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Apple Newton vs Samsung Q1 UMPC

We've all dreamed of owning a portable device that can organise, entertain and enrich our lives. Over the years, we've seen dozens of contenders for this role, but the vast majority of them fall into the same category as the Hindenburg: miserable failures.

Two of the most high-profile devices in this category are the Apple Newton and the Samsung Q1. Though separated by over a decade, they share a form factor, work in a similar way and were designed with the intention of redefining how users interact with computers.

The Apple Newton was spawned in 1993, years before the Palm Pilot was a twinkle in Palm's eye. The project was as ambitious as they come. The Newton team not only created a new breed of portable computer, but combined several early technologies, such as PC Card slots, advanced handwriting recognition, a touch-screen display and a stylus. The model we're pitting against the Q1 is the 1997 Newton MessagePad 2000. This was a later revision of the MessagePad line and represents the Newton at its strongest.

The Samsung Q1 is also a pioneer. It could be viewed as a Tablet PC that's fallen into a hot washing cycle, but the vision of the ultra-mobile PC is just as maverick as that of the Newton. A joint development between Microsoft and Intel, the UMPC project was aimed at providing all the functionality of a full-blown desktop PC, in a device about the size of a paperback book.

We're regular users of the Q1 and being massive hoarders, we've just rediscovered a Newton stashed under a mountain of dust beneath the bed. We happen to think they're both amazing, but opinion in the CNET.co.uk office is divided as to which of these portable gizmos is superior.

Having nothing better to do with our time, we've decided to throw them into the ring for a head-to-head comparison. In this feature we'll take an in-depth look at their design, usability, reliability, input, output and synchronisation capabilities, and any special powers that help them stand out as the best-ever handheld.

So whether you're a 1337 Windows haxx0r or a Mac fanboy, sit back, squeeze some extra butter on your popcorn and let battle commence!

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The Q1 is about the size of a large hardback book (228 by 140 by 25mm) and weighs less than an average bag of sugar (779g), so though it's too large to carry around in your pocket, you can comfortably transport it in a medium-sized handbag or manbag.

The Q1 may not be the sexiest device in the world, but only a cursory glance will show you it means business. The Samsung logo at the bottom of the unit, the SRS surround-sound logo and a huge range of ports hint at the device's massive potential.

I quite like the Q1's slightly retro look, which I think is more appealing than the Newton's harsh, industrial aesthetic. I especially like the glossy black bezel around the screen, which is far cooler than the dull, grey, cheap, nasty plasticky finish of the Newton -- which looks as if it belongs in a sweaty builder's back pocket. I've been mincing my words, so let me just say it outright: the Newton is flat-out ugly.

Either design has changed very little in the last ten years, or Apple was ahead of the curve here. The Q1 looks suspiciously like it was modelled on Apple's Newton MessagePad 2000. The appearance of the two devices is almost identical, although the Newton is three quarters the size of the Q1 at 119 by 210 by 28mm and weighs only 640g -- 139g less than the Q1.

The Newton is coated in a clean, grippy non-slip plastic, while the Q1 has a glossy black exterior that quickly picks up fingerprints. Samsung isn't committed to the pen-based interface to the extent Apple was in the late 90s. The Q1 is cluttered with buttons and dials, while the Newton is completely free of any input other than the elegant stylus, which is stowed at the top of the device.

The Newton packs a 162MHz StrongARM 110 processor, 8MB of Mask ROM and 5MB of RAM (1MB of DRAM, 4MB of Flash RAM). These are impressive credentials for a unit that is almost ten years old.

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The Q1's screen is clearly the better of the two devices. It's bigger by a fair margin, and more importantly it runs in full colour. The Newton's screen is interesting, sure -- but it only displays 256 shades of grey, so it's solely useful for checking out pictures of a stockbroker's sock drawer. If you want to bask in the glory of 16.7 million colours while browsing still images and watching movies, grab yourself a Q1.

Don't just take my word for it -- look at the specs. The screen runs at a native resolution of 800x480 pixels, which gives you enough screen space to browse the Web and edit Word documents, spreadsheets or digital photos. Better still, its widescreen aspect ratio is great for viewing a couple of documents side by side (if you're prepared to squint a bit), or for watching widescreen movies.

It would be easy to dismiss the Newton's greyscale screen as inferior to the Q1's full-colour display, but Apple's choice of a greyscale LCD is one of the reasons the Newton enjoys over 30 hours of continuous battery life, compared to the Q1's 2.5 hours. Not only does the Newton's greyscale LCD use significantly less power than a full-colour display, it's also ideal for document editing. Most of the tasks a UMPC is most suited to -- writing, editing a diary, checking email -- do not significantly benefit from a colour display.

The Newton's display resolution is 480x320, a step down from the Q1's 800x480 pixels. But the Newton uses a 100dpi display, which is comparable to modern monitors and produces smooth graphics.

Like the Q1, the Newton can switch screen orientations on the fly. The Newton can display the desktop in landscape or portrait mode. The display is rotated in 90 degree steps by tapping on the rotate icon with the Newton's stylus.

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The Q1, and more specifically the UMPC concept, is the brainchild of Microsoft and Intel, so it's no surprise that it'll run almost any Windows application you can throw at it. It's a full-blown PC, albeit a very small one, so your imagination is the only limitation when it comes to deciding what to do with it.

It comes with Microsoft Office as standard, so you can start cranking out Word documents the minute you switch it on. Plus you get all the funky Windows utilities that come with the Windows XP Pro Tablet Edition operating system. Windows Media Player lets you listen to your tunes and watch movies, and you can fill the Q1's 40GB hard drive to the brim with all manner of free and paid-for software courtesy of CNET.co.uk's Downloads channel.

If you're into games, you're in luck. The Q1 may not have a dedicated graphics adaptor, but it'll let you play the odd bout of Sudoku or Solitaire to help while away the hours on a boring summer's evening.

The Newton operating system was coded from scratch in C++. Apple honed the OS to squeeze every last drop of computing power out of the StrongARM processor. The Newton team did not have to support legacy code or backward compatibility with a previous OS (something that is a huge problem for the Q1), and as a result the Newton software is lean and fast. It also uses a simple, intuitive interface paradigm that is far more suited to small-form mobile computing than Windows Tablet PC Edition.

The same is true of the Newton's bundled software. The Newton is pre-installed with applications like Works (for word processing, spreadsheets and drawing) and Dates (a calendar application that lets you write entries into a virtual diary). Hundreds of third-party applications are available for the Newton, like Nethopper (a Web browser), Chat-Buddy (an IM client) and a range of email clients.

The Q1 trumps the Newton with its ability to play movies. The Newton can play basic QuickTime files, but this is a novelty, not a serious feature. It's a mistake, however, to champion the Q1's movie-playing abilities as a point against the Newton -- movie fans would do better to buy a dedicated portable media player than deal with the poor battery life of the Q1.

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Mac fanboys will tell you that Apple computers are famed for their ease of use, but the Q1 lays the smackdown on the Newton in this category too. The Q1 features excellent handwriting recognition that quickly and accurately turns movements from your stylus (cleverly hidden away in the top right side of the unit) into proper text.

It's not just guess-work either -- the Q1 uses a neural net, which means that it uses several information sources to determine what you want to write, rather than trying to translate ink strokes into letters and words. For example, when you write 'ing' on the screen, the system looks at its dictionary, how you wrote the word, rules of grammar and more. If the 'ing' was written with the cursor immediately after 'walk', then you probably meant to add the 'ing' to create 'walking'. If the cursor was immediately after 'giraffe', it would make a different decision because 'giraffeing' is not a word. Best of all, you don't have to train it to understand your writing.

It's not all about handwriting recognition though -- you can tap away at a virtual on-screen keyboard using the stylus, or just talk to it and have it translate your words into on-screen text via the twin array microphones. Still not happy? Then how about the ability to bring up yet another on-screen virtual keyboard and tap the screen with your thumbs? If you're a control freak, the Q1 is your baby.

Samsung appears to have been afraid to commit to a purely pen-based control method, while on the Newton it's the sole input. You can sense Samsung's tentative approach to the stylus throughout the Q1 user experience. There are several escape routes from using the stylus on the Q1, including the touch screen input and direction pad controls.

The reason for Samsung's reticence lies in the vastly different origins of the two operating systems. The Samsung uses Windows, an operating system originally designed from the ground up to be controlled with a mouse and keyboard. The Newton, on the other hand, uses an operating system that was specifically programmed for pen-based input.

Handwriting recognition on the Newton MessagePad 2000 is surprisingly accurate even by today's standards. Wikipedia notes that "many users consider the Newton 2.1 handwriting recognition software better than any of the alternatives since". Indeed, a key part of the success of the Newton's handwriting recognition software is its "modeless error correction". If a word is incorrectly recognised, you double-tap the word and a list of alternatives appears in a contextual menu. You can write in a printed, cursive or mixed style and this is matched against a 93,000-word, customisable dictionary.

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The Q1 is a technological octopus of input/output connectivity. In fact, it's more like a Siamese octopus of I/O connectivity with 16 arms and enough suckers to connect to every conceivable device ever invented.

It has an analogue D-Sub video connector, through which you can connect it to an external computer display or home television. There's also a pair of USB ports, so you can quickly get information on and off the device by plugging in a USB stick.

The Q1 isn't designed to be synchronised with your everyday desktop or laptop PC, but you can sync it with other portable devices, such as a mobile phone, using the integrated Bluetooth adaptor.

The Newton will synchronise with the very latest version of Mac OS X, using the amusingly named nSync software (available as a free download from Everchanging Software). You can send and receive faxes and email from the Newton using a wired or wireless modem. The Newton can print directly to IrDA printers without the need for a cable, and many serial or parallel printers are also compatible.

As with Bluetooth today, the Newton's IR port can 'beam' notes, messages, schedules and business cards to other Newton users. The Newton can also automate phone calls.

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Windows-based devices often receive flak for their lack of reliability, but Windows is much more reliable than it used to be. The operating system itself doesn't crash particularly often -- it's the applications that are usually the culprit. 

Because the Q1 is unlikely to be used as your primary PC, you're unlikely to install the same amount of random rubbish on it. It should therefore be much more reliable than Mac cynics give it credit for. I've been using it steadily for several weeks and it has been very dependable. On the few occasions when it did freeze up, I simply hit the reset switch and it started again straight away.

Unlike the Windows-based Q1, the Newton runs a rock-solid OS. Few users have seen what the Newton OS looks like when it's crashed. Plausibly, an application could bring the system down, but it's rare. Obviously the Newton has the advantage here because it's dealing with a whole lot less legacy code than the Samsung.

The Newton has no known viruses, while the Q1, which runs Windows, has around 60,000. The Q1 is also susceptible to spyware, keyloggers and rogue diallers; the Newton is vulnerable to none of those things.

Though it's easy to argue the Newton has security through obscurity, you do have to question whether it was wise to bring all the overheads of Windows to a small portable device like the Q1. An operating system designed for a desktop computer will rarely shoehorn well into a portable device, yet that is exactly what Samsung has tried to do with the Q1. Very little consideration has been given to the differing priorities of desktop and small-form computer users. Windows is a one-size-fits-all solution, whereas the Newton OS is very specifically built for the efficient use of a small screen and stylus.

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Samsung's little dream machine has all the capabilities of a Centrino laptop. This means you can take it to your local Starbucks and get online using a Wi-Fi connection. It also has Bluetooth so you can sync with your mobile phone without wires, or can use your mobile phone as a modem if you're out of Wi-Fi range.

We were quickly able to jump online at near-broadband speeds from just about Wi-Fi hotspot. Need to check your email while on a train? No problem. Want to log onto your office's Virtual Private Network (VPN) from your treehouse? The Q1 will let you do this and more without batting an eyelid.

It also has an Ethernet Local Area Network port, so you can connect to your home or office network simply by sticking a cable into the top of the device. Basically, the Q1 is as flexible as a fully limbered-up Russian gymnast. 

The Newton provides two PC card slots, but the Q1 has only one. These PC card slots allow the Newton to access the Internet almost anywhere in the world with any datacard that uses the standard AT command set -- not bad for a device that was designed in a pre-broadband era.

The Newton will communicate with most modern PC Wi-Fi cards for network access, and has an Interconnect external port supporting serial RS-422-compatible connections. There's also a built-in dual-mode infrared transceiver for wireless data transfer at up to 115Kbps (IrDA mode) and 38.4Kbps (ASK mode) within 1m. It might not be as fast or long-range as Bluetooth, but it's much less buggy.

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This fight is a complete whitewash: the Q1 is wiping the floor with the ageing, decrepit Newton. So for the final round, Team Q1 will take it easy by tying one arm behind its back and revealing just one of the device's secret weapons: at the rear of the unit there's a flip-down stand. Eat that, Newton!

Yes, with this stand, you can position the Q1 on a desk, table or even the dashboard of your (not very fast-moving) car and have it do whichever of the amazing things we've already pointed out -- but at arm's length. This fight is all but over!

The Newton has 30 hours of continuous battery life provided by four standard AA batteries. This is a knockout punch! You can make the best ultra-mobile PC in the world, but what good is it if -- like the Q1 -- it only works for 2.5 hours? Have we learnt nothing about mobile PC design in the last ten years?

The Samsung is on its way down, but I'm going to give it one last slap before it eats canvas. The Samsung costs £799, but you can pick up a Newton on eBay for £50. What do you get for the extra £749? A fraction of the battery life of the Newton, an inferior OS, vulnerability to viruses and a technology paradigm that's become less practical with age.

On top of this, the Q1 uses a proprietary battery pack, which you'll have to lug around with you when travelling. You'll also need to find a power outlet every 2.5 hours to keep the Q1 alive, while Newton owners only need to find a shop and buy a cheap pack of AAs to keep their Newton going for another 30 hours.

There's a well-known saying among Newton owners: "Newton never dies, it only gets new batteries".

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Never has there been such a bloody battle. The first round was a tight one, with the Newton throwing in some compact punches with its smaller size and weight. The Q1 fought back well though, with its glossy retro look that beat to a pulp the Newton's industrial finish. The first round was judged a draw, with both sweating heavily.

The Q1 dominated the next four rounds with its high-res colour screen, Microsoft Office applications, smart handwriting recognition and octopus-like I/O possibilites. The Newton took this beating well and didn't let its age show.

In round six, the Newton finally threw in a decent punch, when the Q1's lack of stability made it fall to the ground. But the Q1 quickly recovered in round seven, delivering a solid punch to the Newton with its superior networking skills.

By round eight -- the knock-out round -- the victory of the Q1 seemed certain. But it had let its guard down too soon and received two knock-out blows from the Newton for battery life and price. Although the Q1 won more points, it was brutally knocked out in the last round, so the Newton was declared the overall winner of the battle and was crowned by CNET.co.uk in an emotional ceremony.

After the prize-giving, we spoke to Chris Stevens, the Newton's biggest fan, who was swigging Cristal at his desk in celebration.

"It was always going to be a tough fight as the Samsung Q1 punches well above the Newton's weight," said Chris. "But the Newton has 12 times the battery life of the Q1, so ended up winning the fight with sheer stamina.  Add to this the Q1's inflated price and it's a no-brainer. They may be ten years apart, but the Newton still wipes the floor with the Origami project."

A disheartened Rory Reid, the Q1's main supporter, told us how he felt about the shock outcome.

"I really wasn't ready for that sucker-punch," said Rory. "The Q1 was miles ahead on points but that battery life low blow really floored us. I guess we'll have to concede defeat, but it's obvious the Q1 is still the true heavyweight champion of mobile computing. I demand a rematch!"

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