Although Apple's 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, which automatically wakes the iBook up when opened. We also liked 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 is 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 to be uncomfortable to type on, while others found its crisp action superior to the PowerBook's keyboard.
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. A FireWire port would be even more useful, allowing 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 disks 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 portable'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. 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 to the minimum 4GB in Apple's PowerBooks. Because the iBook has no modular bays, 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. Unfortunately, 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 this same tendency to lose USB devices, although as far as we can determine, it hasn't caused 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 press.
From a software perspective, using an iBook is exactly like using a PowerBook, including 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 the portable easier for novice users.
Apple clearly had to make some compromises to build a $1,599 portable Mac. Unfortunately, these compromises produced a laptop that's big, heavy, and limited in its expansion options. While $1,599 is a breakthrough price for a Mac portable, the iBook is no PowerBook--and it wasn't long ago that you could buy an original PowerBook G3 (one of the heavier, fatter ones) for $1,999. If you compare the iBook to an iMac--as Apple suggests--then it really becomes a challenge to defend the price tag, considering that a $1,299 iMac DV comes with FireWire, DVD drive, 64MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive, and an 8MB ATI Rage 128 graphics accelerator. We would have a much easier time recommending an iBook if it included the 64MB of RAM needed for acceptable performance.
The iBook's industrial design is impressive, as are some of its refinements, such as the latchless case. For students on a tight budget who need a portable, the iBook might fit the bill, although you'll have to add at least 32MB of RAM--for an extra $100 or so--to get a usable configuration. But our guess is that many novice users will be happier with the cheaper and more full-featured iMac.--ANDREW GORE
RATING: PROS: Innovative industrial design. CONS: Big; heavy; small screen; limited configuration and expansion options; too hard to use for novices; has stability problems with base RAM configuration. COMPANY: Apple Computer (800/795-1000, www.apple.com) COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $1,599