iBook Loses Its Bulk, Packs On the Pixels

jim@jimheid.com

The same basic drive train as the old model, but a flashy new body--that about sums up the redesigned iBook that Apple began shipping in mid-May. The new iBook is faster than its predecessor and has a variety of technical tweaks, but it isn't the major architectural leap forward that the titanium PowerBook G4 was over its predecessors.

But what a body. The old iBook was winsome but bulbous and bulky. Its replacement is angular and trim. The carrying handle and the rubber bumpers that cushioned the old iBook are gone. The new model wears a polycarbonate case in high-gloss white. Comparing an iBook to a toilet seat or a Kenner Close 'N Play phonograph is no longer appropriate.

At 4.9 pounds, the iBook has shed nearly two pounds and weighs even less than the svelte PowerBook G4. And it's compact. Stack some photocopier paper an inch and a third high, and you've about matched the dimensions of the new iBook. In all, it's a terrific computer, though users with bad eyes will want to test drive its screen before buying.

The new iBook is available in several models. All contain a 500-megahertz G3 processor, a 10-gigabyte hard drive, a 56-kilobit-per-second modem and a slot for Apple's $99 AirPort wireless networking card. Where the models differ is in memory and CD drive options. A $1,299 model contains an inadequate 64 megabytes of memory, a 10-GB hard drive and a CD-ROM drive. A $1,499 model contains 128 MB of memory and a DVD drive. A $1,599 model packs a CD burner, and a $1,799 model--the flavor I tested--has a combination DVD drive and CD burner, a versatile drive unavailable in any other Mac.

The iBook provides Apple's usual mix of expansion connectors. There are two USB ports (the old iBook had just one), an Ethernet networking port and a FireWire port for tapping into camcorders and other add-ons. As in the old iBook, a minijack serves as a headphone jack and, when used with an optional $19 cable, also enables the iBook to be connected to a TV set--handy for watching DVDs. The new iBook also adds a connector for an external computer monitor. Like its predecessor and other recent Apple machines, the iBook lacks an audio-input jack. There's a built-in microphone, but you can't connect an analog audio source unless you buy a third-party adapter. Too bad.

The iBook's connectors are on the left side of the computer, not on the back as in most laptops. That causes some cable clutter when you're using the computer as a desktop machine, but not having to reach around the back definitely simplifies making connections.

My review unit suffered from a bug that other users have also reported. When playing audio, the iBook would suddenly produce horrific distortion that would have liquefied my eardrums had I been wearing headphones. Apple has issued a software update, called iBook Audio Update, that seems to fix the problem.

Now about that screen. It's the same size as the old iBook's--12.1 inches diagonally--but its resolution is a lot higher. The old iBook displayed 800 pixels horizontally by 600 pixels vertically; the new one displays 1,024 by 768. The higher pixel count enables you to see more and scroll less, but at a price: Because every pixel on the screen is smaller, everything you see is smaller. You can switch the iBook's display resolution to 800 by 600 or even 640 by 480, but in both modes, text looks slightly fuzzy, since the iBook must combine its tiny pixels in order to create larger ones.

The screen is bright and tack-sharp. I didn't find its resolution to be fatiguing, but my eyes still sparkle with the acuity of youth. Well, 40-something youth. Bottom line: If small text bugs you, don't buy until you try.

Apple aims the iBook at the home and education markets, but its size and design will also appeal to business users. Next week, I'll compare the iBook with the PowerBook G4, and I'll report on how it performed on a cross-country business trip.

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Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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