A Tech Love Letter: My Apple eMate 300

The Apple Newton eMate 300 stylus and keyboard. Love the pebbled green plastic chassis.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Apple fan. I’ve been lucky enough to start using Macs in the early 90s when I was in grade school, and when it came time for my father to buy our household a computer, he went with a Mac LCII (with an 80 megabyte hard drive and 4 megs of RAM). We’ve been hooked ever since.

The Apple Newton eMate 300 in all it's translucent green glory

Hello, gorgeous.

The Apple device that holds perhaps the dearest place in my memories is my (dearly departed) Apple Newton eMate 300. With the power of a PDA in the body of what we might now call a “netbook”, the eMate was introduced less than a year before Apple pulled the plug on the Newton line. It was intended to be used primarily in the classroom, and had an IrDA port that students could use to “beam” information to the teacher. I have to say that after years of asking around, I’ve never known anyone who used eMates in their classroom.

Apple Newton eMate 300 homescreen

Look! It has apps!

One aspect that makes me love it is that it was the first Apple product to feature a clamshell design and translucent plastic. Introduced a year-and-a-half before the original Bondi-blue iMac, the eMate never received any laud for its design, while the original iMac and the clamshell iBook received it all.

(As an aside: I owned both a Revision-B Bondi-blue iMac and a clamshell iBook, and while they were exponentially more powerful and functional than my eMate, they were not half as well designed, ergonomically.)

I first bought my eMate on eBay two years after they were discontinued, in 2000. I realized that as I started college the next year, life as an English-major and then (I hoped)  as a journalist would require me to take lots of notes, on the fly. I found an eMate for $400, and when I got it, I was ecstatic.

I bought the processor enhancement chip. I bought an 8 meg PCMCIA storage card (boy, was THAT hard to find), and I salvaged an old Apple Stylewriter printer that I could plug into the serial port on the eMate. I was set.

A year later, I took a two-week trips to the Philippine Islands with my mother and baby sister. (My family was in the process of internationally adopting my sister, and in order to finalize it, we had to present her, in person, to a Filipino governmental office in Manila.) We planned a short vacation around that, and I decided to take my eMate along to keep a travelogue.

It performed flawlessly. With a battery life lasting dozens of hours (due to its low-power consumption), I could take it with me anywhere, and only had to plug it in to charge once. I have vivid memories of sitting in hotels and hostels, tired out of my mind, and just writing and writing. The pleasant sounds emanating from the eMate, not unlike the slight keyboard clicks on Apple’s iOS, helped me de-stress and gave me a sense of accomplishment.

When I got back, I had a 12-page travelogue to somehow get off my eMate onto my iMac. How to do it? I read in an Apple support forum that the two computers’ IrDA ports were physically impossible to connect, as they used different kinds of lenses to distribute the light pulses. After days of researching, and employing two or three hacks, I got it to work — I got it to transfer .txt files between the two machines. The sense of accomplishment I felt was, needless to say, great.

As all tech is eventually wont to do, my eMate stopped working after some years of disuse. The increasing demand for online computing (though my eMate was TCP/IP capable, I never had the cash for the expensive PCMCIA card to make it work) forced me to use the iMac and eventually my iBook more and more. Soon, the power supply for my eMate burnt out, and try as I might, I couldn’t find anyone to repair her for a reasonable price. It still sits in my closet, and sometimes still boots up for a few minutes if I have it connected to a power source!

Nowadays, of course, my need for a very portable, durable text processor can be handled through iCloud, using various devices. This post, for example, was written in iA Writer, and at some point composed on my work iMac, my personal MacBook, and my iPhone. You can’t get much more portable than that!

Still, I miss using my eMate. The handwriting recognition built into the stylus-sensitive screen was fantastic (better at interpreting my scrawl than some iOS apps, in fact). The graceful curves and the casual shape would not look out of place in today’s computing environment. And, of course, the battery life is on par with today’s iPad.

AlphaSmart Neo

The copycat AlphaSmart Neo.

There have been imitators, of course. I almost bought an Alpha Smart Neo when an author demonstrated it during a writing class in college. Similarly, I’ve loved the HP Jornada 710, which was an uber-portable laptop/PDA hybrid.

But nothing beat the eMate, in its time.

Fare thee well, eMate. Someday, I hope you get the recognition you deserve as a vanguard of modern computing function and style.

18 responses

    • Good call, Grant! I think I probably mislabeled it — it is something on the motherboard that deals with the battery — taking power from the battery into the machine. I had the battery rebuilt once already, thinking that was the problem. The guy helped me diagnose this (of course after I paid him to rebuild the battery). Once I have a little more time and/or money, I may go after repairing it, if indeed it is repairable.

      Thanks for the links!

    • Love to give you some help on transfer of data, but as I remember Apple’s localtalk network was involved and we had software on the Mac that was able to acquire data sent from the eMate. That was 1998, I was working daily with Apple products and had access to numerous documents. This is 2012 and I’ve been retired since 2006. I’ll do some research on it, but there has to be an Apple engineer in Cupertino who has access to that information.

  1. Andy,

    The Neptune High School Information Center (one of the first Apple Distinguished Schools) had 24 eMates that were checked out to our English, Foreign Language and science classes on a regular basis. Our Spanish classes each year took them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to take field notes for projects later developed in class. We easily transferred the data back to Macs for use in our labs and classrooms.

    Don Smith, retired Head Librarian, Apple Distinguished Educator, Neptune High School, Neptune, NJ

  2. And for all you Alpha Smart fans out there, I think we still have two or three Alpha Smarts and an Alpha Smart Pro somewhere around the house. My wife used them for tutoring her writing process students. Of course I’m the guy who walked into the Princeton Barnes and Noble store in 2009 and asked if I could trade in my Rocket eBook I had purchased there on their new Nook. For others I have an original Radio Shack portable and an original Mac 128K. Also my Apple II that I purchased in 1980 that cost me more than my brand new Honda Civic. Someone told me I’d been on the internet so long that I must have invented Al Gore.

  3. I was just bragging about how I’d owned just about every Apple product ever designed except the Cube and an eMate. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Haha, no problem, Ana! I’d love to get my hands on a Cube, even if it was just the casing. Those were so cool. 😀

  4. I found this article while looking for a photo of an eMate stylus. I bought one of those from a website years ago when I used Palm PDAs. The eMate stylus was the most comfortable of any Palm compatible stylus available back then. I still have it somewhere, the only piece of an eMate I ever owned. The Palms are long gone, but that stylus remains, a little masterpiece of Apple design and engineering.

  5. Greatest machine I wish I could get mine working again; it has the hinge problem and my hands are not as good as they once were to do the repair.

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