capsule review

iBook and iBook Special Edition

At a Glance
  • Apple iBook

There are many things I could have imagined saying about Apple's new low-cost portables: surprisingly fast, feature-rich, great value, attractive design. But black-light active? Not only is Apple's latest rev to the iBook line the best value the company has ever offered in a portable package, but if you get the new key lime flavor -- available only through the Apple Store ( ) -- the plastic also glows under a black light.

Psychedelic qualities aside, the new iBook and iBook Special Edition (SE) are remarkable values. The iBook -- which can be had in a more muted blue (indigo) than previous models as well as the Day-Glo green -- delivers 366 MHz of processor speed, both a FireWire port and a USB port, a 10GB hard drive, and 64MB of RAM. It has a built-in 56K modem, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, and even composite video-out via a clever cable adapter that plugs into the headphone jack -- all for $1,499. That's $100 less than the previous iBook model.

But the real deal in the iBook line is the SE. Available in key lime and the familiar graphite, the iBook SE has all the enhancements of the iBook plus a 466 MHz G3 and a DVD-ROM drive for a mere $1,799. Compare that with the 400 MHz PowerBook ( Reviews , June 2000), which was slower than the iBook SE in our tests but costs $600 more, and suddenly the SE's price tag seems modest indeed.

When Macworld reviewed the first iBook, we had many complaints, almost all of which Apple has addressed with this latest generation of iBook.

Chief among those complaints was performance. I'm happy to report that the new iBooks are much speedier than their predecessors, thanks to two key improvements: 256KB of Level 2 cache built into the G3 processor, and a state-of-the-art ATI Rage Mobility 128 chipset in place of the pokey 2-D and 3-D graphics controller earlier versions shipped with. Don't underestimate the importance of the new Rage controller: the iBook is the sweetheart of school-age children everywhere, and we all know how much today's games push the envelope on graphics performance. (We're sure it'll help out with math homework, too.)

When we ran the new models through their paces, both performed much faster than previous generations, and the SE was even faster when running Quake and SoundJam (see "The Fastest iBooks Yet").

About the only time we weren't impressed with the iBooks' speed was when they ran iMovie -- which is unfortunate, since the inclusion of a FireWire port and iMovie 2 is sure to tempt buyers looking for an inexpensive, mobile video-editing station. Speeds were comparable to those of an iMac or a PowerBook, but slow compared with a G4. For example, it took four hours to export a five-minute iMovie project as a 640-by-480 QuickTime movie, using the Sorenson compressor.

Another of our major complaints with the original iBook was RAM -- it shipped with only 32MB. Today's models all ship with 64MB of RAM, which is sufficient to run one or two applications and seems a good compromise to get the standard iBook price under $1,500. However, with the SE I really wanted more RAM, especially when I was working with iMovie. As most Mac users know, more RAM allows you to run more and bigger applications, and it makes your Mac run faster. We imagine most SE buyers, being a bit less price sensitive, will probably upgrade their RAM by 64MB anyway, so why not include it at the outset?

But sufficient RAM is about the only thing missing from the SE, which in all other respects surpassed our expectations for a consumer portable. And as long as buyers are prepared to upgrade, they shouldn't find the modest RAM an impediment.

No one expects much from an inexpensive portable; mostly, we just want it to run some basic applications, deliver reasonable battery life, and not crash too often. By these measures, the new iBooks significantly exceed expectations.

Both models still come with a 12-inch active-matrix display with a maximum resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. While the makers of some cheap PC notebooks are opting for 13-inch passive-matrix displays, we're happy to see Apple sticking with 12 inches and the clarity of active matrix. At least until Apple can find a way to offer 14-inch displays that reasonably support higher resolutions for under $2,000, we see no point in abandoning the 12-inch screen.

And iBooks continue to surpass PowerBooks in battery life: the units we tested delivered about three and a half hours of use with moderate power-saving measures, compared with the PowerBook's average of two hours per battery. The only hitch is, it's still a challenge to get into the iBook's battery bay to swap a power pack.

We also take issue with the iBooks' weight. At nearly seven pounds, the iBook SE is a hefty load. Even the iBook without DVD weighs more than six and a half pounds -- about a half pound heavier than the PowerBook.

These quibbles aside, the new iBooks -- with their speedy G3s, updated ATI graphics controllers, sizable hard drives, FireWire ports, and active-matrix screens -- are an incredible value. The iBook SE, in fact, may just be the best value of Apple's portable line, and perhaps of any notebook, Mac or otherwise. An who else but Apple gives you a computer that glows under a black light?

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Includes FireWire, iMovie 2, and video-out
    • Improved graphics and processor performance
    • Cheaper than earlier models


    • Heavy
    • Modest RAM
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