Apple Computer's MessagePad personal digital assistant (PDA) has had a life not unlike that of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The Newton has been praised and vilified by all at one time or another, most particularly for its amusing first attempts at handwriting recognition. Much has changed. With the 2100, the latest release of the Newton, Apple has come up with a product that is truly useful. The new machine has four times the Rom (four Mb instead of one), its handwriting recognition is almost flawless and a large amount of useful software is beginning to be produced. Only Chinese is missing. Ease-of-use is a tricky question and rather depends on the user's experience and, above all, expectations. The Newton is, for the most part, easy - all you have to do most of the time is use the pen to point and tap - but there are areas that are less than transparent. It offers several pre-installed 'packages' - Apple-speak for applications - with original versions on CD-Rom. The CD-Rom works with both either PC and Mac, so it does not matter which platform you run it on. The desktop software is easy to install on both platforms and connecting the Newton is equally easy. The one potential problem area is docking to your desktop machine. When you double tap on the Dock icon, you get two lines: 'Connection via' and 'Connection to'. What is not clear is that by tapping on the diamonds, you access connection values. When I connect to my Mac, I use LocalTalk; when I connect to my PC, I use Serial. Not realising that these values can be changed by tapping on them could cause problems. The Newton comes with an assortment of software, and most of it is quite useful. There are a few surprising lapses. Newton Works, a package that contains a word processor and a spreadsheet, has no word count - an extraordinary omission. The spell-checker is all right, but is not great and allows Americanisms. With a battery life of about a week (four AA batteries), the Newton lasts far longer than any laptop. Add the keyboard and some special packages and you can write a serious article. At nearly $8,000 - probably more if you get everything you need to do serious work - the Newton is not a toy. If mobility is not top priority, then it may not be the answer. If, however, you travel a lot, have bulk data to deal with and reports to write, then the Newton is perfect. The only thing that really disappoints is the Newton connection to a keyboard or the desktop computer. There is a little plug that goes into the Newton and then there is a normal Apple serial plug on the end of the keyboard, or other device, that plugs into the plug - plug ugly. Apple once promised a keyboard that would connect without the plug, but it has yet to appear. Despite this minor irritant, this Newton is useful indeed. PROS AND CONS Product: Apple MessagePad 2100 (Newton) Price: about HK$7,500 (keyboard $600) Platform: Newton OS (NOS), connectivity to PC and Mac Weight: 0.64 kilograms Pros: Light, versatile, tremendous battery life. Cons: Needs extra software to be really useful, connection could be better designed.