When we reviewed the overhauled iBooks Apple introduced last fall (March 2004), we liked what we saw, with just a couple of reservations. We welcomed Apple's decision to double the machines' standard memory to 256MB but regretted that it had done so by filling up the only expansion slot; this meant anyone who wanted additional RAM had to toss out Apple's 128MB DIMM to make way for a bigger one. And even though the update brought G4 chips to Apple's consumer portable line for the first time, processing performance was a tad slow by today's standards, especially in the entry-level model.
Fortunately, the latest iBook updates solve the first problem and go a long way toward alleviating the second. With reasonable prices, a sturdy and attractive design, long battery life, and all the connectivity options most users will need, Apple's new crop of iBooks is full of compelling choices.
Basic Configurations Unchanged
Like the last batch of iBooks, the latest one has three standard configurations-priced at $1,099, $1,299, and $1,499. In most respects, they're not very different from their predecessors. Hard-drive capacities are unchanged, at 30GB, 40GB, and 60GB, respectively, and Combo (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) drives are standard in all three configurations. The low-end model has a 12.1-inch display, while the other two have 14.1-inch screens; however, as before, they all have the same standard resolution-1,024 by 768 pixels. And as with previous models, the smaller screens may be problematic for some viewers (see "Which Mobile Mac Is Best?").
All three models have 256MB of memory, but it's now soldered directly to the machines' logic boards. That leaves the RAM-expansion slot free, and Apple confirms that the slot can handle 1GB DIMMs, boosting the maximum total to 1.25GB. (Specifications for the previous iBook generation said the maximum was 640MB, and Apple officials said that installing more memory could void the machines' warranties, even though some memory vendors said 1GB DIMMs worked fine.)
In addition, all three configurations have faster G4 processors than their predecessors. The 12.1-inch model and the formerly 933MHz 14.1-inch model have hit the 1GHz mark, while the top-of-the-line 14.1-inch model has gone from 1GHz to 1.2GHz. The result is a noticeable, but not overwhelming, performance improvement in our standard benchmark suite of tests (see the benchmark chart). In real-world use, all these machines feel reasonably responsive for routine tasks such as Web browsing, e-mailing, and word processing. Obviously, these systems aren't for heavy-duty graphics or multimedia work, and hard-core gamers will notice that frame rates lag well behind those of current PowerBooks-not to mention desktop Macs.
In terms of connectivity, the only change is that an AirPort Extreme (802.11g) wireless networking card is now standard in the $1,499, top-of-the-line iBook; in the other two configurations, the card remains a $99 option. A Bluetooth card for wireless hookups to compatible phones, PDAs, and other devices is still a $50 option in all three configurations. In addition, of course, there's a wired Ethernet jack (limited to 10 or 100 Mbps, as most LANs are) and a 56-Kbps (V.92) modem. None of these iBooks has a PC Card expansion slot, but all three have a pair of USB 2.0 ports. The single FireWire port is again of the FireWire 400 (1394a) variety, but that shouldn't be a problem for users-relatively few peripherals have FireWire 800 (1394b) ports, and almost all that do also have FireWire 400 ports.
Externally, the latest iBooks have the same ice-white enclosure that has identified the line since the curvy, colorful clamshells of the original models went extinct in 2001. The 12-inch model still weighs 4.9 pounds; the 14-inch configurations weigh a pound more than that.
An underappreciated feature of today's iBooks is their very good battery life. With the 12-inch model, we were able to play DVD movies for 3 hours and 15 minutes-that's enough time to watch an Austin Powers movie twice through, if you're so inclined. The 14-inch models, which have slightly larger batteries (61 watt-hours versus 50 watt-hours), did even better, lasting about 3 hours and 40 minutes. That's well short of the "up to six hours" Apple promises, but it's considerably better than what we've recorded in past tests of most other notebooks, including PowerBooks.
We've always liked the white iBooks, and with this update, we like them more than ever. Of course, we'd love to see Apple trim their weight; cut prices; and, someday, include AirPort cards and FireWire 800 as standards.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The current iBook lineup offers an excellent combination of performance, features, and affordability. We particularly like the 12-inch model, because of its relative compactness and bargain price. If you opt for the 14-inch display, and if you don't need wireless networking, we recommend the less-expensive 14-inch model. For most users, a slightly faster processor and larger hard drive aren't worth the extra $200. If you'll be adding a wireless card, the price differential shrinks to $101, and that relatively small amount might induce you to spring for the top-of-the-line model.