Newton MessagePad 120 (with OS 1.3 or 2.0)

MessagePad 120

Gallery Commentary

MessagePad 120 with Newton OS 1.3

     In late January of 1995, Apple had a mini NDA'ed (NDA= with non disclaimer agreements) conference for the local area Newton User Groups (San Francisco Bay Area) to pre-announce the latest Newton. This actually was fun (I enjoyed going to the Apple campus etc) but everyone knew what the new device was because Apple had already released it in Germany back in October of 1994. Germans missed the MP110 and got the MP120 early due to the fact the German language really needed more memory and the MP120 came in one flavor that had 2 Mb of RAM. After almost a year passing since the MP110 release and the infamous reputation that Newton had aquired for its handwriting recognition deficiencies the MP120 was nice but lukewarm indeed. Apple representatives (Susan Schumann?) announced this was not a 'Revolution' but rather an 'Evolution' of the Newton MP line. Its codename was "Gelato," because the new MessagePad 120 (MP120) came in two flavors 1 Mb (like the 110) and 2 Mb memory sizes. The internal memory type also came in two flavors, ~540k SRAM for the system memory and 480k (1Mb model) or 1510k (2Mb model) of Flash RAM (eeprom) for the user's data memory. This was OK for the protection of the users data, but put a cap on the possibility of increasing the amount of system memory applicable to heap (heap could only use the faster SRAM). Flash RAM kept its data even without any power supply thus protecting users data (SRAM erases when the power is turned off thus if both main and backup batteries go dead in previous newtons all data is lost).

     This was the same 'form factor' as the MP110 in general, yet the lid was detachable, there was no rubberized skin anymore (some people complained it peeled off in high use zones), and some of the PCMCIA card release and lock switches were moved to the side so the lid didn't cover them up (like in the MP110). The MP120 was enabled to use a wide range of third party modems including the power hogs. Its PCMCIA slot was still type II but could support higher energy demands (325 mA vs. 115 mA of the MP110). There was a big push to make the Newton communicate well and obtain wireless capabilities. You were no longer protected from shortening your battery life if you wanted to do so. The MP120 was the first Newton to have a socketed ROM chip so it could be easily upgrade to the next version of the operating system when that became available. The original MP120's had the same operating system (1.3) that was stable, and had the same handwriting recognition and applications. Yet by this time the built-in Newton recognizer wasn't the only HWR alternative availble, Palm computing sold a numerous of copies of the handwriting recognition software "Graffiti" to newton users who just couldn't get the Calligrapher recognition engine to like them. "Graffiti" may have kept the Newton from death at this time in its infancy.

     The screen of the MP120 had quite a nice difference from that of the MP110. This was one area Phil Baker and his crew searched high and low for a nice bright supertwist LCD screen like those seen in the OMP/MP100. They got a very nice one which made the 120 desirable. Overall the 120 with OS 1.3 was an nice upgrade for OMP/MP100 owners, but not so thrilling for MP110 owners.

MessagePad 120 with Newton OS 2.0

     In November of 1995 things radically changed for the MP120. The hardware didn't change at all but the upgrade to Newton's second generation Operating System 2.0 (two dot oh! as Newtonsource T-shirts screamed) was the Revolution the Newton world was expecting from Steve Capps. On November 28, 1995, Steve Capps, Walter Smith and Joseph Ansanelli of Newton Systems Group unveiled the new Newton OS 2.0 to our local user group (Stanford Newton Users Group (SNUG)). For the very curious, a transcript of the event is available here. Because of OS 2.0, The MP120 with OS 2.0 was incredible. System 2.0 was codenamed "Q." Perhaps for the Star Trek character that had omnipotent powers or for the James Bond character with all the cool gadgets? There were an enormous number of changes and improvements in the 2.0 OS. Steve Capps had spent eons reworking the code to the point that it didn't really resemble the original code in 1.3. An upgrade as previously indicated by swappable ROM chips became available for the Newton world. For $109 the Apple factory dudes would make your lukewarm MP120/1.3 into a hot beasty running 2.0. In addition, to get more users on the 2.0 bandwagon, OMP/MP100 and MP110 users were offered rebates ~$100 for trading in their old units and upgrading (yet no one had to actually send in the old newtons you got to keep it or sell it). This is when my trusty MP110 was sold off and I entered the Nirvana of 2.0.

Newton Operating System 2.0
Click here for a full review of Newton 2.0 Operating System (AMUG review -many photos), MOBILIS review

     The second generation OS for the Newton platform rescued Newton from obscurity and infamy and brought it back to the cutting edge technology it was intended to be. Of the seemingly infinite changes found in a 2.0 newton I'll attempt to hit as many as I can.

     With 2.0 all newtons shipped with cables and software to back them up to Macintosh and Windows computers. Although the Newton Connection Kit had previously done this reasonably well. It was slow, cost $99, and not always backed up as dependably as it should. The 2.0 version of the NCK was split into a 'free' Newton Backup Utility (NBU) and a forthcoming Newton Connection Utility (NCU).

     The greatest change that occurred with an upgrade to 2.0 was the new PRINTED handwriting recognition engine. Apparently a Xerox PARC genius now at Apple had developed a 'letter by letter' handwriting recognizer that could only recognize PRINTED text, but do it extremely well. Previously Apple had tested users and asked if they would change their writing habits or print neatly for the Newton. The users had said they would not purchase a product that would not accomodate to their handwriting style. Thus the idea of a printed-only recognition system was considered out of the question in the first newtons. Yet, as it turned out, Palm computing's "Graffiti" recognizer that required the user to print clearly and use a modified alphabet became acceptable to users and quite popular thus blowing that original concept out of the water. The PRINTED recognizer in OS 2.0 was flawless and required no dictionary or learning period. It worked with familiar and strange handwriting styles alike. It only required seperated printed characters to analyze. Even today, its recognition system is unmatched in the computing industry. For users that like cursive handwriting and enjoyed good success with the old Calligrapher recognition engine, a new improved version of it was also included (as well as a new Easter Egg a la Doonesbury). The user could choose their HWR engine.

     Various other things had been changed in OS 2.0. Digital Ink that was unrecognized was improved to 'word wrap' and cut and paste like true word processing of text. This newly named 'Ink Text' feature is quite advanced and not really advertised greatly in the newton world. The 2.0 newtons also came with an optional external keyboard for those times touch-typists just wanted to type like mad (ie email from your hotel room). An 'expand' feature was included in the OS where writing 'nsg' in the notepad could be automatically expanded to 'Newton Systems Group' or whatever you wanted. This is a great user-programmable item in newer machines. The display on 2.0 machines can rotate from the standard portrait orientation to a landscape one (although in only one direction).

     All built in applications had enhanced GUI and capabilities. Names fields were user definable and thus very flexible, the Notes application had a NEW button and various stationary types ie 'Note, Outline, Checklist' for different types of Notes. Stationary types could also be created de novo by users with the Newton Development Kit (NTK). This possibility has not yet been well utilized in the newton programming community. There was a new application called "Calls" that helped you write notes while making phone calls. Guy Kawasaki said this was the neatest new part of 2.0. Now there was a CARET icon that showed you where the text you wrote would be inserted on the page. The CARET also if tapped had a menu of common punctuation for selection. The IN and OUT boxes became connected. In addition, this newton could not only send faxes but could also recieve them. Also on the communication front, there was a greatly improved eWorld email client built-in that made email seemless from the tiny handheld (unfortunately Apple closed its online Service 'eWord' in June of 1996). Soon came the Newton Internet Enabler (NIE) software that gave Newton a TCP/IP stack so it could run around the internet like other computers. There were multiple folders everywhere including the extras drawers, applications could be beamed back and forth to other Newtons via the IR and moved about drag and drop style in the extras drawer as well as deleted by the erase gesture.

     Last but not least, the heap space that each installed program slurped up that limited the memory available for running applications could be returned by FREEZING installed programs that were not being used. This process of freezing was included in the ROMS but not explained to users by Apple. Some users that had been tested were so confused by what freezing is that it is not ENABLED in new machines. Users wrote tiny programs that ENABLED the process so it is ubiquitous in the newton world today.

Original Product Specifications Announcement (1995)
(underlined words link to other gallery photos)

Description MP120

     The Newton MessagePad 120 puts easy-to-use communications, productivity and desktop connectivity solutions in the palm of your hand so you can work away from your office. Yet you'll find it far more useful than paper or electronic organisers because while it has a built-in notepad, to-do list, datebook and address file for organising personal and business affairs, with a modem it can also send faxes and gives you access to e-mail and on-line services. The Newton MessagePad 120 can receive pages as well as electronic mail. And its built-in infrared communications allow you to instantly exchange information with other Newton devices. The Newton MessagePad 120 lets you share and exchange information with either Windows-based or Macintosh computers.

     Pen-based navigation and data entry make finding information easy and fast. And it allows to you capture and organise information in many forms: notes, sketches, schedules, lists and letters. It also lets you enter information in many ways: digital ink, printed text, graphics, on-screen keyboard or a combination. The Newton MessagePad 120 has printing capabilities that make it simple to print your information the way it appears on its crisp, easy-to-read screen or as full-page formatted letters. Its built-in recognition software can even transform your written handwriting into typed text letter by letter or word by word. But best of all - unlike paper and electronic organisers - your Newton MessagePad 120 can be expanded with software titles as well as accessories and on-line services that can keep you organised, efficient, and very well informed.

Built-in software functions (with 2.0 OS highlighted)

Expandable functions

Newton Intelligence

Communications capabilities

Size and weight

Operating environment

Power requirements

Computer connectivity requirements

Printer support

Fax machine support