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 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.
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.
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.