iBook

It looks like no other portable computer. It’s colourful. It’s powerful. And, finally, it’s here. Will Apple’s iBook electrify the laptop world as much as its see-through older brother, the iMac, did for the world of dreary desktop PCs? It’s often forgotten that Apple started the whole laptop explosion – sometimes literally – with its innovative PowerBook back in 1991; I’ll ignore 1989’s monstrous Mac Portable. Since the successful launch of the PowerBook, Apple let its market-share lead slide to the point where IBM cleaned up (with its ThinkPad), and Sony became the true innovator (with its Vaio). However cool the new slim PowerBook G3 is, it’s the iBook that marks Apple’s true portable return. Hello boys...er, girls
First impressions count, and the iBook’s a traffic-stopper. Its translucent Blueberry and Tangerine rubber and plastics make the iBook look like no other laptop. Its gently rounded clamshell shape – accentuated by the sweeping rubber curve – is also quite different to the notebook norm. Softer, yes – but it’s also tougher than most fiddly laptops. Apple has broken the mould with a design that has an unbreakable mould. Its rugged, impact-resistant exterior is strengthened by colour-co-ordinated co-moulded rubber edges, which protect the iBook from bumps and knocks – and add a sexy smoothness. Aiming the iBook at schools as well as general consumers, Apple needed to make it kid-iot proof. The lack of a breakable latch is a superb innovation – the halves are kept closed by way of a silent spring-loaded hinge. The iBook is further strengthened by Apple leaving out a losable PC Card slot and sinking the USB, 100Base-T ethernet and 56Kbps modem ports deeper into the machine’s ridgeless, rounded sides. Even the 24-x CD tray seems sturdier than the average. I said I’d ignore the Mac Portable, but the iBook does share one public perception with Apple’s old leviathan: a weight problem. OK, the iBook’s less than half the weight of the ‘luggable’, but 3kg is still a bit hefty when carried about in a case. Thank heavens, then, for the transparent carrying handle, which automatically snaps back when not in use. It makes picking up the iBook very easy indeed. As with other aspects of the design, if you think it looks like a handbag – and that bothers you – go for the more macho PowerBook. It’s not my job here to tell you what to like, but it is the reviewer’s prerogative to urge you to go take a look at the iBook. One reason that the iBook’s no slimline Sony Vaio is the super-sharp 12.1-inch active-matrix display, capable of displaying millions-of-colours at 800-x-600-pixel resolution – putting the Vaio to some screen shame. A lighter Mac laptop would be ace, but we’d have to trade down our screen-size expectations, as well as any number of other full-size features that the iBook has aplenty. The translucent white keyboard, for instance, is comfortable and neat – slightly perkier than the PowerBook G3’s keyboard. The F1 through F6 keys control screen brightness, volume, sound muting, and Num Lock functions; press F7 through F12, and a dialogue box offers to launch your favourite program, document, or networked disk on subsequent presses of that key. The iBook has a lithium-ion battery life that makes it outlast most other portables. Six hours, claims Apple, “depending on configuration and usage”. In our tests, we couldn’t match that bonzer battery boast. We came close to five hours, which is still highly impressive. And you’ll get more life out of your battery if you add more memory, rather than relying on virtual memory. Where’s all that extra juice coming from? Apple has added a raft of new power-management features, including rewritten Power Manager software, and an Energy Control module that also reduces startup time. The sleep function is dreamy – the iBook automatically wakes when its lid is opened. The sleep indicator pulses rather than flashes on and off – a feature that has been carried on to the new iMacs. The power-plug light glows orange when the battery is charging, and green when it is fully powered. For more details on this and the other iBook features, read ‘Me, myself and iBook’, Macworld, September 1999. The iBook lacks a video-out capability, leaving those who need one to AverMedia’s USB-to-VGA USBPresenter. So if the 12.1-inch screen seems cramped, it’s going to be a struggle to connect an external monitor, or multimedia projector. And there’s no microphone – again, look out for a future USB solution. By leaving out some rarely-used regulars, Apple has kept the iBook’s price down to £1,249 – a pretty good deal for an active-matrix 300MHz G3 laptop. Memory, however, is a lacklustre 32MB – you’ll need to add at least another 32MB of RAM (about £50). Don’t even think about scrounging for virtual memory – portables’ hard disks are liable to drop off to sleep just when you need that extra memory. Cue painful wait. As with any computer, adding extra memory will reduce the chances of the iBook crashing. The 3.2GB hard disk seemed more than reasonable until Apple announced the new iMacs would boast storage from 6GB to a mighty 13GB. As there’s no PC Card bays, your only options for extra storage are external USB drives. As a consumer/educational computer, the iBook comes with the same bundle as the iMac – minus the new iMovie, as there’s no FireWire connection. Apple couldn’t provide us with a working version of its AirPort wireless technology – together, the AirPort Card and Base Station cost an extra £318 (inc. VAT) – so we couldn’t test this great advance in mobile computing. But, if it lives up to Apple’s claims – up to ten users linked at 11Mbs up to 150ft away from modem or ethernet connection – then it makes the iBook the hottest portable ever. Some claim. Some machine.

OUR VERDICT

I’ll leave the aesthetic decisions to you, but most of Apple’s design innovations are a welcome change to the old ways of making portable computers. Demanding Mac pros will prefer the 400MHz G3 PowerBook, but the iBook is powerful enough for most of us. Students, in particular, are going to fall for the iBook in a big way. Other options you should consider are the new iMacs – see our feature in the December 1999 issue. If that iBook isn’t really going to leave your house or office that often, the more powerful consumer desktop Mac might be a better bet. The new iMacs also have a larger screen, more memory, and finer audio capabilities. And, like the iBook, they can join Apple’s wireless revolution. Together, the AirPort option and longer battery life offer tantalizing wireless opportunities for portable users. Order your online groceries from the end of your garden. Easily equip a classroom with iBooks, iMacs and a few Base Stations. This iBook puts Apple back in the driving seat of innovative mobile computing. It deserves to be a best-seller. Just add more RAM.

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