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Apple tries again with a new Newton

Apple Computer Inc., heeding criticism of its Newton MessagePad hand-held computer, has launched a new version with improved handwriting recognition and more memory.

The original Newton, a pen-based portable computer introduced in August with great fanfare, has suffered from slow sales and has been ridiculed by computer critics who say it can't recognize handwriting well.

"We have listened over the last six months very carefully to our customers and the press and analysts . . . so we can really stay on top of the market," said Gaston Bastiaens, general manager of Apple's personal interactive electronics division.

The company said that future improvements, including new software and improved ability to communicate over wireless networks, will make the device more useful in the near future.

Like its predecessor, the Newton MessagePad 110 is a so-called personal digital assistant. PDAs are small computers that store and manage such information as addresses, appointments and memos and send and receive them over phone lines, cellular or other wireless networks.

Many use electronic pens and are designed to recognize handwriting, convert it into type and send it to other computers or fax machines.

Apple and other manufacturers predict the market for these devices will grow fast in coming years because PDAs let people keep in touch with their co-workers and clients and call up important information no matter where they are.

Critics, however, say the technology is still flawed and the machines are overpriced and of limited use for the average person.

The Newton MessagePad was Apple's first major new product line since the introduction of the Macintosh personal computer in 1984.

But the Newton, priced at $699, drew barbs because words, especially names, often were misread, and numerals were mistaken for letters.

The new Newton, priced at $599, does a better job of reading printing or cursive handwriting, Apple says.

"We have not answered all people's questions and all people's recognition troubles. What we're trying to do is make recognition a better and better experience for a larger and larger group of people," said Nazila Alasti, Newton product line manager.

Apple's new machine can read handwriting letter by letter as well as word by word. That allows users to more quickly correct any mistakes the Newton might make because the word was not yet in its memory.

Apple also boosted the Newton's memory _ its capacity to store data.

One analyst said the new Newton was a slight improvement.

"Yes, they have bumped up the internal memory . . . and the handwriting recognition is incrementally better. But it's not markedly better," said Pieter Hartsook, editor of a market research publication in Alameda, Calif.

It's a mistake, Hartsook said, to stress handwriting recognition because PDAs really aren't suited for entering much text; touching options on the screen or tapping an on-screen alphabet keyboard work perfectly well for most users, he said.

The new Newton is slimmer but longer and about 5 ounces heavier, 1.28 pounds, primarily because it now takes larger batteries, lengthening battery life.

Options include software that lets the Newton exchange information with personal computers, a fax modem and a messaging card that acts like a pager.