Meet the iBook

If all the rumors and hysterical anticipation about the iBook had proved to be true, Apple's latest contraption would be a 2.2-pound, touch-screened, $900 miracle Mac. Instead we've got the iBook, a candy-coated, flattened iMac whose rugged design and bright colors are sure to win the hearts of first-time laptop owners and Web-addicted couch potatoes everywhere.

But even if the inexpensive iBook isn't the fantasy Mac dreamed up by the imaginative rumor mill, it's no less amazing. The iBook's creative design, its wild blueberry and tangerine colors, its special features, and yes, even its $1,599 price tag break the mold of portable computing and, as with the iMac that preceded it, are likely to send colorful shock waves throughout the computer industry.

iBook

It's no surprise that the iMac's little sibling has all the family traits of a fun, low-cost computer. The iBook's specifications closely match the iMac's (see the table, ""All in the Family: iBook and iMac Compared""), and the two-tone, translucent Lexan case is just as bright as the iMac's. The screen is a 12.1-inch active-matrix-TFT, 800-by-600-pixel, millions-of-colors display that you can switch to 640-by-480 mode when you want to enlarge the picture. And like the iMac, the iBook comes with an assortment of preinstalled software: AppleWorks, games such as Pangea Software's Nanosaur and Bugdom, plus the usual Internet freebies (Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, and America Online).

Space-Age Design
See the sidebar "iBook Features"

But of all iMac features, the one that laptop fans covet the most is its astonishingly smooth, unusual design: It wakes up from sleep when you open the lid. The power cord wraps, yo-yo-like, around its own chrome disk, forever eliminating the two-minute untangling ordeal you normally face when unpacking a laptop. The power socket on the side of the iBook glows orange when the battery's charging, green when it's full; either way, you'll never again rush off to a final exam with a drained battery, unaware that your adapter was plugged into a dead outlet. The handle, at the hinge edge of the portable, provides a safe and convenient way to grab and carry the laptop; when you let go, hidden springs snap the handle flush against the case.

Cosmetically, the iBook design owes a debt to, of all things, sci-fi space movies. The indicator light doesn't just blink to indicate when the Mac is asleep–it pulsates like a B-movie prop. But no computer component has ever looked quite so much like one of Fox Mulder's extraterrestrial visitors as the UFO-shaped AirPort Base Station. And instead of a cheap black plastic touchpad, the iBook's pointing surface is a sheet of hard, silver, mirrored Mylar.

Built to Last

In addition to the sci-fi fun of the new iBook, a raft of more functional design implementations makes this portable rugged enough for the clumsiest of users. For starters, the colored exterior rubber coating is four times as thick as on previous PowerBooks, greatly diminishing the likelihood of scratches and nicks from being shoved into an overstuffed backpack. Every possible moving, breakable, and protruding part has been removed, both inside and out: there's no fan, no flimsy port cover, no PC Cards, no removable-media bay, not even a latch to keep the clamshell halves together. Instead, a two-stage hinge spring snaps and holds the laptop shut like the hinge of a wedding-ring box. And Apple is quick to point out, too, that the iBook's ultrarounded shape wasn't sculpted just to look cool; the rounded shape dissipates the force of sudden blows, much as does an eggshell, protecting the precious contents.


Gone are the struggles between big hands and little keys–the iBook keys are every millimeter as large as those of a standard desktop keyboard. And not only are the keys larger but the inverted-T arrow keys are also arranged in a separate cluster. And similar to the PowerBook G3's, many of the keys perform secondary functions, which are colorfully indicated on the key tops. You can trigger these alternative functions–turning the right-hand half of the keyboard into a numeric keypad, for example–by pressing the Fn key in the lower-left corner.

Functionality

Those little function keys that almost no one uses deserve special recognition. The first six, F1 through F6, control the screen brightness, speaker volume, num lock, and mute functions of the laptop–if you don't press the Fn key. Only when you do press the Fn key do these keys trigger their labeled F1-through-F6 functions, if any. Using the Keyboard control panel, you can reverse this convention, so that the brightness and speaker controls take effect only when you press the Fn key. The remaining F-keys, F7 through F12, do something smart when pressed for the first time: they summon a dialog box that can launch a favorite program, document, or networked disk on subsequent presses of that key. And if you prefer, you can select the icons of your favorite items from the Keyboard control panel instead: just drag any icon from the desktop into the corresponding F-key slot in the control panel's Function Keys dialog box. Finally, F-keys are about to become useful without making users install utilities, such as CE Software's QuicKeys.

Removable Keyboard

The keyboard offers another friendly touch: In the gaps between the banks of function keys are small sliding latches you can retract with your fingernails. Without any tools, you can lift out the entire keyboard, revealing the uncluttered insides of the iBook.

Once the keyboard is removed, you can easily access the RAM-expansion slot, which can accommodate a single memory module with a capacity of 32MB, 64MB, or 128MB. Take note–the iBook requires 1.25-inch, 3.3-volt, SODIMM SDRAM. Because this RAM type is not the same memory used in the PowerBook G3, owners of Apple's professional portables cannot swap RAM between a G3 and an iBook.

Not so long ago, Apple made it nearly impossible for users to pry open a PowerBook. To add memory or enhance the system, users had to have professionals make the adjustments–or risk voiding their warranty. But the iBook is a different story. Surprisingly enough, directly to the right of this RAM slot under the keyboard is a crystal-clear diagram that shows you how to install memory.

Lock Up the Keys

Despite the convenience and simplicity of opening the iBook to add more RAM, teachers and parents need not cringe: Apple also included a special screw tucked between two function keys that, when turned, locks the keyboard shut–a handy feature for teachers looking to deter young scientists who want to research what happens when Apple circuitry meets apple juice.


On the underside of the iBook, two thumbscrews secure a plastic panel covering the compartment for the long, thin chrome battery. Unlike with the G3's battery, you can't change the iBook's battery while the computer is asleep–you must shut down first. Apple claims that this rounded battery lasts six hours per charge; but as Macworld Lab battery tests on the bronze-keyboard PowerBook G3 demonstrated (see Reviews, September 1999), Apple's estimates, like those of other laptop makers, are not the real-world results most users will get, since the company's tests are performed with the brightness dimmed while the computer is running low-horsepower programs. For the final word on the iBook's battery life and performance, stay tuned for Macworld Lab benchmarks of the first shipping iBook. One thing is for sure: the iBook charges its battery completely in two hours when asleep, four hours while in use–faster than most other portables.

Long-Lasting

Although it may not actually get six hours of life per charge, the iBook's battery does run longer than that of any previous PowerBook. Apple achieved the extra battery life by rewriting its power-management software from scratch. Between key presses when you're typing, and even in the microseconds between the pixel-to-pixel movements of what appears to be a continuous mouse drag, the iBook processor takes extremely short catnaps. When you're typing, Web-browsing, or even crunching numbers, the portable's CPU winds up sleeping almost 95 percent of the time, thus preserving the battery's longevity.

Sleep Tight

Along with the clever power-management software comes a new feature you can use when shutting the iBook down or putting it to sleep. Using options in the new Energy Saver control panel and Control Strip, you can ask the iBook to save the current contents of RAM into a single file on your hard disk. Doing so when putting the Mac to sleep offers only one arguable benefit: if you shelve the iBook for so many months that its battery goes dead in storage, your open programs and documents will still be there when the machine finally gets power again. But when you shut down with this save-RAM-contents option turned on, the advantage is immediately apparent: starting up the iBook again takes far less time than usual. You don't even see the usual parade of extensions, the "Welcome to Macintosh" logo, and so on–instead, you're taken directly back to whatever you were doing when you shut down, complete with open and even unsaved documents.


Perhaps the most intriguing new power-management development of the iBook lies directly underneath it: two tiny metal contacts. These contacts are designed to accommodate mass iBook chargers, such as the one recently announced by VST Systems, that let teachers and employers snap multiple iBooks onto the pins of such a charger quickly and efficiently, without having to plug in and unplug power cords.


Airport

By far the most revolutionary and exciting iBook feature, the one that redefines the word portable , is the AirPort card. This $99 PC Card-type add-on fits into a special connector under the keyboard. Once the card is installed, your iBook can communicate with a modem, Ethernet network, cable modem, DSL hookup, or other iBooks wirelessly–from up to 150 feet away–via radio waves that zoom around corners, under furniture, and through concrete walls at 11 Mbps (10BaseT Ethernet speed, about 1 megabyte per second). This expensive technology, formally known as the IEEE 802.11 spec, has been available on cards developed by Lucent. Now, thanks to Apple, this kind of wireless networking is available for less money and complexity.

Get Unconnected

For multiple iBooks in a classroom or in a workplace setting, Apple offers the $299 AirPort Base Station. This four-inch flying saucer is fully equipped with a phone jack; an Ethernet port; three space-age indicator lights; and wireless receivers that communicate with the iBook antennas, which are built-in and faintly visible through the translucent plastic flanking the screen. With the Base Station, up to ten computers can surf the Web simultaneously, sharing the bandwidth of the Base Station's built-in 56-Kbps modem–or whatever faster Internet connection you've plugged into its Ethernet jack. Forty-bit encryption is built-in, and you're required to enter a password before connecting to the wireless network. You can even set up multiple Base Stations–special software lets you name each individually–and switch your iBook communications from one to another, using a special Control Strip tile. If you buy an Ethernet crossover cable, which costs about $8, you can connect one traditional Macintosh to the wireless network or simply use the wireless AirPort Ethernet jack to connect to an existing Ethernet network.


Only if you read the fine print of Apple's literature, however, does it become clear that you don't need a Base Station to enjoy an AirPort card. For example, using the included Control Strip module, you can direct your iBook to communicate with another iBook directly , through the air instead of via a base station. (Did you get that, multiplayer-game fans?) Moreover, you can use an iBook as a base station–that is, if you plug an iBook into a phone line or cable modem, up to ten other iBooks can share its modem (or other Internet connection) wirelessly. The mind reels: students can turn their assignments in to the teacher's iBook without plugging in any wires. Corporate documents can be distributed to all the attendees sitting around a boardroom table–or down the hall, or up a flight. Homebodies can sit in front of the TV downstairs, surfing the Web via the cable modem connected in the upstairs office.

More Wireless

If you've just wired your house for Ethernet or bought a home-networking kit that connects your computers via the telephone wiring, you're probably smiting your forehead. If you're anyone else, however, you're probably wondering how your existing PowerBook or desktop Mac can get into the wireless action. Farallon's upcoming Skyline PC card (510/346-8000, http://www.farallon.com; approximately $300) lets existing PowerBooks talk to AirPort networks, with a range of 300 feet. No company has yet announced a desktop product for this purpose, but surely it won't be long. Apple's attractive wireless-networking contraption may also crumble the remaining walls between Macs and PCs, since the 802.11 technology of the AirPort is cross-platform and wireless cards are already available for Windows PCs.


Even though the look-and-feel of the iBook is captivating, the iBook is not the answer for everyone and the bright Creamsicle colors may clash with the tastes of the corporate world and varsity linebackers. And professional users may miss the elements found on the Power Mac G3 laptops: PC Card slots; a microphone; an infrared jack; a monitor-out jack; and, of course, a floppy drive.

Add-on products fill some of these gaps. For example, Griffin Technology (615/255-0990, http://www.griffintechnology.com ) has announced a $25 USB microphone/line input called the iMic, and AVerMedia's (408/263-3828, http://www.aver.com ) USBPresenter offers video-output capabilities via the iBook's USB port.

Some might argue that there's little need for a PC Card slot since the iBook comes with both a modem and an Ethernet connection–the most common uses for PC Cards. However, digital-video professionals may grouse about the lack of a FireWire connection, made worse by the lack of a PC Card slot that could have accommodated a FireWire PC Card, such as the FireWire To Go, from Newer Technology (316/943-0222, http://www.newertech.com ).

The bottom line on the iBook's missing features: our only guess is that if Apple had endowed the iBook with every feature of its professional laptop line, nobody would pay $1,000 more for a PowerBook, whose sales will be badly cannibalized by iBooks as it is.


Yes, it's possible to grumble about the iBook–barely. For example, the full-size keyboard and the rugged Lexan shell make this portable larger (13.5 by 11.6 by 1.8 inches) and slightly heavier (6.6 pounds) than a PowerBook G3. And as with other products in high demand, it's safe to predict iBook shortages and a few technical glitches in the first months of its release.

Grumbling about the price, however, is not permitted. Even if you ignore the iBook's creative design and snug fit and finish, the $1,599 iBook is a bargain when compared with Windows laptops. The least-expensive Dell Inspiron, for example, is $1,799, doesn't include Ethernet, and contains a ridiculously slow 366MHz Celeron CPU. And although Gateway's cheapest portable is $1,499, its Celeron-based processor is even slower.

Furthermore, the iBook is easily worth its price if, as the iMac has shown, burning technopassion can be slaked by a mere purchase. Apple's iBook is much more than just a portable iMac; it's a long list of surprising delights. And if first impressions prove to be true, the iBook may be the megabyte megahit that gives portable technology a jump start into the year 2000.

http://www.davidpogue.com

October 1999 page: 62

iBook Cover upsideDownIbook
Tangerine Dream
The rugged design and lack of flimsy doors and port covers make the iBook a dream come true.
Take Me with You
The hinged handle of the iBook is ideal for users on the go.
iBook side view
iBook Mouse

Untangled
The yo-yo-like power cord eliminates the messy cables of portable computing.

iBook CD Tray
Open Sesame
Every iBook comes with a 24x CD-ROM drive similar to the one in its big sibling, the iMac.
iBook Keyboard
  All the Right Keys
Apple's removable full-size keyboard is a sure fit for big hands.
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