Retro-Tech: the Newton eMate 300 for Writers Today

eMate 300I'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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>> I've thought for years

>> I've thought for years about getting an Alphasmart Neo or Dana, but I'm not sure the usage will warrant the cost.

AlphaSmart used to have a 30-day warranty for its products. Not sure if they still have it after they were bought over by RenLearn. However, if you write to them, I am very sure you will be able to get a unit for review.

Got some, willing to share...

http://www.diyplanner.com/node/3994
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"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

eMate vs. Alphasmart etc.

Hi, all,

I have to admit that I love the Newton - still use my Messagepad 2100 every day. The eMate, though, is pretty bulky in comparison, and the ease of connecting it to the desktop does make life harder. Also, it's damned slow at times, which really bugs me.

Much as I love the Newton, my eBay purchase of an Alphasmart Dana (missing keys, therefore under $80) has helped me amazingly. It's faster on moving files in and out, and runs the Palm OS without requiring me to use graffiti (which is a travesty). The keyboard is great, as well.

What's the difference between the two? Well, connectivity is one. And, the awesome Newton OS isn't needed for the eMate, lessening how great it is. I never really liked using my Palm with a keyboard - it seemed like a cheap hack on a lousy screen. The Dana is great, with the wide screen. The eMate is too bulky and not portable enough for me, in comparison.

But the biggest issue remains the hinge problem. FIX YOUR HINGES! I bought an eMate, used it for all of 2 days, and the display cable ripped. There's not much you can do when you can't touch the screen. Sigh. So I have a good one remaining, but I'm paranoid about using it, and I have never had the time to fix the screen.

Once I do, though, it's instantly going into my daughter's hands. She loves writing, and this is a great way for her to learn to type. As for me, I'll stick with my slightly lighter and thinner Dana (and easier to get files in and out of for large documents).

mc

Writing is what matters. :D

I've never used an e-Mate (or any Newton), but I think anything that gets someone writing is a good thing!

Love my Neo. Love my little 12" iBook. Love all my other Macs. Love my fountain pens. Love anything that gets me writing.

Great to hear about something that does that for you. :D

Connectivity and power

These always seem to be the main issues for bridging old tech to new tech -- how many "standard" connectors can you recall in your personal computing history? How many wall-warts do you have sitting in a box in the attic?

I must have a drawer full of assorted dongles, converters, and adapters for the various gadgets I've accumulated over the years. I have fond memories of using a homebrew null-modem cable to connect my secondhand Tandy 200 to my then state-of-the-art Mac SE/30 Even the AlphaSmarts are not immune to this issue -- sure, USB is ubiquitous now, but what happens in five or ten years? Anyone recall the nice wide RS-232 connectors?

The more I work with technology (and I do it for a living!) the more I find myself drawn to the simpler, stable systems. I have yet to crash a 3x5 card. I've never corrupted a paper calendar. My to-do list has yet to require anti-virus measures.

Don't get me wrong, I'm one of the people that posted extreme geeklust for the eMate in Doug's Newton topic, and I have had AlphaSmart bookmarked for literally years now. Aside from the sheer joy of tinkering with a new toy, though, I have to wonder if that lust is fueled more by style than substance.

Hrm. Judy, is there room in the woods for one more? :-)

Speaking of retro...

I bought a NEC MobilePro 780 last year. I use it mostly for writing when it isn't feasible to lug around a laptop. Nice thing about it is that it can take in a CF card and has a PCMCIA slot. Theoretically I can use a WiFi card with it, although it's going to be hard to look for drivers for WinCE 2.0.

That said, at least with the CF card, I can still transfer what I write to any other computer. :D

---
http://thegeekettespeaketh.pinoyweb.net

eMates Make Me Shudder

I had a bad experience some time ago and the mention of an eMate makes me relive that nightmare.

I was a far too busy IT support person trying to manage a large wide area network with 55 miles of mostly bottle-necked traffic between the two furthest offices on my own, when a colleague offered to lend me his eMate. I picked it up from his office at the end of the day and went out to load it into my car with my laptop, a switch and some other computer bits.

In the middle of the loading operation the phone rang with another user in crisis. I tried to talk them through the problem, but they wanted me there. It was getting dark and the rush hour was about to start so I dashed across country to get to the other office. On arriving I grabbed the laptop from the boot and noticed that the eMate was missing. My heart fell like a stone as I tried to think through the last minutes before leaving the last office. I soon realised that the last time that I could remember seeing the eMate was when I placed it gently on the roof before opening up the back of the car.

I was mortified. I look after my own property well, but I treat other's property even better. I was so upset that I just didn't know how to deal with it so I walked into the office and fixed the problem, a mains lead pulled out of the back of a monitor by a user over energetically swivelling their monitor about.

I drove back to my place, thoroughly miserable, wondering how I was going to explain the loss of the eMate ot its owner.

As I unloaded the car in the drive a light from a street light picked up something translucent green. Ah ha!! It was the eMate. I had put it into the back of the car after all but it was hidden by some other stuff. I have never felt so relieved!

The nightmares still go on though!!

Andy Hayes
Lerwick
Shetland

Your experience...

...at least, had a happy ending. Almost years ago, I was taking my baby daughter somewhere alone, and upon putting her in the car, discovered that her winter coat made her "too thick" for the seat belt in her car seat, so I did something I _never_ did--put my Newton on the roof of the car--reminding myself not to forget it. Well--I forgot it. I didn't realize it until much later, and despite going over the neighborhood with a fine-toothed comb, it never turned up again. It was a crowded neighborhood, so if it survived the fall (possible, because of its case), somebody surely lifted it. :-(

Now, there was a happy ending. I bemoaned the fact on Newtontalk, and was bombarded with offers to replace my lost brain! I was only able to resist for a few days, before I finally succumbed. I still have that replacement Newton today, although it's gone through a screen transplant. ;-) (Am I hard on my equipment???) (BTW, the fellow who gave me the Newton had visited us in Krakow before--from TX!) ;-)

That was my second lost Newton. The first was "lost" from my shopping buggy when I turned my back.

What's weird is that, for me, what hurt the most was not the lost hardware--it was the lost part of my life--notes, names, addresses, etc. Some of it was unreplaceable. But that's life, I guess...

-Jon

Oh. The eMate!

I'd forgotten about this lovely little piece of technology. Some years ago I was an elementary computer teacher, and those eMates were a favorite of the kids even after we bought a whole bunch of iBooks. I liked to give them to the younger kids, like third-graders, and we'd walk to a nearby park, sit in the grass, and write.

You could drop those things on the pavement and they'd be fine. In fact, I once had a kid drop one down a flight of stairs, and it lived. (I almost killed the kid, though!)

Condensed information about using eMate

I bought 6 of these from eBay and have been playing with setting them up for my kids to use, in preference to some old, beat up AlphaSmarts at their school. Besides missing power supplies (a substitute can be had from Radio Shack), the biggest issue is the battery pack. The original pack has 4 1200mAh AA NiMH batteries. With a little care, you can fairly easily replace them with a pack of new 2700mAh batteries in a holder that would let you replace batteries later on. I've compiled this information on this page, for those who prefer not to hunt through the primary sources.

Connectivity issues aside...

...what format are the files that you pull from the eMate? I suppose that depends on which application you are using, huh? And the eMate runs the Newton OS?

I am intrigued by the eMate and I think I would use one, but I'm such a newbie that I'm not even sure what questions I should be asking. I'm working my way through all these links - what a wealth of information! Thank you for putting this all together for us.

The connection software can

The connection software can convert the files on the eMate into RTF.

File formats

The file format depends on the tool and connection technology used:

Newton Connection Utilities (NCU) has been mentioned and gives RTF files. However this relies on a serial connection.

NewtFTP allows text and rtf files to be sent to a desktop via FTP which could be done across an ethernet cable or wirelessly.

Implementing the connection technology is a dance in itself and may need extra kit to be purchased.

The Newton Community FAQ gives more information on how to do it for Windows computers or Mac OS X computers.

HTH

re: your MacBook Pro - an idea

What an interesting post! I know someone who still uses an old HP personal assistant - no way to export the addresses and phone numbers she keeps on it, which is why I got rid of mine, but the dedicated writing machine you have found sounds like fun, and more practical than that goofy pda. The part of your post, however, that caught my attention was this line:

"I do have a nice shiny MacBook Pro, but between its bottom searing the flesh of my lap . . ."

I have an HP notebook (using it now) with the same problem - the solution for me is a bamboo cutting board - they come in about the same size as the notebook, and it makes a great little portable platform for the computer. This machine has such a hot processor that it has burned up three motherboards in a year in a half (don't get me started. No more HP or Best Buy for me), but the bamboo board at least protects my lap, and along with stick-on feet (home depot), gives it a little better ventilation than it was designed with.

Have fun with your e-mate! I've always loved Apple products. Vicki

What CF Cards work with eMate?

Greetings,

I'm a writer following you down the path of lowest cost/highest utility. Trying plugging in a 1gig sandisk cf card today and got the "There is a problem with this card (-10752)" message. Since I bought a number of these units in a lot, I tried the same thing in a few of them and got the same message. Same with a 5 gig ST1 drive.

So... I'm thinkin' that the eMate just can't recognize cards this large. Can't get a straight answer anywhere in Google land, either. Can you tell me what size card you are using with yours? And do you know how high you can go?

Thanks again for the terrific advice.

Google is your friend

http://www.pda-soft.de/faq/frames_newton-faq-hardware.html#IIB1
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"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Sandisk 1GB CF card.

You need the ATA drivers found at www.unna.org to use that CF card (in a CF to PC card Type II adapter card so the pins line up).
Piece of cake.