Review: iBook: A Laptop for the Home User
Company: Apple Computer, Inc.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iBook, I knew I had to have one. At the time, I owned a PowerBook 2400c and was looking for a machine to replace it. I didn’t need, nor could I afford, a machine that had all the bells and whistles. What I needed was a machine that could handle word processing, Internet access, and play games on the go. Most of all, I wanted a machine that would compliment my desktop machine. The iBook fit the bill almost perfectly: its price was decent (if a bit high), it had solid construction, and the 300 MHz G3 processor was exactly what I needed for the tasks I had in mind. Its good looks were just icing on the cake! I ordered my iBook just hours after it became available at The Apple Store.
The iBook fills a vacancy in the Macintosh lineup. Where the PowerBook is geared for higher end professionals, the iBook is geared for the average consumer—home or college users. With that in mind, the iBook is a truly great machine. Many reviewers giving the iBook low marks seem to forget that point. If you plan to do some non-linear video editing or some other highly intensive graphics work, don’t be cheap and buy an iBook thinking it will do the job. An iBook customer is most interested in a machine that:
- Is all-in-one, meaning everything you need comes with it.
- Can access the Internet easily and quickly.
- Can run many applications, particularly games and word processing programs.
- Costs less than a PowerBook, but performs fast enough for an average user.
It’s All in the Details
One of the first things I noticed when I opened up the box was the iBook’s size. It’s larger than I imagined, which disappointed me at first. But after using it a while, I grew to appreciate its size, which makes it damage-resistant. The computer itself has a thick, rubberized shell around it, making it somewhat large. While I don’t know how much protection the casing really offers, it feels sturdy enough that I trust myself to carry it by the handle.
The iBook’s oversized shell becomes especially noticeable when you open it. The LCD screen has the most protective plastic around it, making it look top heavy. Rumors of the display being so top heavy that it tips over the whole machine at sharp angles are untrue. I sat the iBook on a table and it wouldn’t tip over at any angle.
The carrying handle is another excellent feature that men may be apprehensive about using. Yes, when carried by its handle, the iBook looks like a purse. Few people poke fun at my iBook, however, because they’re always in awe of it!
Because the iBook doesn’t have the traditional security slot, Apple states that you can run a security cable through the handle and it will do just fine. At first I found that to be of little comfort, but the handle actually appears to be very sturdy, with a metal bar running through the middle of it. When it comes to someone trying to steal your iBook, I figure if they really want it, they will find a way to take it no matter how attached to the desk it is. But a thief would probably either destroy the iBook in the process of disconnecting the handle or would need a very loud saw to cut through it. It’s a very tempting target for thieves—I just make it a point to not leave my laptop unattended.
When I show off my iBook to colleagues, the first thing I do is let them try to open it up. Because of the clamshell design—and it is like a clamshell—virgin iBookers tend to have trouble opening it up. I enjoy watching people fiddle around with it for a while, unsuccessfully trying to open it. At first, people are very gentle with it, but soon they are pulling and tugging on it in the strangest ways! Just before they use a crowbar to pry it open, I stop them and show them how to open it. They are amazed at the elegant simplicity of it.
The keyboard is similar to that of the iMac. Personally, I love the feel of the keyboard and think it is very responsive. Several friends have given negative feedback about the keyboard, saying that it feels a little loose and that the top right part of the keyboard bends up a bit. This will happen if you don’t reattach the keyboard correctly after making an installation. Speaking of installations...
Apple has made access to the internal components easier than ever. There are two small latches on the keyboard, located between the sets of function keys. When unlatched, the keyboard lifts up, revealing the hard drive, AirPort card, RAM, and CD drive. You can easily add RAM—there’s even a diagram printed inside showing you how to do it! There really isn’t access to anything else, and it would void your warranty anyway if you opened it up any more.
There are two problems with this easy access: first, it is too easy to open. A child could remove the keyboard in five seconds and wreak all sorts of havoc. Worse, a thief could steal your RAM or AirPort card in a matter of seconds. Given a few minutes, a thief could also remove your hard drive and CD drive. The only security device “locking” the keyboard down is a tiny screw that, when given a 1/2 turn, is supposed to hold it down. Don’t rely on it. All a thief would have to do is give the keyboard a hard yank and it will break off from its other (plastic) hinges.
The second problem becomes obvious when you lift the keyboard. You realize that the keyboard itself is fragile when not attached. Most alarming is the strip of cable connecting the keyboard to the computer. If you’re not careful, you could rip the cable right out of the machine. The strip is just long enough to move the keyboard aside and make installations, no more. This needs to be redesigned.
As with PowerBooks, the iBook has a trackpad. There are three differences. The trackpad itself is silver, a nice cosmetic touch. The button is extra large and is wider than the trackpad itself. Also extra large is the wrist rest. You’ll really appreciate these features when the laptop is on your lap for three or four hours on a plane.
Three or four hours may be all the time you’ll get to use that iBook while on a plane. Apple claims the iBook’s battery will last six hours—more than enough for a trans-atlantic flight. From my totally non-scientific tests, the iBook runs out of fuel somewhere over England. With a full charge, I can expect to get around four hours of usage. During my tests, I did a variety of things, like play Nanosaur, surf the Web, work in AppleWorks, and edit some images in Photoshop. I even left the machine idle for a good hour. I don’t know how Apple figured the battery would last for six hours—with a full charge, the battery level indicator never topped 5 hours, 10 minutes of estimated life. The actual battery life, which is around three hours, is fairly typical for laptops, so my only problem is with the false advertising. The typical iBook customer probably isn’t going to be doing lots of work on long flights anyway. Again, if you’re doing office or graphics work, the iBook wasn’t intended for you.
Apple redesigned the battery for the iBook. The battery is slim and long, located underneath the machine. To access it you need a penny to turn two large screws, which remove a cover plate, underneath which lies the battery. Unfortunately, you cannot swap the batteries with the machine asleep.
The iBook comes preinstalled with enough software to get a beginner off on the right foot. Among the software included is: Mac OS 8.6, AppleWorks, Microsoft Internet Explorer & Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator, Acrobat Reader, Nanosaur, Bugdom, and QuickTime 4.
The included OS 8.6 has some new features for the iBook. There is improved power management as well as two sleep modes. The first is the traditional sleep mode. The second sleep mode, when selected, will save the contents in memory to your machine. In the event that power is completely cut off from the iBook, whatever you were working on would be safe if this option were selected.
The single biggest problem with the iBook is the lack of RAM. It comes with 32 megabytes, which doesn’t allow the 300 MHz processor to perform very well. Almost all users will want to immediately install more RAM. I upgraded to the maximum of 160 MB and there was a noticeable and much needed speed boost. Playing Quake 2 or running Virtual PC is smooth (as smooth as Virtual PC gets, that is).
Another problem with the iBook is its display. Its maximum resolution is 800x600 with millions of colors. I constantly have windows stacked on top of each other. Forget doing touch-up work in Photoshop with the iBook—the palettes all but completely cover the actual image. To its credit, the display is extremely bright and colors are exceptionally vibrant for a LCD.
Graphics for game play is good, but not exceptional. The iMac does a better job, as expected, but if you’ve got to play Unreal while on that long flight, you won’t be disappointed. I noticed that the CD drive was a bit slow at times when playing games. When a CD is in the drive, the iBook becomes rather loud.
The speaker sitting on the base of the laptop is barely acceptable. It can barely be heard at medium volume. With the volume at maximum, the speaker sounds awful. (Except for system beeps—they sound great!)
One of the features touted was an instant wake-up from sleep mode. While the waking up speed is faster, it’s not instant. Sometimes the computer is ready after two or three seconds. Other times, it takes ten seconds or more. Most of the time it wakes up quickly, but sometimes I still see the pointer turn to a watch.
Is it for You?
What makes the iBook such an extraordinary machine are the small touches that went into the design. From a glowing sleep indicator to a sheet of stickers that let you label the function keys, a lot of thought went into this machine. It’s not designed for high end work of any kind, so keep that in mind. If you love the iMac and are happy with its features, you’ll love the iBook.