BYTES: IS APPLE'S 'DIGITAL ASSISTANT' FOR YOU? ONLY IF YOU HAVE TIME, MONEY AND THE PATIENCE OF JOB.

Most of the time, you'll find me in the slow lane on the electronic highway, but Apple Computer, Inc.'s Newton MessagePad, introduced last week, held out an irresistible lure: total control over all of life's little details like my schedule, my address book and my endless "To Do!' lists. Newton is also supposed to be able to read my handwriting: a feat heretofore unattainable by any living human. I had to know. Would it help, or was it hype?

Newton is one of the first of a new generation of personal digital assistants (PDAs) that manufacturers like Apple, Tandy, Casio and AT&T promise will someday revolutionize computing by combining everything you need to keep in touch-fax, E-mail, simple word processing-in an easy-to-use unit that fits in a backpack or even a back pocket. But don't toss out your PC yet; someday is the operative word here. Right now the Newton offers less bang for the buck than a conventional notebook computer (chart) and is harder to use than an old-fashioned date book.

We bought our Newton at the MacWorld Exposition in Boston, where it was introduced amid much fanfare. The basic model, about the size and weight of a videocassette, was $699.99; the fax modem cost an additional $169.99. At our New York offices I set up a mini testing lab on my desk: the Newton next to a traditional organizer, Week-at-a-Glance (price: $12.55, with address book).

Navigating through any piece of new technology is time-consuming and it's only fair to point out that I have had previous experience with Week-at-a-Glance. Nonetheless, there was a huge difference in start-up times. Week-at-a-Glance took about a second; with one hand, I flicked it open to the right page. Newton took longer. its box contained three different instruction booklets: a 224-page manual, a 26-page "Setup Guide" and a four-page crib sheet with brief directions for the most important functions. Most other Apple products are so easy to use you don't even need a manual. But Newton is different. Carefully following the instructions in the "Setup Guide," I installed the batteries and tried to turn on the machine. Nothing. After several more tries, I dialed 1-800-SOS-APPL. A cheerful Apple computer consultant explained that I had to press the tiny reset button. At last, my Newton came alive. Time elapsed: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

My first test was the notebook function. Week-at-a-Glance has a pad of paper tucked into the back cover. Reaching into a mug filled with old ballpoints and stubby pencils, I randomly selected one and scrawled out: "Buy milk." Seven seconds. Then I tried the Newton, which Apple describes as an electronic scratch pad, ready to receive my thoughts at the tap of a stylus (neatly housed in a slot on the side). Eager to be computer-friendly, I wrote "Hello Newton" in block letters. Newton was still for a minute and then came back with its translation: "Hello Clinton." I tried writing out my name. Newton translated: "Barbara Railroads." I tried to erase, drawing a careful "W" through my words, as prescribed in the manual. "Furniture railroads," Newton responded. I tried still another "W" Newton: "minus run furniture railroads." After my sixth W, cartoon smoke (Newton graphics) appeared on the screen and it was clear. I tried another word: "Practice." The Newton responded: "Practice." There's a lesson here.

My second test was the date-book function. Reaching into my mug, I grabbed a pen and scribbled "lunch with Sue" in the noon slot on my Week-at-a-Glance. Six seconds. Turning to the Newton, I tapped gently on the picture of a calendar at the bottom of the screen. As part of the start-up procedure, I had earlier entered the right date and time, so the current day's schedule immediately popped up. In block letters, I wrote "lunch with Sue." More translation problems. Following the manual, I called up a tiny keyboard and tapped out my appointment with the stylus. Apple says Newton will learn to understand my writing after a few weeks; in other words, the garbles are part of the learning curve--Newton's and mine. In the meantime, I've decided to use the keyboard for big events like lunch. Time elapsed: 20 minutes.

My most successful test was of the fax modem. Week-at-a-Glance has no fax function. Newton's fax modem is the size of a cigarette pack. It took a little juggling, but I managed to hook up all the wires in just a few minutes. I wrote out a message, tapped "fax" on the list of action options and sent notes to a friend on New York's Long Island and to my mother in Massachusetts. Both arrived without garble. Time elapsed: 10 minutes to set up each fax and four minutes per transmission.

After 24 hours with Newton, I've concluded that it's more of a cross between Nintendo's Game Boy and Etch-A-Sketch than a revolutionary technology. It's fun to play with, but the price tag is too high. Extras such as computer-linking cables and a rechargeable battery pack bring it up to $1,500, the cost of a laptop. Still, I like the streamlined design and snappy graphics. Apple promises that future versions will be easier to use and more versatile. Until then, I'll be tapping away. And waiting.


FUNCTION      APPLE                       ZENITH Z-NOTE 320L


              NEWTON                      NOTEBOOK COMPUTER





Handwriting   Knows 10,000 words and      Can't do it. But then 


recognition   learns others you add.      again, most folks type  


                                          these days.





Wireless      Can beam information        None. But wireless


capabilities  to other Newtons.           laptops are coming.





Fax modem     Can send text, written      Can send text and


              notes and simple graphics.  graphics.





Words         Limited to taking and       You can write your


              editing notes.              book on this.





Weight        1 pound                     5.9 pounds





Price         $870                        $895





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