Apple Newton 2100 (Pt. II)

The Newton 2100 had so many great features that it’s impossible to list them all in a simple blog post. Given that this is one of a series of posts about pen-based computers and PDAs, however, I’ll focus on a few points that individually seem relatively minor, but which between them show just how much care and attention the Apple engineers paid to the Newton platform.

The Newton was designed from the ground up to be used with a stylus, and to be used on the move. Unlike so many devices that have followed it, the Newton had no pretences at being a desktop machine. There was no attempt to shoehorn a desktop UI into a handheld device; instead the whole system was designed around the stylus, rather than simply trying to use it as a poor mouse replacement. Text and images were deleted by simply scribbling through them. Handwriting could be recognised on-the-fly, or deferred for recognition later (ideal for taking notes without the recognition slowing things up), and there was even a mode for recognising hand-drawn sketches which would transform my rough scribbles into perfect lines, squares, triangles and even circles.

Having created a modernist masterpiece (or more probably sketched a map) it was extremely simple to edit and change the design. Pressing the stylus to the screen for a couple of seconds elicited a small squeak from the speaker, and switched the Newton into selection mode. Drawing on the screen in this mode produced a thick line which could be used to circle multiple items for selection. Tracing over individual lines – or parts of lines – would also select them, so having drawn a square, for example, it was easy to select just one side of it for removal.

Once selected items could be moved by dragging, resized by dragging one corner, or deleted with a quick scribble. Dragging selected text or drawings to the side of the screen caused a smaller translucent representation to be docked there which could be dragged back into a different application – copy and paste using only the stylus. An extension for the 2100 allowed you to access a hidden OS preference to set the number of these docked items that could be held at once – up to a maximum of 20. This made it simple to copy and paste multiple different items without losing track of any of them. How I wish that this feature was implemented in a desktop system.

The attention to detail in this pen-based system even went as far as the hardware design. Not only did the 2100 have a full-sized and very comfortable stylus that clicked satisfyingly into a sprung chamber in the body of the device, but they also included a small pull-out stand to rest the stylus in when it wasn’t in use. Again, this is a small thing that’s sadly lacking from most modern pen-based systems.

Finally, still on the subject of hardware, it’s impossible to really consider any mobile device without giving some thought to its battery life. This is one area where the 2100 really did excel. Whilst its green-backlit greyscale screen might look primitive compared with more modern full-colour devices, it had one huge advantage: low power consumption. With just an hour’s charge the 2100 could nominally run for 24 hours with the backlight off. In practice the battery life was less than this, but the way in which a PDA is usually used – just a few minutes at a time – meant that a single charge could easily last a week, or even a month. Travelling overseas and worried that the charge might run out? No problem, just use the Newton’s international charger with simple slide-on adaptors for different power sockets. Or just take the battery tray along with you and rely on easy-to-obtain AA batteries instead.

What if the worst did happen, and your poor Newton ran out of power completely? Thanks to the early use of flash memory in the 2100 it wouldn’t lose any data. When you finally found another power source, your Newton would boot up with all your data intact. Which is something that definitely can’t be said of the Palm Pilot…

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