Building an exciting new notebook computer when price is not a concern is one thing. Building an exciting new notebook computer when price is the foremost consideration is another thing entirely. And Apple's new iBooks are another thing entirely -- they're consumer portables that defy the label "low end."
Svelte by Design
In the world of sub-$2,000 portable computers, trade-offs are unavoidable. Want a small, lightweight machine? You'll have to give up an internal CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive and many port options, such as high-speed peripheral connections or Ethernet. Otherwise, be prepared to lug around a 6-pound behemoth. And as for design, "boxy but good" would be a generous description of most Windows-based laptops.
Enter Apple. Its first foray into the consumer-notebook market -- the original iBooks -- delivered the features, but at a weight that made schoolchildren stagger. Now Apple has come back with an inexpensive portable-computing product of maximum utility and minimum weight.
The new iBook offers all the features you could want in a machine with a starting price of $1,299: a 10GB hard drive, a 1,024-by-768-pixel screen, 10/100BaseT Ethernet and FireWire connections, two USB ports, AirPort readiness, a built-in 56-Kbps modem, composite and VGA video out, and a 500MHz G3 processor.
But the higher-end configurations go a step further, giving you 128MB of RAM, a DVD-ROM drive, and -- a first for Apple portables -- a combination CD-RW and DVD-ROM drive, all in a 4.9-pound portable whose sleek design makes it as easy to look at as it is to hold and carry about.
And, building on the earlier models' well-deserved reputation for ruggedness, this iBook is twice as durable, Apple claims. Our own tests show that the new iBook is a tough customer: despite extensive banging around, rapid temperature and humidity changes, and even some blunt-force impacts, our units showed only a couple of tiny scratches. The one exception was the keyboard: we inadvertently dropped a test unit on a hardwood floor, and although the iBook still ran just fine and the case had only a small nick, the force of the impact popped off the shift key, and we were unable to remount the key properly.
In stark contrast to the original iBooks' rainbow of colors, the new iBook is available only in elegant white. It's great that both professionals and students can tote these models without embarrassment, but we hope that Apple will offer other color options at some point.
From a design standpoint, the new iBook is groundbreaking. From a performance standpoint, it's almost identical to the model it replaces ( Reviews , December 2000).
The new iBook has a moderately faster CPU -- clocked at 500MHz, up from 466MHz. But its G3 processor still sits in a 66MHz bus and has just a 256K Level 2 cache, so the speed boost is largely lost in the shuffle. As you can see from Macworld Lab's benchmark tests, the 500MHz iBooks with 128MB of RAM have a Speedmark score nearly the same as the 466MHz iBook's -- even with twice the memory. (The new model with only 64MB of RAM is actually a bit slower.) By comparison, the 400MHz PowerBook G4, with 1MB Level 2 cache and a 100MHz system bus, performs better by at least 20 percent across the board.
We understand that all consumer portables entail compromises, but we wonder why Apple continues to offer just 64MB of RAM in its entry-level machines when memory is dirt cheap -- and when Mac OS X requires at least 128MB. And the iBook has only one RAM expansion slot, permanently limiting the expansion potential of the low-end configuration.
At least the new design puts everything within relatively easy reach: both the AirPort and RAM slots are located right under the keyboard. We just wish Apple would start including a screwdriver with models that require one to get to such an essential upgrade slot.
Apple's redesigned battery is a vast improvement over the "stick" used in earlier models. Although a screw lock still secures the battery (no doubt for durability), there's now only one screw. The new battery also adopts a smaller, square design that feeds power to the iBook through metal contacts instead of a ribbon cable, so it's easier to swap batteries.
As for battery life, Apple claims the new iBook can get up to five hours from a single charge. However, in our tests, which use moderate power-saving measures, these models delivered only three hours of run time.
Finally, there's the new screen: Apple has increased the resolution from 800 by 600 pixels to 1,024 by 768. The extra real estate is a boon, but because the screen size remains at 12.1 inches, the result is smaller pixels, which can make text difficult to read. You could switch to a lower resolution to increase the pixel size, but that means fuzzier pixels. Or you could use the new VGA adapter to connect a larger external monitor.
Speaking of displays, the iBook uses the same graphics controller as the last-generation iBook and the current-generation PowerBook. The ATI Rage 128 Mobility chip set is getting a bit long in the tooth and just can't keep up with the latest games -- a problem in a laptop aimed at students.
Driven to Success
What everyone really wants to know, though, is how that new combination drive works. We're happy to report that it does indeed burn CDs and play DVDs without any obvious drawbacks. Of course, there's the small matter of having to first make a disk image of the CD you want to duplicate and then put a blank CD into the burner. But this minor inconvenience should actually increase the reliability of disc-to-disc copies.
In fact, we found the CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo so convenient that it justified that iBook's price -- $300 more than the price of the $1,499 DVD-ROM iBook, which otherwise offers the same features.