Apple Newton vs Apple iPhone

If you put a 12-year-old Apple Newton MessagePad in the ring next to a brand-new Apple iPhone 3GS, which would win in a fight? Rory and Flora put their boxing gloves on to find out

Rory Reid
12 min read

Back when CNET UK was a baby, it pitted an Apple Newton MessagePad against a Samsung Q1 UMPC in a brutal boxing match to the death. The Newton, despite being ten years the Q1's senior, emerged victorious and the crowd -- that's you lot -- went wild.

Today, we've taken the reigning champion, the very same Apple Newton Messagepad, out of retirement to put it up against a brand-new contender. This time, the opposition is no Windows-tainted experiment doomed to failure. Oh no -- this time it's the Newton's very own grandchild, the iPhone 3GS.

It would be a little unfair to compare the two devices on a like for like basis. One's a phone, for goodness sake, and one's a 400-year-old tablet thingy. We're going to take a relative look at each, focusing on how innovative they were for their respective times.

Over the following pages, we'll compare their designs, screens, applications, reliability, networking skills, and any special powers they may have. Mobile phone guru Flora "I eat farts" Graham will be arguing the iPhone's cause, and PC expert Rory "shock and awe" Reid will fight for Newtonian pride.

So whatchu waitin' for? We know you want to see some blood spill. Let's do this!

Big loves to The Ring for accomodating this epic contest.

The Newton is way ahead of its time in the design department, and nobody, no matter how blonde or Canadian (that's you, Flora), can deny this. It might be older than Jesus' granddad, but it clearly set the standard for tablet-style devices and fancy smart phones like the iPhone and we've not moved on since.

Take a good look at the Newton. Now take a look at the cheap knockoff in Flora's hands. Coincidence? I don't think so. The iPhone is arguably a better-looking device, but other than being smaller and shinier, it brings nothing new to the table.

Incredibly, after a 15-year hiatus, Apple has actually rehired the Newton's original designer, Michael Tchao, as director of product marketing. Now if that's not an admission of the Newton's awesomeness, shrouded in a not-so-subtle hint towards the company's future direction, I don't know what is.

On the outside, the iPhone's glassy curves and huge screen, shorn of disfiguring buttons, mean it still looks like a visitor from the future compared to most phones polluting high-street shops. It's a worthy successor to the Newton's innovative shape.

Its simplicity -- one button on the front and a grid of shiny icons on the screen -- swept the cobwebs out of mobile phone design and launched a thousand wannabes. It's the must-have fashion accessory, whether clutched in the manicured grips of celebs from Lindsay Lohan to Kiefer Sutherland, or being flashed by the fashionistas in Lipstick Jungle.

It's so perfect, Apple didn't have to change it one bit when it upgraded the iPhone 3G to the iPhone 3GS. Why mess with perfection? All they added was an oleophobic coating to the screen so our greasy uncelebrified fingerprints don't taint its shine.

If the iPhone is Megan Fox, the Newton is Marilyn Monroe. It was standing over windy manholes in short dresses, making our pulses race long before the iPhone was tattooing weird, incoherent nonsense about butterflies on its back.

Let's get this out of the way quickly so people born in the 90s can stop laughing: the Newton's screen is monochrome. It's only capable of displaying 16 shades of green-tinged grey, but the good news is it's got a backlight -- and not even the legendary Game Boy, which launched at around the time the Newton's development began, could claim that.

More important though, is the fact that the Newton's 152mm (6-inch) display has the same 480x320-pixel resolution as the iPhone, which is undeniably amazing for a device of its age. The Atari Lynx, by contrast, had an 89mm (3.5-inch) screen with a resolution of just 160x102 pixels and the Game Boy's 66mm (2.6-inch) screen ran at 160x144. Outside of proper VGA computer displays, nothing could touch it.

iPhone fanboys often try to sell me the fact that the iPhone has a touch-sensitive display that can be rotated 90 degrees. Erm, hello? The Newton was spinning and twisting its screen before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. Admittedly, the Newton lacks the fancy gesture input of the iPhone, but it didn't need that. Instead, it had something far more useful -- unbelievably good handwriting recognition.

Not only could it accurately understand what the hell it was users were scrawling, but it also allowed intuitive editing methods. Made a mistake with your text? No problem -- just scribble it out and poof goes your error. Even drawing shapes is easy -- just trace the scraggly outline of a square, circle or triangle and the Newton will smooth it all out for you, making graphs and drawings of polygonal things a real no-brainer.

The iPhone may not exceed the Newton's screen resolution, but it packs those pixels tighter into an 89mm display, so the thing can actually fit in your pocket. It's hardly fair to ask the Newton to battle the iPhone's full colour, but it's not just that -- the 163 pixel-per-inch resolution also makes for a sharper image, which means the iPhone won't make you go blind from squinting after using it for a few hours.

If usability is the question, the answer is iPhone, iPhone, a hundred times iPhone. This phone blew our minds with a touchable screen that actually responded to our gentlest caress -- resistive touchscreens like the Newton need a cruel jab with a pointy object and are sluggish and unresponsive compared to the whizzy iPhone.

Handwriting recognition sounds cool, but it's the most useless technology ever to grace our gadgets. No touchscreen in the world relies on handwriting recognition, and there's a reason -- it's slow and useless. It's the same reason why we use keyboards on our PCs instead of handwriting and tablets -- it's faster and more accurate.

The iPhone's virtual keyboard was one of its best innovations, and the bar that every other touchscreen had to beat. Its responsiveness and fantastic word correction made it faster to type on than a netbook in a rally car, and we have the video to prove it. That's no Newton in Rory's fear-soaked fists!

The Newton was a real pioneer, excellent for its time. But the iPhone pushed boundaries with its excellent capacitive, full-colour display. Nobody expected it to work properly, based on the clunky, inaccurate alternatives at the time, but work it did. It's gone on to redefine expectations of what is possible with a mobile screen.

Twelve years ago, nobody really understood what applications were -- when you bought a device, it usually had one function and one function only. The Newton, as far as I'm concerned, helped introduce the concept of convergence. It wasn't simply a personal organiser, it was also a full-on Works word processor, an audio recorder, a Rolodex, a clock, a calculator, an Internet browser and more.

It wasn't restricted to built-in software, either -- the Newton had access to a wealth of third-party applications and anyone who was anyone in the programming world had a stab at coding for it. There's a reason the iPhone has so many apps today -- and that's because a device 12 years its senior sat it down and showed it the way forward.

I could leave it there, but let's really take these kids to school: the Newton, a device older than Jamie Lee Curtis, has both copy and paste, a global search function and the ability to multitask. When it first emerged, the iPhone had none of these things and not even the iPhone 3GS -- the daddy of all iPhones -- can properly handle more than one application at a time.

The iPhone is the app king -- it didn't invent applications on mobile phones, but it might as well have, since it made them easy to find and install for the first time. It's true there are other phones that have great apps, but nothing pulls it off with the style and flair of the iPhone.

There's an app for that, and that's a fact, but even if you never go on the iPhone's App Store, the phone is packed with applications the Newton could only dream of. Take Google Maps, for example -- it takes the iPhone's hardware prowess in the form of its GPS and compass, stuffs it in a sausage grinder and turns out uniform meaty links of mappy goodness. I couldn't live without it.

As for multi-tasking, the iPhone can't do much of it -- but you still get your text messages while you're playing Doom, which is good enough for most people. We'd rather have a device that works quickly than one that tries to keep so many balls in the air it ends up crashing. Once again, the iPhone's inflexibility is the key to its good performance.

The majority of the Newton's apps are very handy, but it's fair to say there weren't very many of them. In contrast, the majority of iPhone apps are about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle. Their sheer number and the ease with which they can be accessed, however, means the iPhone has brought apps to the mainstream and made them cool at the same time.

Before the advent of the iPhone, people used to saunter around contentedly with mobiles that had nothing more than Snake. These days, the thought of not having a fart button, Google Maps and a virtual pint of beer would be unthinkable. For this reason, the iPhone wins this round.

As you read this, there are millions of London media types grieving over the untimely death of their smashed-up iPhones. Why? Because they're made primarily out of glass, and glass -- believe it or not -- tends to break. The iPhone you see in the illustration above is my very own. I can't tell you exactly how it met its end, but I can tell you that all this damage was caused while it was nestling undisturbed in my hip pocket on a quiet night out enjoying a small brandy with friends.

By contrast, I've treated the Newton MessagePad 2000 with total disdain since purchasing it from a fleamarket in Staines back in 1837. I've sat on it, I've fed it to my dog, I've even accidentally dropped it in the shower and it didn't so much as bat an eyelid.

Probably the best thing about the Newton, however, is the fact it has a battery life longer than the Great Wall of China. We tried to run a battery test on this thing back in 2004 and we gave up because the Newton is still going! Yes, that's a lie, but the truth -- and prepare to catch your jaw before it hits the floor -- is it'll last a whopping 30 hours on a set of four brand-new AAs. If you only use the Newton for a couple of hours every day, it'll be well over a fortnight before it needs fresh batteries.

I think the iPhone's shiny loveliness holds up surprisingly well to the rough life of a pocket-dweller, considering it's as thin and delicate as a 16-year-old's moustache. It's true it's not a rugged phone, and smashed screens aren't uncommon, but this is a thoroughbred, not a cart horse. And there's a plethora of cases and protectors to keep the iPhone safe and sound, so think of it as an opportunity to customise your baby with the latest shock-absorbing fashions.

The iPhone's battery does live fast and die young, but that's a curse that affects all rock stars and smart phones. I'd rather have the iPhone's powerful apps, bright screen and great connectivity than a boring nothing-but-a-phone that goes all night. Over time, the iPhone is like a pensioner -- its battery memory fades and it can't hold its juice. You can't slap an adult nappy on this phone, and the battery isn't replaceable, but who cares? By that time there will be a later, greater phone on the market and you can score some of the best re-sale prices on eBay thanks to the iPhone's lasting appeal.

If you have an iPhone, chances are you've broken it, and if you haven't, you soon will. There's also a pretty strong chance that while on Facebook, you've run out of battery mid-stalk and couldn't make any more calls. As a result, this round goes to the Newton.

Like most devices in its heyday, the Newton relied on serial connector cables to move data on and off its internal storage -- you simply connect it to a PC, move the files you need then disconnect them again. The Newton didn't merely follow fashion in this regard though -- it set quite a few trends as well. Believe it or not, it was a pioneer of wireless communication. The top of the device plays host to a built-in point-to-point infrared comunications port which, in the case of my MessagePad 2000, runs at a heady 38,400 baud -- that's about 38.4Kbps in new money.

The port uses the IrDa protocol, so it's compatible with a heap of other IrDa devices. Want to print wirelessly? That's not a problem. How about sending files to and from a laptop or desktop PC? It's as easy as breaking an iPhone.

The Newton's real ace in the hole is its twin PC Card slots -- yes, twin, and yes, PC Card. Anyone with a laptop will know these ports allow you to upgrade the device with all kinds of peripherals. Anything from a simple memory card reader to a wireless 3G modem can be attached to a Newton. Suck on that, iPhone.

iPhone connectivity, let me count the ways -- Wi-Fi, 3G, tethering and a humble USB cable, of course. Especially after the 3.0 version of the iPhone software, which added stereo Bluetooth, MMS and HSDPA to the mix, the iPhone keeps you as connected as Kevin Bacon's PA. The iPhone can't challenge the Newton's expandability -- it doesn't even have a memory card slot -- but with emailing, texting, picture messaging, tweeting, Facebooking, Skyping and uncounted piles of other ways to keep in touch, you'll never be cut off again, even if you want to be.

Sure, the iPhone sticks to what it does well and doesn't bother with some of the features other smart phones offer. I can live without infrared IrDa, which is missing on most phones these days, but wireless syncing over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi would be fantastic, and make all the wireless charging mats flooding the shops actually worthwhile. The USB cable is proprietary too, so you can't grab a spare mini- or microUSB cable from a mate -- and you can only sync with one computer running iTunes.

The iPhone has a wealth of wireless communication hardware and software, but with the Newton, you can have those too if you really want them. Admittedly, slapping a honking great PC Card accessory into the side of the Newton would ruin its looks, but it's no different to jamming a USB device into your laptop. The Newton takes this round thanks to its superb flexibility in this area.

The iPhone isn't the only Apple product that entered a market and stomped over its competitors like Godzilla at a newt convention. The iPod destroyed every other MP3 player and left a generation wondering what those shiny silver CD thingies are. And the iPhone has an iPod stuffed inside like a chicken stuffed inside a goose. Then inside the chicken, Apple's stuffed the iTunes store. So it's a goose, stuffed with an MP3 player, stuffed with every song ever recorded. It's the turducken of handheld devices. Beat that, Rory.

You've made me hungry -- hungry for victory! The Newton's special ability, wait for it -- is its ability to work as a phone. Blam! Not even the iPhone can do that. Simply grab yourself a device such as the FirstFone -- a GSM phone built into a PC Card -- jam it into the side of your MessagePad 2000, fire up the Newton's built-in Calls application, and natter away to your heart's content.

Now you're rocking, I'll finish you off with the fact that the Newton can play music too -- even via iTunes! Just download the Mad Max application and it'll let you play MP3 files, Icecast or Shoutcast streams. As for your precious iTunes, us Newtonheads have that, too. Newton geeks have already written a plug-in for iTunes that allows the iconic device to be synced with your beloved digital jukebox.

The Newton may be old and dusty, but it still shows the young pretenders a thing or too. The iPhone is a superior device in many ways, we'll admit, but when it comes to sheer innovation, the Apple Newton MessagePad is a true pioneer. Long live the king.