At a glance, the new iBook G4 notebooks look almost identical to their predecessors, but beneath their unchanged ice-white covers, they’ve undergone a major upgrade. If you’re in the market for a mobile Mac at a bargain price, you no longer have to settle for last year’s standards. In terms of core processing and connectivity technologies, this overhaul brings the low-end laptops in line with the rest of the Mac family.
Specifically, the new iBooks move up not only from the G3 processor to the G4, but also to a next-generation memory system. On the wireless front, they are the first iBooks to support AirPort Extreme (802.11g) networking (a $99 option), as well as Bluetooth connections to compatible phones, wireless keyboards and mice, and other devices. (Plan ahead if you want Bluetooth: it’s available only in built-to-order configurations, for $50.)
While the single FireWire port is still the old FireWire 400 flavor (1394a), the two USB ports now support version 2.0 of that standard, enabling much faster data exchange with USB 2.0 external drives, cameras, card readers, and scanners. And the built-in optical drives are now slot loading; the easily damaged trays of previous iBooks are gone. And of course, the new models come with Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther).
Same Look, Same Weight
The last major makeover of the iBook line, back in May 2001, included a dramatic redesign: the flamboyant colors and bulky curves of the original clamshell iBook gave way to cool white and rectangular lines — the same styling later adopted for the iPod. This time, Apple’s industrial designers opted to stick with that distinctive look. The new models feature the same compact design, sturdy feel, and white polycarbonate plastic case as their predecessors. Aside from the new optical-media slot, the only noticeable change is that the keys are no longer translucent.
The 2001 overhaul also resulted in iBooks that were almost two pounds lighter than the clamshell models. Unfortunately, that’s another dimension that has scarcely changed: the entry-level version, with a 12-inch display, still weighs 4.9 pounds, while the two models with 14-inch screens weigh 5.9 pounds. And the new iBooks continue to deliver excellent battery life. We couldn’t match Apple’s promise of as much as six hours per charge, but in moderate use, we got more than four and a half hours with the default Energy Saver settings.
Good, Better, Best?
Apple is offering three iBook G4 models in retail outlets and as standard configurations at the online Apple Store. In the past, the company generally offered two models with a 12.1-inch screen and only one with a 14.1-inch display. This time it has reversed that ratio: only the entry-level, $1,099 model, with an 800GHz G4 and a 30GB hard drive, has a 12.1-inch screen. The other two versions, a $1,299 model with a 933MHz processor and a 40GB drive, and a $1,499 version with a 1GHz G4 and a 60GB drive, have the larger screen — and the extra space and weight it requires.
Before you choose, remember that the larger-screen models don’t actually display any more data than their smaller-screen siblings: all three models are limited to a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. The difference is in the size of the pixels. When you squeeze that many into a 12.1-inch display, they have to be pretty small, and as a result, some people — especially those with vision problems — may find small type and other fine details hard to decipher.
If you’re in that category, the 14.1-inch models may well be worth the extra cost and weight. If you can easily read small type — and you don’t mind a slightly slower processor and smaller hard drive — you might want to opt for the 12.1-inch screen. You’ll save money and come away with a notebook that’s noticeably easier to haul around.
There’s another change in the iBook line: a CD-RW/DVD-ROM (Combo) drive is now standard in all three models, even the lowest-priced configuration, which in the G3 generation came with a CD-ROM drive. (If you order through Apple’s Web store, you can downgrade the 14-inch models to CD-ROM and save $100; this option isn’t currently available for the 12-inch model.)
All three configurations also come with 256MB of memory. In one sense, that’s a welcome, if belated, step forward. Given today’s low RAM prices and the demands of OS X, there was no good excuse for continuing to offer just 128MB as standard equipment in most configurations.
The problem is that the new models have only half their memory soldered to the logic board; the other 128MB come in the form of a DIMM occupying the single RAM-expansion slot. If you want to add memory — as many users surely will — to get the most out of OS X, you have to throw away the 128MB DIMM to make way for a larger one. (If you order from Apple’s Web store, you can avoid the issue by upgrading up front to 384MB of total memory, for $50, or 640MB, for $150.) Officially, 640MB is the maximum amount of RAM the new iBooks support, but some suppliers are already offering 1GB modules, boosting total memory to 1,152MB. If you buy third-party RAM, make sure it has been tested and certified for the iBook G4. We discovered that generic RAM, even if it appears to be compatible, can cause a variety of problems. Installing third-party RAM and/or exceeding the stated maximum iBook memory don’t automatically affect your warranty, but Apple says that if your computer is damaged by or operates poorly with unsupported brands or RAM levels, your warranty will not cover the cost of repairs.
Compared to the G3, the chip that powered all previous iBooks, the G4 processor not only runs at higher clock speeds but also adds AltiVec (also known as Velocity Engine), a special feature that speeds up some routines commonly used by graphics, multimedia, and cryptographic applications.
The net effect is a welcome performance boost over the old G3 iBooks — even though the version of the G4 chip Apple uses in the new models has only 256KB of on-chip Level 2 cache, half the amount built into the version of the G3 used in the previous iBooks.
This speed increase ranges from modest in some operations to dramatic in others, particularly with software that takes advantage of AltiVec. In our Speedmark benchmark tests, the 1GHz iBook G4 outscored the fastest previous iBook, which featured a 900MHz G3, by about 21 percent overall. But if you look at the individual tests that score is based on, the improvement is much more substantial in some cases: rendering an iMovie and encoding a song in AAC format are 30 percent to almost 40 percent faster on the 1GHz G4.
The iBooks are still the slowest Macs on the shelf — even the fastest model lags behind the eMac and the base iMac and PowerBook configurations, although all of those systems also have 1GHz G4s. At least the gap has narrowed, and while the speed of the new models won’t knock anyone’s socks off, they don’t feel as if they’re constantly laboring under OS X’s demands, as older and low-end G3 iBooks did.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Unless you have problems with its small screen, the standout in the new iBook G4 line is the $1,099 model. By today’s standards, it’s a bit of a laggard in performance, but in other respects — price, weight, and features — it’s an impressive value. In fact, aside from the speed penalty and a few features most users will never miss (such as a DVI-out port, an audio line-in jack, and support for extended-desktop mode with external monitors), it’s a remarkably close match for the entry-level 12-inch PowerBook, which costs almost half again as much at $1,599.
Between the two 14-inch iBooks, our choice is the $1,299 model with a 933MHz processor. The slightly better performance and larger hard drive (60GB versus 40GB) of its 1GHz sibling hardly justify the $200 price difference — especially because, if you have your iBook built to order, you can upgrade the 933MHz model’s hard drive to 60GB for just $50 more.