Apple Gets An `A'

Its Newton-based eMate for schools is both kid-friendly and kid-proof

Whenever I visit a school, I check out the computer equipment. And no matter how up-to-date the facility is, I almost always find some Apple IIs still in use. The last model was produced in 1989, but these ancient machines just keep chugging away. In fact, Apple Computer estimates that more than 2 million are still used in U.S. schools. They endure because budget-starved educators have yet to discover a replacement with the same virtues of low cost, simplicity, and ruggedness.

An unlikely candidate has arrived. I say unlikely because it is the offspring of Apple's much-maligned Newton, the personal digital assistant that has been trying--and failing--to read handwriting for the past three years. But after spending some time using the new eMate 300, a $750 mini-laptop, I think it could give teachers a more effective way to use computer technology in math and science classes than conventional pcs.

CLAMSHELL CASE. Meanwhile, those who liked the idea of the original Newton but were disappointed by its performance should take a close look at the souped-up MessagePad 2000, a handheld computer that finally has the horsepower to deliver on the promise of practical handwriting recognition.

The eMate's design shows some careful attention to the needs of schools, especially for the elementary and middle grades. It runs all Newton software, and Apple is working with developers on educational programs. Unlike the MessagePads, though, eMate uses a laptop-like clamshell configuration, with a full-size keyboard on one side and a 6x4-in. touch-sensitive grayscale display on the other. The unit comes in an attractive green case designed to be both kid-friendly and kid-proof. While a school could purchase an older-model Windows laptop with a color display for perhaps $250 more than an eMate, the laptop would be lucky to survive a week at the hands of 10-year-olds.

Conventional desktop computers are better for word processing or Internet research, but the eMate fits neatly into a big change in how schools use technology. The emphasis has switched from programming and drill to using high-tech gear to collect and analyze data. That means the computers have to travel to where the experiments are.

The eMate is ideally suited to the task. A $400 accessory kit from Knowledge Revolution measures voltages, light levels, and temperature, and provides software that makes it easy to copy data into the eMate for reports. Similar add-ons are available for Windows or Macintosh computers. But these are harder to set up, and they're not portable. Texas Instruments' graphing calculators also work with the probes, but they offer no sure and easy way to get the information into written work.

The eMates show Apple's extensive experience in classroom computing. For example, the units have built-in security that keeps students from messing with settings. Although the eMate has no disk drives, it can easily transfer data to a classroom Mac or Windows pc for storage or printing, whether via a network, a cable connection, or an infrared link. A molded handle makes it easy to secure a bunch of eMates with a cable lock.

Students familiar with pcs or Macs may find the eMate's performance sluggish and its monochrome display disappointing, though it will look a lot more appealing than the Apple II's. The eMate's biggest shortcomings are in software. I found the built-in graphing calculator less handy than a dedicated calculator such as a ti-82. And while using the Newton Works word processor and spreadsheet, I occasionally got annoying messages reading, "Sorry, an error has occurred," though there was no sign of anything amiss and I could just go on working.

KLUTZY KEYS. The eMate would be a truly exciting product if it could only incorporate the tech`nology of the new MessagePad 2000, a move precluded for now by cost considerations. The $950 MessagePad is constructed around a Digital Equipment Strongarm processor that operates at 162 megahertz while drawing very little power.

The Newton still can't read my cursive handwriting. (Neither can I half the time.) But it accurately reads about as fast as I can print. The MessagePad 2000 also features a larger screen, improved communications capability, and easier connections to desktop pcs. I still find the Newton 4x8-in., 20-ounce package clumsy. It's too big to fit in a pocket. And while an accessory keyboard makes for easy data entry, the Newton-plus-keyboard combo is a clumsy laptop alternative.

For three years, Newton has been a technology in search of useful products. It may have found them--but just as Apple, which has bigger problems to worry about, is losing interest. The company has made no secret of its readiness to sell the Newton division. Whatever happens, the eMate shows that Apple hasn't lost its feel for the educational market it created. One hopes that any new owner can retain the Apple touch.