All white now

Introduction

Apple’s British whiz-kid head designer Jonathan Ive started out blueprinting baths, basins and WCs for Ideal Standard. (In fact, I believe that my toilet at home is an early Ive.) With Apple’s new consumer Mac portable iBook computer, the talented Mr Ive has made a symbolic return to the world of white goods. The iBook is white and very very good. New iBook vs old iBook
Like most of Ive’s creations, Apple’s original iBook (which itself looked a bit like a colourful designer toilet seat) won awards aplenty, and sold well. It was the Number 1 consumer portable for many months after its launch back in September 1999. We loved its pixel-sharp 12.1-inch active-matrix TFT screen with millions of colours at 800-x-600-pixel resolution. We adored its innovative handle, its full-size keyboard, AirPort readiness, 300-466MHz G3 processor, and ultra-long battery life. But we did moan about its meagre RAM (expandable to just 160MB) and the lack of any video-out port. But most of all, we groaned under its 3.1kg (6.7 lbs) weight. Now, with the all-new model, Apple has maintained or improved the original iBook’s plus points and eliminated the negatives. The new iBook’s 12.1-inch active-matrix TFT screen displays millions of colours at a greater 1,024-x-768-pixel resolution. The handle has gone, but the size and weight are down to allow easier under-arm carriage. The G3 is more powerful at 500MHz, and RAM is expandable to a maximum 640MB. Apple claims that battery life can reach up to five hours – an hour down on the first iBook, but more realistic. Apple’s even added an RGB Video Out port so that you can mirror your work to an external display or projector. It also retains the TV/VCR-ready AV port. The addition of a second USB port is welcome. While you could always add an inexpensive USB hub to the original iBook (and still can with this one, of course), two ports offer greater flexibility and portability. The 10GB hard disk certainly isn’t huge, but should suffice for most of its target market. If you need more space, adding a hot-pluggable FireWire hard drive is easy and not too expensive (an extra 10GB drive costs around £230). Best of all, the new iBook weighs just 2.2kg (4.9 lbs) – nearly a bag of sugar less heavy than the old iBook, and 0.2kg (0.5 lb) lighter than even the titanium PowerBook G4. Weight to go That’s not to say that the iBook is as light as a feather – indeed, at that weight you could feed two with the whole chicken. It’s at the heavy end of the subnotebook spectrum, with weeny Windows portables getting as low as 1.7kg. Even Apple’s old PowerBook Duo (1992-97) and PowerBook 2400 (1997-98; available only in North America and Japan) weighed a little less. But none of these little laptops offer/offered all the iBook does. iBook vs Windows subnotebooks
Take Sony’s range of Vaio slim notebooks. Comparing like with like, we’ll compare Apple’s iBook with the Vaio Z600 to start with. The Z600 (same size active-matrix screen, 700MHz Pentium 3; 64MB RAM; 15GB hard drive; and Windows 2000) weighs just 1.7kg (or 3.75 lbs), which is half a kilo lighter than the iBook. However, to keep its weight down to this level, Sony has left out the optical-media drive. If you want a CD-ROM drive, you’ll need to buy a special docking station that not only adds the difference in weight, but makes it more cumbersome by including external extras. And, right now, a CD-ROM is your only option. If you want CD-RW, DVD-ROM or a combination of both, you must buy an external, third-party drive – adding further pounds to both weight and cost. Where the everything-built-in iBook costs from £1,099 (inc. VAT), the Vaio costs a whopping £1,699 with 16x CD-ROM only. And its estimated battery life is just two-and-a-half hours – half that of the iBook. To reach the iBook’s battery charge life, you need to buy a spare battery to swap in – you’ve guessed it, that means more cost (about £270) and extra weight. Sony does have a couple of laptops that beat the iBook on price. The £880 Vaio FX101 (600MHz Celeron processor; 64MB RAM; 10GB hard drive; but no built-in ethernet; Windows ME) even has a slightly larger screen (13.3 inches), although its maximum resolution (1,024-x-768 pixels) is the same as the iBook’s. This time, the 24x CD-ROM is built-in, but you’ll have to buy an external, third-party drive if you want CD-RW or DVD. And the FX101’s battery life still lags two hours behind the iBook’s, without any option of swapping batteries between recharging. Oh, yes, it weighs a fifth more than the iBook… Sony’s other option is its quirky new £979 QR10 laptop (650MHz Celeron; 64MB RAM; 10GB hard drive; Windows Me), which has taken a note from Apple’s original iBook on ‘think different’ looks and its carry-handle. Like the other comparable PC laptops, this is available with CD-ROM only. Other failings include its 3kg weight (as heavy as the original iBook) and 2.5-hour battery life. Sony’s obviously consumer-targeted QR10 has borrowed elements of Apple’s first iBook. The case looks quite smart, and maybe less like a toy than 1999’s iBook – although I think it looks like a giant metal pencil case. Oddly, the keyboard is toy-like, and nothing like as smart as either the original or new iBook. Also, Sony equips its Vaios with 4-pin FireWire connectors – so if you want to add external storage (like LaCie’s PocketDrive), you have to add an extra power supply. Macs boast the 6-pin connector that supplies power as well as data. Portability isn’t just the weight of the machine, it’s all the other stuff you have to carry round with you. And don’t forget Apple’s AirPort (IEEE 802.11) technology that gets you fast wireless networking and Web browsing up to 150ft away from your phone line or ethernet hub or router. No compromise vs flexibility Like the PowerBook, the iBook comes fully loaded: ethernet; CD, DVD, CD-RW or CD-RW/DVD combo; USB; FireWire; modem; Video Out; AV, etc. Adding all this stuff takes the Windows equivalents way over the 2.2kg barrier. And the iBook costs a whole lot less. Of course, there’s something to be said for the PC laptops’ flexibility. If you don’t need an optical drive, Vaio Z600 users can leave it at home or in the office, and lug a lot less dead weight around. Apple doesn’t want to go down this route, as it believes that none of its machines should be “compromised”. In any case, for the money, Apple’s new iBook is as light as any of today’s fully specified laptops – and it’s not even Apple’s pro system. iBook vs PowerBook
In fact, many Mac professionals will prefer the iBook to the PowerBook. The PowerBook is super-fast and features super video, but is it worth the weight? Performance Creative pros should plump for the lump. The PowerBook’s extra half a pound is certainly worthwhile for the additional performance boost guaranteed by the G4 processor. Macworld Lab tests point to the 400MHz PowerBook G4 being at least 22 per cent faster than the new iBook, and the 500MHz PBG4 as 37 per cent faster. See the above table “Mac portable performance” for more. The latest PowerBook’s AltiVec-optimized G4 processor counts for much of this extra oomph, but one of the new iBook models really fell to the floor during our speed tests. The iBook (with 64MB of RAM) took almost twice as long as the 128MB iBooks to complete the Internet Explorer part of the Speedmark test. This isn’t down to the rather limited memory, as the older 64MB/466MHz iBook SE came in at just under the score of the new 128MB/500MHz iBook. Our tests revealed that one reason for the slower speeds on the new CD-ROM drive is that it has a 128K buffer size compared to the 512K buffer of the older drives. That all the new iBooks (and those that preceded it) score around the same as 1999’s 350MHz iMac despite much faster G3 chips is down to the simple matter of less cache. The older iMac had 512K level-2 cache (for speedy storage of frequently used data, to save the system constantly trawling for that data between hard disk, RAM and processor); the iBooks have half that amount, at 256K. Clearly, the new iBook is no speed merchant, although its performance should be ample for nearly all consumer and education-oriented operations. But it is definitely not for graphics or video pros. iMovie performance is fine; Final Cut Pro’s isn’t. Screen size While the iBook’s smaller screen size won’t bother those who use Word and a Web browser as their mainstays, graphics and video professionals will greatly appreciate the PowerBook’s 15.2-inch widescreen display. The iBook’s 1,024-x-768-pixel resolution is actually quite spacious, but the PowerBook’s 1,152-x-768 supplies much-needed space for those palette-crazy applications. If the native 1,024-x-768-pixel resolution of the screen makes icons and text too small for you, note that all lower resolutions have to be created via pixel interpolation – small pixels emulating larger pixels – and the results can be blocky and fuzzy. Video
The AV port lets you show your movies and presentations to best effect on a big-screen TV. If you have one of the DVD iBooks, you can watch your DVD movies via the iBook as well. However, if you want to watch a lot of DVDs at home – on a long-haul flight is another matter entirely – we’d recommend a separate DVD player and home-cinema system. The PowerBook’s S-Video output port is also superior to the iBook’s AV port. S-Video separates information into two signals: Chrominance (which separates colour information); and Luminance (brightness). This prevents colour bleeding and dot crawl, and increases clarity and sharpness. For most of us, though, the iBook’s AV port will easily be sufficient. Memory Heavy-duty applications require a stack of memory, as well as a G4 processor. The PowerBook comes with at least 128MB of RAM, expandable to 1GB. The entry-level iBook comes with 64MB of RAM, which really requires an immediate upgrade to at least 128MB – especially if you’re considering upgrading to Mac OS X in the near future. (See “Extra value and extra costs” below). Size With its smaller screen, the iBook can be a lot littler than its pro sibling. In fact, the iBook is only slightly larger than its (12.1-inch diagonal) screen. It’s 28.5cm wide (compared to the PowerBook’s 34.1cm), and 23cm deep (PB: 24.1cm). This makes the iBook even better than the PB G4 for air travel work and play. The PowerBook is skinnier, however: 2.6cm (1 inch) thin compared to the iBook’s 3.4cm (1.35 inches). Due to the CD-RW drive requiring a tray-loading drive, the iBook cannot take advantage of the PowerBook’s thinner slot-loading mechanism. (This is also the reason that Power Macs still have the tray-loaded CD drive; so roll on slot-loading rewriteable CD drives.) nput/output The iBook boasts the same full-size keyboard and trackpad as the PowerBook, so there’s no loss of comfort due to the tiny footprint. Two magnets at the leading edge of the keyboard (closest to the screen) ensure the keyboard is nice and firm, so there’s none of that spongy nonsense you often get from laptop keyboards. Above the keyboard, on either side, are built-in stereo speakers. The sound is pretty good, and you can always add Harman Kardon’s £139 SoundSticks (with iSub) for the full iTunes audio experience at home. Like the PowerBook’s, the new iBook’s trackpad is a lot more robust and responsive than the original iBook’s. The addition of a built-in microphone is also a bonus, although a separate USB-based mic is still the superior option. Sound The iBook’s stereo speakers are a big improvement on the original’s, and are even noticeably clearer than even the PowerBook G4’s. Optical media
The new iBook comes as just one G3 speed: 500MHz. The options are all to do with memory (see above) and types of optical-media drives. Your drive choice will also affect speed (see above), but not by enough to worry you greatly. The low-end model (£1,099 inc. VAT) has a CD-ROM drive built-in. This should suit most users, but those who want to watch movies on long-haul flights or even longer-haul short British train journeys should splash out the extra £200 on the DVD-ROM model. As you’re likely to be on the move a lot, you may find yourself in need of removable recordable media for those situations when email and FTP just won’t stretch. Here, Apple provides you with two options. There’s a CD-RW model for £1,399, and a £1,599 CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo model that lets you watch (not burn) DVD movies and record CD-RW and CD-R discs. If there’s any chance that you’ll require a DVD system, then go for either of the DVD solutions now – as Apple’s software doesn’t support movies on external DVD drives. You can buy the CD-ROM version and add an external CD-RW (rather slow USB versions from around £200; better FireWire versions from £269) easily enough. But internal is always best for true portability, so stump up for the built-in 8-speed CD-RW if you possibly can. Extra value and extra costs
Free software Every iBook will ship with both Mac OS 9.1 and OS X (previously on sale separately for £99) installed. 9.1 will be the default operating system, but you can boot in X whenever you want to. Consumers who just use iMovie, iTunes and AppleWorks (all of which have been optimized for OS X) could go with the next-generation operating system fulltime if their printer, scanner and other peripherals are also supported – check with the manufacturers before going all-out X. Of course, the iBooks also ship with Apple’s easy-to-use iMovie 2 digital video editor, which works alongside a camcorder’s FireWire (also known as i.Link and IEEE 1394) connection. iTunes 1.1.1 is also free and bundled with the iBooks. This digital-music jukebox software lets you make MP3 playlists, rip music from CDs, and (with a CD-RW drive) burn your own music CDs, as well as graphically visualize the music as it plays. AppleWorks 6 is a suite of business applications (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, database, graphics) that is also bundled, alongside Web browsers and email clients from Microsoft and Netscape. Cro-Mag Rally, Bugdom, Nanosaur are the free fun games included alongside the more serious stuff. Cables Unlike the PowerBook G4, the iBook doesn’t come with a FireWire cable. Buying one of these costs about £25. And the iBook requires a special £15 AV cable to connect to your TV or VCR. RAM If you buy the CD-ROM model, plan on buying at least an extra 64MB of RAM (to take it to 128MB). This will cost you £80 (inc. VAT) at the online Apple Store, but just £28.50 from Crucial Technology (www.crucial.com/uk); alternatively, call around the mail-order dealers at the back of Macworld, making sure that you state that it’s for the 500MHz iBook. The base RAM (either 64MB or 128MB) is soldered to the logic board, leaving one free DIMM slot for adding extra. This single free DIMM slot means you’re better off buying as large a RAM DIMM as possible now rather than a 64MB one now and having to replace that later with a larger one. Crucial is offering a 256MB DIMM (to add to the 64MB or 128MB) for £122. Design
Strength One of the strong points of the original iBook was its robust casing, which had co-moulded rubber bumpers to save its exposed edges from the usual knocks and bumps consumers and students subject laptops to. Despite the lack of rubber bumpers, Apple claims that this new iBook is twice as durable as the old iBook. The new case is made from “impact-resistant” polycarbonate plastic. Inside, it’s further strengthened with a magnesium frame, which adds sturdiness and reduces weight. To give the iBook even greater “bump tolerance”, Apple rubber-mounts the hard drive. As with the original iBook, there are no protruding latches or levers to snap off. Sadly, the handle has gone – but it’s fairly easy to tuck under your arm when walking about, and now looks less like a plastic handbag. A primary hinge connects the top and bottom of the case. The firm, thick hinge swings the screen back and down, behind the computer’s back edge, which lowers its overall height when open. Looks Apple has whitewashed its fancy colour policy with this new system. Its milky-white case is interrupted only by a metallic-grey band that’s sandwiched between the near-featureless top and bottom casing. There are a few features to the otherwise minimal round-edged case. There’s a glowing crystal Apple logo that sits the right-way up when facing away from you, and a pulsing light sleep light embedded in the central grey strap. The colour (or rather lack of it) is reminiscent of the now-discontinued Snow iMac. As a portable, it’s bound to get scratched, but these don’t stand out as much as they would have on a coloured plastic case. The iBook also shares the same magnetic catch, and the rounded metal release button.
Find the best price