pilot transactions into the Newton, export the file to the desktop via Intuit’s Pocket Quicken Connect, import the data into Quicken, then export a subset of it back to a QIF file. This process took several hours. After copying the QIF file to the Cassiopeia I attempted to import it into Pocket Finance, but after several hours of attempts I finally gave up on it. Pocket Finance is a useful and needed application, but it needs a bit more work in the import department. LandWare is working on an improved version. I finally resorted to starting from scratch with a new beginning balance entered as a deposit. Another bummer, less annoying than the first.

The only thing left to bring over to the Cassiopeia was a few Word documents, including an earlier version of the one you are reading now. This process is blissfully simple under Windows CE 2.0: drag the documents you want transferred to the Synchronized Files folder on the Windows 95 desktop, then simply plug in your Windows CE 2.0 handheld device. Microsoft’s new ActiveSync technology does the rest. It’s even better than the Pilot.

After living with the Cassiopeia A-20 for a while, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. If you want a companion to your Windows 95 PC and you use Microsoft Office, these new HPCs are sure to please. The desktop connectivity the new release provides far outshines anything Apple’s besieged, but valiant, Newton Group offers. The MessagePad has always been the quintessential stand-alone handheld computer, but its desktop connectivity has been consistently weak. The "pocket" versions of Microsoft Office applications are pretty damn good. In fact, an HPC could make a decent first computer; add a fast card modem, a decent inkjet printer, and an Internet account, and you’ve got 66 percent of the utility a typical notebook computer provides for a fraction of the cost. Factor in battery life that’s measured in weeks versus hours, the naturalness of a pen interface, and the coolness of having so much power always in your pocket, and you have a compelling argument. Of course, for a few hundred dollars more you could have a MessagePad 2100, which can do all these things much better and much more.

As to user interface and ergonomics, HPCs still suffer from what I call shrunken desktop syndrome. Some things simply do not scale down gracefully, such as keyboards and desktop metaphors. For example, I started writing this section holding the Cassiopeia in both hands, typing with my thumbs. After about a paragraph I grew tired and switched to holding the unit in my left hand, typing with the index finger of my right hand, which lasted about as long as the thumb-typing approach. At the moment I am leaning forward, typing semi-conventionally on the unit which is wobbling around on the ottoman before me. If I’m going to be this uncomfortable, I might as well grab my PowerBook, which at least has a proper keyboard and a big color screen!

In contrast, if I were composing this article on a MessagePad, I would simply hold the unit in the palm of one hand and write on the screen with the other, letting the Newton OS’ peerless handwriting recognition work its wonders. The Newton’s pen-on-paper position can remain comfortable for hours, and feels much more natural than typing. It is also more aesthetically pleasing to the observer than watching someone jam his or her fingers together and squint at a dim-screened miniature laptop. To an onlooker, a Newton user appears to be calmly writing in a diary or planner.

Windows CE to Newton
The process of returning all my data back to the MessagePad turned out to be just as problematic as the move from Pilot to Windows CE. The financial data wouldn’t go back, so I had to re-enter it manually into Pocket Quicken. Since there is no Microsoft Outlook to Newton conduit (not at the time of my test, anyway) I also had to manually re-enter my date book information. I had hoped to use Microsoft Schedule+ to move the data across, since NCU does support it, but I found no way to export my Outlook data into Schedule+. With Microsoft applications there is apparently no turning back once you upgrade.
Bummer number three.

Earth to Dave
It’s nice to be back home on my comfortable MessagePad 2100. I had temporarily forgotten how attractive and simple is the user interface, how solid and well-designed is the case, and how big and bright is the display--by far the most readable of any handheld on the market. Best of all, I practically moaned with delight when I rediscovered how good the handwriting recognition is. After a month of suffering with microscopic icons and menus, munchkin keyboards, and dim little screens, I felt as though I had just moved from the Unabomber’s cabin at midnight to the Taj Majal at noon. A Newton MessagePad is a hard act to follow, indeed.

Yes, the MessagePad 2100 is big, but so is a Nissan Pathfinder, and I won’t be giving up the comfort and reliability mine gives me any time soon. There are things in this world that are worth their size, like dogs, sailboats, and Newtons.

-David MacNeill is executive editor of Pen Computing Magazine. Newton Notes™ has been in continuous publication since the release of the Newton in 1993.