capsule review

iBook

At a Glance
  • Apple iBook

Although Apple's new consumer portable may be one of the company's most hotly anticipated products ever, the iBook's reality falls short of its media-generated hype. It's not exactly a case of the emperor having no clothes–the iBook is a natty dresser–but what's under that striking attire leaves something to be desired in terms of size, ease of use, and flexibility. The iBook will have some appeal for students willing to work around its limitations, but novices may find their needs better served by one of the new iMacs–or future iBook revisions that address its current drawbacks.

The iBook's ingenious industrial design, featuring a gently curved clamshell, white translucent plastics, and brightly colored rubber bumpers, makes the portable look small. However, it's actually larger and heavier than a PowerBook G3, weighing 12 ounces more than Apple's bronze laptops.

Part of the reason for the iBook's larger dimensions is its rugged construction–the shell and internal case are impact resistant. After a couple weeks of carting it around, we can attest to the portable's overall solidity. However, it did suffer a loose metal shield around the Ethernet port, but only after several dozen cable insertions.

Other nice touches include a sturdy handle that folds up from the back and a latchless clamshell that automatically wakes the iBook up when opened. We also like the way Apple designed the iBook's indicator lights. Rather than flashing on and off, the sleep indicator throbs. And the light that rings the power plug glows orange when the battery is charging and green when it's full. We hope Apple adds these design refinements to the next PowerBook.

Although the laptop's low-profile keyboard is about the same size as the bronze PowerBook G3's, our informal iBook jury was split: some found it uncomfortable to type on, while others found its crisp action superior to the PowerBook keyboard's.

Our jury agreed that the single speaker sounds tinny and the 12-inch active-matrix screen, while offering a crisp, bright display, seems lost in the iBook's large frame. The lack of a VGA connection precludes use of external monitors or multimedia projectors. Also missing is a FireWire port, which would allow connection of video cameras and high-speed storage devices.

When we first booted up the iBook, we were shocked by its poky performance, especially considering that it uses a 300MHz G3 processor. Applications were slow to launch, and when switching between applications, we could see windows redraw themselves line by line. Then we found that the test unit, which had the iBook's standard 32MB of RAM (the lowest RAM allocation in any current Mac model), came preset with an additional 32MB of virtual memory. Virtual memory has long been the bane of portables, whose slower, power-frugal hard drives are often asleep when an application wants something from the drive's virtual-memory partition.

Although reducing virtual memory helped speed things up, the performance problems didn't go away until we added 32MB of physical RAM. The added memory also fixed the iBook's annoying tendency to crash. Our advice: don't even consider buying this cute and cuddly portable without add-on RAM. (Thanks to the iBook's pop-up keyboard, RAM is easy to install.)

Once we resolved the RAM issues, the iBook's performance was about what you'd expect
(see "iMac to Go?"). In general, performance was a little slower than that of a 333MHz PowerBook G3. The built-in ATI Rage Mobility graphics accelerator and 4MB of video RAM offer fine display performance for standard operations, but the iBook is extremely sluggish when running such demanding 3-D games as MacSoft's Unreal.

The iBook's 3GB hard drive was also slow, but no slower than many other portable drives. However, the 3GB capacity feels a bit tight compared with the minimum 4GB in PowerBooks. The iBook has no modular bays, so you can increase storage only by adding an external USB drive or by replacing the internal drive.

Apple estimates that the iBook can run for six hours on a single battery charge, but that proved to be optimistic. In three trials using the standard Energy Saver configuration, the iBook ran for an average of four hours before losing power–about half an hour longer than the best time for the PowerBook G3. Four hours on a single battery is certainly impressive, but quick battery swapping–a viable option with the PowerBook G3–is not possible because you have to unscrew a cover on the iBook's bottom to switch batteries.

The iBook features a single USB port for connecting keyboards, mice, serial adapters, and other components. However, USB has proved to be unreliable in Apple's portables; attached peripherals have been known to suddenly cease working, forcing you to unplug the USB connector, wait a few seconds, and plug it back in. Fortunately, most USB-hardware developers have updated their drivers to be PowerBook savvy, reducing, but not entirely eliminating, vanishing-peripheral syndrome.

We're sorry to report that the iBook shows the same tendency to lose USB devices, although as far as we can determine, USB didn't cause any system crashes. However, both test units often crashed when we attempted to wake them from sleep, a problem that disappeared when we added RAM. Making matters worse, when you use the hardware reset switch to restart the iBook, the system clock resets itself to 1/1/04, 12:01 a.m.

Since there are no media bays or PC Card slots, all you can add to an iBook–aside from external USB devices–is physical RAM and an AirPort wireless-networking card, which had yet to ship as we went to press.

From a software perspective, using an iBook is exactly like using a PowerBook, involving such cumbersome utilities as the Location Manager. Using portables is inherently more complex than using desktops, due to unpredictable communications connections and the need for power management. Yet Apple has done nothing to make these portables easier for novices to use.

January 2000 page: 32

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Innovative industrial design

    Cons

    • Big
    • Small screen
    • Heavy
    • Too hard for novices to use
    • Has stability problems with base RAM configuration
    • Limited configuration and expansion options
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