Most of what you need to know about Apple's new iBook you can tell just by looking at it: It's a thing of beauty. Smooth, sculpted, and sleek, this laptop's siren song begs you to pick it up and run your finger across its silver metal trackpad plate or to caress its orange or blue rubberized edges.
When Jobs introduced Apple's long-awaited, top secret, deliriously anticipated consumer laptop today at the Macworld Expo in New York, he emphasized the portable's sexiest features: its numbers.
In reverse order, the stats include a $1,599 price tag; an 800-by-600-pixel, 12.1-inch, millions-of-colors, active-matrix screen that you can switch into 640-by-480 pixel mode; a 300-MHz G3 processor; a built-in 56K modem; a 24x CD-ROM drive, 10/100-Base T Ethernet; an anticipated six-hour battery life (a figure that should be viewed as skeptically as you should all claims of battery life); and a nifty carrying handle that automatically snaps flush against the unit when not in use.
The statistics for the optional add-ons are equally amazing: With the addition of Apple's $99 AirPort card, up to 10 iBooks can connect to the Internet, or to other iBooks, at 11 Mbits (1 Mbyte) per second, when within 150 feet of a $299 base station. Classroom personnel worldwide are slavering at the possibilities.
The Untold Story
In unveiling the new laptop, however, Jobs didn't have the time or inclination to offer many juicy details -- little pieces of both good and bad. Only in the hands-on session that followed, during which Expo attendees could chat with the iBook's designers (who joked that they were seeing daylight for the first time in months) to find out the details of the no-longer-mysterious, but still mystical, laptop.
For example, Jobs didn't mention the traditional PowerBook features that are absent from the iBook: a PC card slot and a microphone. Few customers will miss the PC card slot, since the most popular PC-card-type features (modem and Ethernet) are built into the machine. As for the microphone: The iBook is not the machine to buy if you're in the habit of recording your baby's first gurgles using the mic built into the lid of a standard PowerBook. But an Apple engineer made a veiled reference to an upcoming add-on sound digitizer that will plug into the iBook's USB port.
The rest of the behind-the-scenes iBook story, fortunately, is all good news; as you peruse the laptop, you may helplessly and repeatedly utter, "Oh, wow." For example, the power cord itself is a masterstroke, featuring a retractable cord on a takeup reel that ends the hassle of tangled power cords forever. And when the laptop is receiving power, its AC adapter jack lights up in one of two colors: orange while the iBook is charging and green when the battery is full.
The translucent white keyboard is among the iBook's chief virtues, too. Not only is it full-sized and comfortable, but its keys lie where your fingers want them to, including the inverted-T set of arrow keys. Brilliant touches abound: the F1 through F6 keys control screen brightness, volume, sound muting, and Num Lock functions; you trigger their function functions (in other words, the F1 through F6 keystrokes) only when you're pressing the Fn key in the lower-left corner of the keyboard. And get this: If you press F7 through F12, a dialog box automatically appears, offering to launch a favorite program, document, or networked disk on subsequent presses of that key. (If you prefer, you can assign such icons within the Keyboard control panel instead-- just drag any icon from the desktop onto the corresponding Fkey slot in the control panel's Function Keys dialog box.)
There's no latch to keep the clamshell halves of the iBook closed; only spring-loaded hinge pressure keeps the machine shut, making the laptop much easier to open in a hurry. The machine can even be set to wake up from sleep automatically when you open the lid, a terrific and obvious feature brought to you by the revamped Energy Saver control panel. (Other options in the new panel govern network reconnections when waking or sleeping.)
This new Energy Saver control panel is not to be discounted: It, and the completely rewritten Power Manager software, are responsible for eking out Apple's claimed six hours of life from the sleek, silvery steel, 12-inch-long battery. (To change the battery, you turn two thumbscrews on the bottom of the laptop to open its battery panel.)
The Last Word
Maybe it takes the personal touch of a control freak like Steve Jobs to produce a machine whose fit, finish, and detailing is so rich and rewarding. (You can almost hear his voice when you consider the moment the iBook design team turned their attention to the traditional -- and traditionally fragile -- door that conceals PowerBook jacks: "Why do we need a flap? Why can't I just plug my cables directly in? Get rid of the flap!" And so there is, mercifully, no such door on the iBook.)
As with the iBook's predecessor, the mega-hit iMac, such maniacal dedication to perfection and high coolness quotient has paid off big. Or, in the iBook's case, delightfully small.
David Pogue is the author of the forthcoming The iBook for
Dummies (IDG Books, 1999).