First Look: The New iBook: Big Thing Small Package

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The Titanium PowerBook G4 has been a big hit for Apple-in just four months, the company has sold more than 115,000 of the power-packed portables. Now it's time for Apple's other laptop to get the Titanium treatment. Meet the new iBook, a slimmer, sleeker, whiter version of the original introduced by Apple nearly two years ago.

This new iBook is all about size- or lack of it. It's 9.1 inches deep by 11.2 inches wide, meaning it's not much larger than a three-ring binder. Like the inch-thick PowerBook G4, the iBook has gotten slimmer; it's now just 1.3 inches thick. That's helped to drop the iBook's weight to 4.9 pounds.

But Apple didn't sacrifice functionality in slimming down the new iBook. This Mac is stocked with a 500MHz G3 processor, a full slate of ports (see "Ports Aplenty"), and a full-size keyboard. iBook buyers also get a choice of optical drives. The basic $1,299 model comes with a 24x CD-ROM drive and 64MB of installed RAM. An iBook equipped with 128MB of RAM and a DVD-ROM drive costs $1,499; with 128MB of RAM and an 8x4x24x CD-RW drive, $1,599; and with 128MB of RAM and a combination CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, $1,799.

Outside and Inside

With this revision, Apple's recent penchant for sprucing up its machines with eye-catching colors appears to be receding quickly in the company's rearview mirror. The so-bright-it-glows shade of last fall's key lime iBook? It's gone, along with the original iBook's extrawide curves and spring-loaded handle.

The new model is almost the anti-iBook: a smooth, almost featureless white box with rounded edges and corners. Where the original design was sassy, this iBook is simple; while the old portable screamed for attention, this one merely whispers.

Instead of bright colors, the new iBook features an evolution of the computer-trapped-in-Lucite look of the Power Mac G4 Cube. The iBook is sheathed in a millimeters-thick clear plastic coating that is warm and grippable-and, on first examination, appears to be highly shock- and scratch-resistant. 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.

Unlike the Titanium PowerBook, however, the iBook's shell does not contain any exotic metals. Its 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 that hinge speaks to the iBook's resilience -the firm, thick hinge swings the screen back and down, behind the computer's back edge, which lowers its overall height when open.

According to Apple, the combination of all these design factors makes the new iBook twice as durable as the older model, even though it has less "shock space" inside the case. 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.

Checking Out the Specs

Apple didn't add a G4 processor when it revised the iBook. Still, the new-look laptop hardly lacks for power. All four configurations come with a 500MHz PowerPC G3 processor with 256K of Level 2 cache; however, the computer's system bus runs at 66MHz, still the slowest of all currently shipping Mac models. Besides the 64MB of RAM soldered to the basic model's logic board and the 128MB of soldered-on memory in the other configurations, the iBook allows for expanded RAM via a single PC100 RAM DIMM slot. The result? Your fully loaded iBook will have between 576MB and 640MB of RAM, depending on the model you buy. A 10GB Ultra ATA drive is standard on all models, although you can choose to have Apple install a 20GB internal drive (for an extra $200) instead.

The iBook's screen has also got-ten a boost. It's still a 12.command-inch active matrix display, but now it offers a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels, as opposed to the original iBook's 800 by 600. This means there are a lot of pixels on a comparatively small screen-and while the display is relatively sharp, it may be hard for some users to read. In 1,024-by-768 mode, type was a bit too small for one editor's nearsighted, just-short-of-40-year-old eyes. Of course, you can lower the screen's resolution to try to compensate, but because 1,024 by 768 pixels is the native resolution of the screen, all lower resolutions have to be created via pixel interpolation --small pixels emulating larger pixels-and the results can be blocky and fuzzy.

If you're looking for accelerated video power, this system will leave you wanting more. It has an ATI Rage Mobility 128 graphics controller and 8MB of graphics RAM-the same as the PowerBook G3 and G4. Unlike earlier models, however, this new iBook offers RGB-video out. This lets you use a special monitor cable adapter to drive an external monitor-which must mirror the contents of the iBook's built-in screen. As with the last generation of iBook, this model can output composite video as well, through a different adapter cable.

As with previous models of the iBook, Apple claims you can run this model on battery power for five hours. The battery is still 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. A series of LEDs tells you at a glance how much charge the iBook has. Upgradability seems to be a strong point: both the RAM and AirPort slots are easily accessible under the keyboard (adding an AirPort card to the PowerBook G4 requires removing the bottom cover). And, just because Apple's industrial-design group likes to add little surprises to all its designs, the new iBook's sleep indicator light is on its front edge, embedded under the plastic skin and visible only when it cycles slowly from dim to bright.

The Bottom Line

Portables are the fastest-growing segment of Apple's business-nearly 30 percent of the systems the company has sold this year, versus just over 10 percent in 1999. It's easy to see why: as other companies threw features overboard to help reduce size or lower prices, Apple held out for the technology and the component prices to reach levels at which it could offer complete solutions in each niche. That's especially true in consumer portables. There, PC vendors knock off features from their high-end notebooks to get prices down. But Apple engineers the iBook with no compromises, and it shows. While the iBook may not have all the muscle of a PowerBook, it certainly keeps pace, feature for feature.

And that's good news for iBook users who are looking for a lot in a little package.

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