iBook G4 and Mac mini: Minor updates, major value

Some new Mac offerings are groundbreaking—the Mac mini’s debut in January comes to mind—while others are just incremental. The latest revisions to the iBook G4 and Mac mini lines fall somewhere between these extremes; their additional standard features are few, but lower prices significantly increase their value.

iBooks get the PowerBook treatment

The iBook G4 line has been streamlined to two models: a $999 computer with a 12-inch display, a 1.33GHz processor, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-burning Combo drive; and a $1,299 model with a 14-inch display, a 1.42GHz processor, a 60GB hard drive, and a DVD-burning SuperDrive. Apple basically added a 4x SuperDrive, twice the memory, built-in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, and two standard PowerBook features (discussed later) to the previous midrange model, and then lowered the price by $200. The result is an attractively priced 14-inch iBook with the same solid build as the previous models. The 12-inch iBook also comes with Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme.

Enough RAM Both iBooks now include 512MB of memory, which seems to be the minimum practical amount for running OS X smoothly and reasonably quickly.

Newest technologies Two features Apple introduced on the most recent PowerBooks are now included with the new iBooks: the scrolling trackpad and the Sudden Motion Sensor. The scrolling trackpad allows you to swipe two adjacent fingers over the trackpad vertically or horizontally to scroll through a document or move around an image. This is a fantastic new feature that makes the trackpad easier to use. However, I found horizontal scrolling a bit awkward in Microsoft Word 2004.

The Sudden Motion Sensor aims to change your iBook’s relationship to gravity—that is, to save your data if you drop the laptop. If the motion sensor detects a sudden change in axis (X, Y, or Z) position or accelerated movement, it parks and locks the hard-drive heads to prevent damage to your data. Under Apple’s advisement, I tested this feature by playing a QuickTime movie and dropping the iBooks in freefall onto a bed (the movie would stop before impact if the drive heads were parked). The Sudden Motion Sensor worked as advertised.

Drives and displays The optical drive on the 12-inch iBook test model was loud and made an odd sound. The usual whirs and clicks were accompanied by brief grinding sounds, somewhat like those the old floppy drives made. The drives’ performance didn’t seem to be affected, but the noises could cause concern if you’re not expecting them. (Note that Macworld also bought a 14-inch iBook from a non-Apple retailer, and its SuperDrive was very loud and would not eject discs. It’s not clear whether this is one bad unit or a symptom of a widespread problem.)

Overall, these iBooks’ speed tests came out predictably, with the 1.42GHz model winning handily. ( Click here for complete iBook benchmarks.) The Speedmark test shows that the new 1.33GHz iBook G4 is five percent faster than the previous 1.33GHz iBook G4. This is partially due to the new ATI Mobility Radeon 9550 graphics card, an upgrade from the ATI Mobility Radeon 9200 (though both had 32MB of dedicated video RAM). The Unreal Tournament test showed that the new graphics card squeezed out a couple more frames per second than the old graphics card.

The graphics card may be faster, but the 14-inch display doesn’t look as sharp as the other model’s 12-inch display, not even at maximum resolution (1,024 by 768 pixels). Even though the 14-inch display is larger, it shows no more information than the 12-inch iBook’s display because the resolution is the same on both; the pixels are simply farther apart in the 14-inch display, making text and icons appear larger. The upshot: the larger display is beneficial only if you have difficulty seeing up close, or if you prefer some distance between you and the screen while you work. (The PowerBook line is different: resolution increases with the size of the display.)

If you want an iBook, know that you can’t have it all. The 12-inch model is four percent slower than the 1.42GHz 14-inch model, and it doesn’t have a SuperDrive (a build-to-order option is not available). And the 14-inch model doesn’t display information as crisply as the 12-inch model does.

Mac mini adds value

In revising the Mac mini line, the most significant change Apple made was adding a $699 model, which includes features that previously cost about $275 to order à la carte: a 4x SuperDrive, a built-in AirPort Extreme card, Bluetooth, and 512MB of RAM. It also no longer includes a dial-up 56 Kbps modem, which is now a $29 option—a sign of increased broadband Internet use among Apple’s customers. At a savings of $175 (assuming you don’t care about the missing modem), this high-end Mac mini’s value is nothing to sneeze at.

The other two models remain almost the same as before. The $599 model loses the modem and gains standard AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 1.0, and all models have 512MB of RAM—double the memory they had before—which I’m relieved to see. But with the revision of the iBook line, the Mac mini line gets some of the leftovers, such as the older ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card and Bluetooth 1.0. Despite its slightly aging hardware and the fact that it still doesn’t have an audio-in port or a built-in microphone, the Mac mini is still the best entry-level Mac.

Macworld’s buying advice

In the iBook line, the 12-inch model is simply a better machine, mainly because of its nicer-looking display and greater portability; the downside, of course, is that it’s slower and can’t be outfitted with a SuperDrive (the only DVD burner that will let you burn DVDs from Apple’s iDVD or DVD Studio Pro).

But with the Mac minis, the right choice just depends on what you want to do with your Mac. If you want an internal SuperDrive and some other niceties, the $699 model is the best value. Though truthfully, the value of these machines is fairly even across the Mac mini product line.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 8/15/05 - The article has been updated to correct the version of Bluetooth now standard on Mac mini models. The change did not affect the rating of the product.

(For more information, see our Apple Hardware Guide.)

iBook G4Mac mini

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