First Look: iBook

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You take a look at the key lime iBook -- one of the latest additions to Apple's happy hardware family -- and the first thing you notice is that it's green. I mean really green. Bright green. Golf pants from the 1970s green.

Maybe its the lighting in the exhibition hall at Porte de Versailles, you think. Maybe you ate some bad crepes. Because nothing on earth -- not even tropical mixed drinks -- can sport that shade of green.

Can it?

And yet it does. Both of the latest iBook models -- the standard $1,499 configuration and the $1,799 special edition -- come in a color Apple has courageously dubbed "key lime" after the pie of the same name. There's also a $1,499 indigo iBook in that striking shade of dark blue. And the special edition version comes in good old, reliable graphite. But at the end of the day, it's key lime that will get all the attention, the eyeballs, the glossy full-paged layouts. You can't help but look -- the thing's bright enough to land jetliners.

It's fitting that the iBook's new look should garner so much attention. The iBook's always been known for its looks -- in part because its appearance is so striking when compared to other bland laptops, and in part because the "what's beneath the surface" has been positively dreary.

Think back to the first iBooks. You had a 300MHz G3 processor, 32MB of RAM, and performance slow enough to drive the most hardened Mac enthusiast back to an electric typewriter. Apple fixed things when it revised the iBook line this spring; memory got bumped up to 64MB and a special edition iBook's processing speed was boosted to 366MHz (albeit for an extra $200).

That unhappy history may become a distant memory, thanks to the iBooks Steve Jobs unveiled Wednesday. At first glance -- well, second glance after your eyes readjust from the shock of key lime -- Apple appears to have solved all the pieces to the affordable laptop puzzle.

The low-cost configurations get you a 366MHz G3 processor, 64MB of RAM, and 10GB of storage (compared to just 6GB in the previous model). Pony up for a special edition, and you've got a 466 MHz processor to go with the 64MB of RAM and 10GB of storage. That's no toy computer -- that's a portable that comes close to matching the PowerBook in terms of processing power at a substantially lower cost. (The trade-off, of course, is memory, where the PowerBook reigns supreme.)

Faster processors and more storage aren't the only changes. Both models now offer a FireWire port and ship with iMovie 2.0 installed. iBook users tired of watching their desktop- and PowerBook-owning compatriots dive headlong into the digital video world no longer have to stay out in the cold. Apple, which touts digital video as a revolutionary application every bit as important to Apple's future as desktop publishing was in the 1980s, has reconfigured its hardware offerings so that nearly every model -- sorry, $799 iMac owners -- doubles as a moviemaking machine.

Existing iBooks were a gamer's nightmare: with an ATI Rage Mobility graphics controller, 4MB of SDRAM, and 66MHz of bus speed, the iBook just couldn't keep pace with demanding games. We'll have to wait until the tests get back from the lab to see if the new models measure up, but at least Apple has given gamers more to love -- an ATI Rage 128 Mobility chip set with 8MB of SDRAM. Apple's booth at the Paris expo included a key lime iBook running Quake III Arena, and nobody seemed to be nodding off while waiting for the graphics to render or averting their eyes from the laptop's unearthly green glow, for that matter.

To top it off, Apple may finally have produced a special edition iBook that offers something, well, special. The previous model asked you to pay an extra $200 for an additional 66MHz of processor speed and a graphite casing (perhaps, there was a critical shortage of gray plastic that we were unaware of...). The latest iBook Special Edition still has a $1,799 price tag, but it now boasts a processor that's 100MHz faster than the standard configuration. And you get a DVD-drive for your efforts, too.

The final judgment on the new iBooks ultimately falls with how they perform -- something you just can't measure while glancing at them on a trade show floor under the watchful eye of Apple's staff. But based on specs alone, the changes to the iBook line look promising. Home users need an affordable portable that doesn't skimp in the performance department. At first glance, the latest incarnation of the iBook seems to have delivered.

But that could just be the aftereffects of the key lime talking.

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