First Look: Apple unveils new iBooks

Cute. There, I've said it. It's a terrible thing, having to describe what may well be the single greatest price, performance and design breakthrough in portables since, well, ever, with such a frivolous adjective. But, when faced with the challenge of summating in a single word what is both tiny and powerful, simple and clever, sophisticated and light-hearted, elegant and dirt cheap, the vast eloquence of the language Shakespeare used to sculpt his love sonnets drops into a petulant squat and tosses out "cute."

iBook

But cute is the word, in the same sense that a Porsche 911 Carrera that retails for $4,999, not including tax, license and delivery, of course, is cute. Where the PowerBook G4 Titanium stretched the envelope of portable computing to its limits, the new iBook pops a gaping hole right through the bottom: starting at just $1,299 ($1,199 for schools and students), the white translucent pillbox portable offers a 500MHz G3, a full slate of ports, full-sized keyboard, and media drive in a case measuring 11.2 by 9.1 by 1.35 inches and weighing just 4.9 pounds. That's right, Apple has just delivered a portable the size and weight of a spiral-bound notebook.

iBook at a Glance

Starting Price $1,299 ($1,199 for education)
Size 11.2 x 9.1 x 1.35 inches
Weight 4.9 pounds
CPU 500MHz G3 with 256Kb of 1:1 ratio L2 cache
RAM 64MB or 128MB
Graphics ATI RAGE Mobility 128 with 8MB of Graphics RAM
Internal Storage 10GB
Media Drive CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, CD-RW or CD-RW/DVD-ROM
Display 12.1 inch active matrix with 1024 x 768 pixel maximum resolution
Ports & Slots Security, Modem, Ethernet, Firewire, two (2) USB, VGA/RGB out, AV out, AirPort, built-in microphone
Battery Life 5 hours (Apple estimate)

Crystal Carapace

Again, English turns its back, leaving me to fumble for a metaphor to describe the totally redesigned exterior of the iBook. Gone are the extra-wide curves and color-coordinated bumpers of the original iBook, replaced by a smooth, almost featureless white box with rounded edges and corners. In a sense, Apple has built the anti-iBook -- where the original design was sassy, this iBook is simple, where the old portable screamed for attention, this one merely whispers.

The new iBook features an evolution of the computer-trapped-in-Lucite look of the Power Mac G4 Cube. It is sheathed in a millimeters-thick clear plastic coating that is warm and slightly rubbery to the touch, delivering a firm grip even in small hands. The coating also adds the illusion of depth to the chassis, and a crystal corona around the edges of the screen when the clamshell is open.

Around the middle is a band of metallic gray that ties the new iBook to the 2001 edition of Apple portables. Sitting next to a Titanium PowerBook, the iBook looks like it belongs - sharing such touches as the same magnetic catch and rounded metal release button on the front and a glowing crystal Apple logo, set to look upside right from behind. It is also noticeably thicker -- about a third of an inch -- and almost 2 inches shorter side-to-side. The case is almost exactly as wide as its standard-sized keyboard, the same 18mm pitch and 2.7mm travel keyboard used in the G4 PowerBook (except the keys are white).

The shell does not contain any exotic metals, despite its steel-colored girdle. The chassis consists primarily of polycarbonate plastic, stiffened by a magnesium frame. The drive is mounted in rubber, and the case has no external latches, doors or hinges, except the primary hinge that connects the top and bottom of the clamshell case. And even this hinge speaks to the iBook's resilience: the firm, thick, single hinge swings the screen back and behind the bottom half of the portable, lowering the overall height of the portable when open, without having to reduce the screen size. This should come in handy in a cramped coach cabin.

Apple has even added metal collars around the rubber feet on the bottom, to help protect the feet from being pulled off in a student's rough and tumble day.

According to Apple, the combination of all these design factors makes the new iBook twice as durable as the old one, despite having less "shock space" inside the case.

Flat, rounded rectangular shape, smooth white coating -- I've got it! The new iBook looks like a lozenge! Or maybe a Chiclet? Oh, never mind.

Mighty Mouse

Packing a lot of features and performance into such a tiny shell would seem impossible. Yet the iBook offers the speed of Apple's top-of-the-line PowerBook of just a few months ago, while boasting features even the G4 Titanium can't claim.

All configurations of the new iBook come with a 500MHz PowerPC G3 with 256Kb of L2 cache running at a 1:1 bus speed ratio. This is supplemented with either 64MB or 128MB of RAM soldered to the logic board and a single PC100 RAM DIMM slot, allowing the user to expand the iBook's memory to either 576Mb or 640Mb, depending on the amount of base RAM installed.

For those waiting for faster on-board graphics, the wait continues. The iBook sports the same ATI RAGE Mobility 128 graphics controller and 8MB of graphics RAM as the PowerBook G3 and G4. According to Apple, the company is sticking with the RAGE Mobility chipset because it offers the best balance of performance and power consumption. At least for now.

Speaking of power consumption, despite adding so many power-hungry new features, Apple still claims a maximum battery life of 5 hours for the iBook. Like the old iBook, the new battery is mounted in the bottom of the unit. But unlike the old power pack, the new battery is smaller and easier to remove (there's a single coin screw instead of two), and has those nice LED charge level indicators on the bottom.

And when it comes time to recharge your new iBook, you get to use the same power adapter as the one that works with the PowerBook G4 -- it accommodates the smaller plug on the back of the iBook.

The iBook comes with a removable media drive in one of four flavors: CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and a first for Mac portables, CD-RW drive or CD- RW/DVD-ROM combo drive. The combo drive is available only through the Apple online store. The new drives are all tray loading; the slot-loading form factor of the PowerBook G4 is why Apple is not yet offering a combo or CD-RW drive in its high-end portable.

Oh yes, the media eject button has been removed from the drive itself, because it was too easy to inadvertently eject a disc in the old iBook design. (I've had personal, frustrating experience with this design flaw!) Instead, the upper right key on the keyboard is the new eject button. Don't worry, though -- you must press and hold the eject button down for a few seconds before the disc is ejected, so the likelihood that you'll accidentally eject your disc is quite small.

The iBook's ports are all arranged along the left side of the case. They are, in order from back to front: Kensington-compatible security slot, RJ-11 modem port, RJ-45 10/100BASET Ethernet port, Firewire port, two USB ports, VGA/RGB port and AV port. The new VGA/RGB port requires a special adapter included with the iBook; the AV port works the same as on last year's iBook model, allowing users to attach stereo headphones, or through use of an adapter, composite video and audio cables to the portable.

The new iBook only supports video mirroring. Luckily, Apple has upped the resolution on the built-in 12.1-inch active matrix display to 1024 by 768 pixels. Yeah, that's a lot of pixels on a relatively small screen, but the sharpness of the new Apple display makes up for this somewhat.

Both the RAM and AirPort slot are easily accessed from under the keyboard, unlike the PowerBook G4 which requires the user remove the bottom of the portable to add an Airport card. The iBook doesn't offer a PC Card slot, but does offer a microphone built into the top of the clamshell.

And, just because Apple's industrial design group likes to add little surprises to all its designs, the new iBook sleep indicator light is on the front edge of the portable. That might not sound all that innovative, but how about this: it's embedded under the plastic skin. The light is only visible when it cycles slowly from dim to bright.

Small Miracle

In the words of Ron Popeil, now how much would you pay for this marvelous gadget? A lot less than you might think.

When it ships in mid-May, Apple will offer the iBook in one of three flavors: For $1,299 ($1,199 for education), the base iBook comes with CD-ROM drive, 10GB hard drive and 64MB of RAM. For an additional $200, you can up the RAM to 128MB and swap the CD-ROM drive for a DVD-ROM drive. And for $1,599, you can replace the DVD-ROM drive with a CD-RW drive.

You can order your top-of-the-line iBook with a combo drive for $1,799 through the Apple online store, the same price as the old iBook SE model. A 20GB internal drive is also available a build-to-order option.

And, because at its heart the iBook is still a consumer product, it comes with a pretty hefty software bundle including iMovie 2.0, iTunes 1.1, AppleWorks, Palm Desktop, Microsoft Explorer, Outlook Express, Netscape Navigator, Cro-Mag Rally, Nanosaur, and Bugdom.

Portables are now the fastest-growing segment of Apple's business and it's easy to see why: while other vendors threw features overboard to achieve small size or lower prices, Apple held out for the technology and component prices to reach a level where the company could offer complete solutions in each niche. Especially in the consumer portable space, where PC vendors rip features off their high-end notebooks to get the price down, only Apple engineered its low-end portable with no compromises, and it shows.

The new iBook further cements Apple's dominance in portable engineering and if our first hands-on look is any indication, the iBook will be a winner for users who want a lot for a little.

And, if the words don't fail me, I'd say buyers of the new iBook will get a lot more, and a whole lot less.

The New iBook: Prices and Configurations

CPU RAM Internal Drive Media Drive Price
500MHz G3 64MB 10GB CD-ROM $1,199*
500MHz G3 64MB 10GB CD-ROM $1,299
500MHz G3 128MB 10GB DVD-ROM $1,499
500MHz G3 128MB 10GB CD-RW $1,599
500MHz G3 128MB 10GB CD-RW/DVD-ROM $1,799**

*Apple Education Price
**This configuration available only through the Apple Online Store

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