Hands on with the iBook

Apple's revamped iBook is an amazing little computer. In fact, For a roving reporter like myself, it may actually be a better choice than the Titanium PowerBook. Overall, the new iBook offers solid features at an excellent price.

I do most of my "power computing" at home, not on the road. While I need a high-end Power Mac G4 for creating iDVDs, playing the latest games, and doing some occasional graphics work, when I'm on the road, 99.9 percent of my computing time is spent writing stories, checking e-mail, and Web surfing. And for that, the iBook works just fine.

I got the opportunity to test drive an iBook with a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive when Apple sent me an evaluation unit of a product. Like many other reviewers, I've been very impressed.

The new iBook features the first 1024-by-768 resolution 12.1-inch display in its class. That's a vast improvement over the maximum 800-by-600 resolution of the original iBook. The screen's resolution can be lowered, but lower resolutions have to be created with "pixel interpolation" (small pixels pretending to be big ones) so the results can be blocky.

Still, with the tighter resolution, the screen shadings are finer than in previous iBooks, making text very readable. And if the small screen starts straining my 45-year-old eyes, I just enlarge the type size. Voila! Problem solved.

The main difference between the new and old iBook is the totally redesigned form factor. The iBook has lost weight (over a pound) and slimmed down. Still, Apple claims that the new iBook is even more durable than its tough predecessors. The older iBooks have co-moulded rubber bumpers to protect their sides from bumps and knocks. The new case is made from polycarbonate plastic with its "innards" reinforced with a magnesium frame. The hard drive is also rubber-mounted for even more protection.

The iBook is relatively fast with a 500MHz G3 processor. For specs on speed results, see Macworld's iBook review. For most everyday tasks, the iBook is plenty fast.

The iBook comes equipped with ATI's RAGE 128 Mobility chip, configured with 8MB of SDRAM video memory, making it a decent game machine. The portable offers RGB-video out, which lets you use a special monitor cable adapter to drive an external monitor -- though the monitor has to "mirror" what's on the iBook screen. Like its predecessors, the new iBook can output composite video through a different adapter cable.

The iBook has two speakers compared to merely one in previous carnations. The sound is pretty "tinny," so you'll want a good set of headphones for traveling and some good speakers at home. Using these, the sound quality of the iBook is great.

Interestingly, the iBook does offer some advantages over the Titanium PowerBook. The TiPB doesn't come in a configuration with a CD-writable drive (yet); the iBook does. And as someone who types a lot (a WHOLE lot) I like the iBook's keyboard. It seems sturdier and more solid that the one on the TiPB, which tends to overflex.

I also like the iBook's "no cover over the ports" design because there's no cover to accidentally snap off. Plus, it's easier to quickly plug in peripherals.

The new iBook's hard disk space is adequate, but little more. The standard 10GB hard drive can fill up easily if you're working with audio and video files. A few iMovies and it's full. There is a build-to-order option that lets you upgrade to a 20GB hard drive, but that will set you back an extra US$200. Even worse, the entry-level iBook comes with 64MB of RAM, not enough for many real world tasks these days. And don't even think about running Mac OS X.

The iBook also lacks a PC-card slot, although I don't find this a problem with the proliferation of FireWire and USB peripherals. And those who need lots of expansion options aren't the target audience for the iBook.

Battery life is pretty good; I was getting just under four hours with mine -- unless you're watching a DVD movie, which slices that time in half. Also, the battery doesn't last as long when running Mac OS X as it does with Mac OS 9.x. This could change when the much-anticipated Mac OS X 10.1 arrives in September.

By the way, I like the fact that the iBook battery is secured by a screw (which you can turn with a coin or screwdriver) rather than the latch. However, I do miss the handle that's disappeared from the iBook's original incarnation.

The new iBook comes in four standard configurations:

  • iBook 500MHz with 64MB SDRAM, 256K level 2 cache, 10GB Ultra ATA hard drive, CD-ROM drive, USB and FireWire, built-in 56K modem, 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet and AirPort ready for an estimated retail price of $1,299;
  • iBook 500MHz with 128MB SDRAM, 256K level 2 cache, 10GB Ultra ATA hard drive, DVD-ROM drive, USB and FireWire, built-in 56K modem, 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet and AirPort ready for an estimated retail price of $1,499;
  • iBook 500MHz with 128 MB SDRAM, 256K level 2 cache, 10GB Ultra ATA hard drive, CD-RW drive, USB and FireWire, built-in 56K modem, 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet and AirPort ready for an estimated retail price of $1,599.
  • iBook 500MHz with 128MB SDRAM, 256K level 2 cache, 20GB Ultra ATA hard drive, CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, USB and FireWire, built-in 56K modem, 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet and AirPort ready for an estimated retail price of $1,799.
  • Build-to-order options include an additional 64 or 128MB RAM, a combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, 20GB hard disk, an AirPort Card and AirPort Base Station.

    Ignoring the 64MB version, all of the other iBook incarnations are marvelous consumer portables. Apple doesn't call the iBook a subnotebook, but it offers almost all the conveniences of such a system with none of the drawbacks. If you're looking for an excellent, nicely priced consumer portable, look no further, your search stops here.

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