A Sturdy Travel Buddy in the iBook

jim@jimheid.com

Last week, I detailed my first impressions of the new iBook, which at 4.9 pounds is the lightest of Apple's current laptop Macs. I finished that column on a bus while jostling to the airport and I e-mailed it to my editor from my departure gate, the iBook balanced atop a pay phone.

Those were the first in what would be a series of trouble-free travel experiences with the iBook. After spending thousands of coach-class miles and several days on the road with the new iBook, I have only a few minor criticisms. And I have a new favorite laptop.

The iBook's compact size--imagine a letter-sized spiral notebook an inch and a third high--makes it an ideal frequent flier. It doesn't monopolize a tray table the way its pricier titanium sibling does, and the smaller screen means a bit more in-flight privacy.

As I mentioned last week, the iBook's connection ports are on the left side of the computer rather than on the rear panel. Keeping ports off the back panel enabled Apple to design a clever hinge for the iBook's screen. The hinge is offset in a way that reduces the computer's overall height when the screen is open. When open, the new iBook is more than 2 inches shorter than its predecessor.

That hinge design probably saved the iBook's screen during one of my flights. As the iBook sat on my tray table, a portly passenger in front of me reclined his seat with a lurch that would have registered on the Richter scale. A taller computer might have been caught under the tray table latch, but the low-slung iBook fit the cramped confines with about 2 inches to spare.

The screeching audio bug I described last week seems to be fixed by Apple's iBook Audio Update software. I spent many in-flight hours listening to MP3 tracks, and the only distortion I heard was in the guitar solos.

My criticisms begin with the iBook's bulky power adapter, which is the same 4.5-inch-diameter yo-yo that burdens the titanium PowerBook G4. If I traveled with an iBook, I'd buy MadsonLine's compact $88 MicroAdapter LE at http://www.madsonline.com.

The iBook's polycarbonate case gives the computer a sturdy feel, but its white, high-gloss finish picked up numerous scratches after a few days on the road. As with the PowerBook G4, a padded case is a must if you want to preserve the computer's pristine looks.

Apple rates the iBook's battery life at five hours, but mine fell a bit short of that. On a flight from California to Pennsylvania, power pooped out somewhere over Ohio.

With Apple now offering two first-rate laptop models, which one should mobile Mac fans consider? The iBook has some advantages over the PowerBook G4: It's smaller and lighter, and at $1,299 to $1,799, it costs about half as much. And the $1,799 iBook is the only Mac available with a combination DVD drive and CD burner. Both the iBook and the G4 also provide AirPort wireless networking as well as USB and FireWire jacks.

The PowerBook G4's advantages begin with speed. The G4 processor is faster at complex tasks, such as processing digital audio and video. The PowerBook G4 can hold as much as a gigabyte of memory--about twice the iBook's capacity. The iBook is no snail, but for mobile media professionals, the PowerBook G4 is superior.

The PowerBook G4 also is more expandable. Its PC Card expansion slot can accommodate add-ons such as flash-memory adapters that enable fast transfers of digital camera images. The iBook lacks this slot.

And finally, those screens. The iBook's 12.1-inch screen makes for tiny text that eyes of a certain age might have trouble reading. Not only is the PowerBook G4's 15.2-inch screen larger, its wide format is better suited to video editing programs and their horizontally scrolling timeline windows.

For well-heeled road warriors doing mobile audio and video work, the PowerBook G4 is the obvious choice. But students and frequent fliers looking for a durable and compact laptop will find the new iBook a capable companion. Even when the slobs in front of them recline their seats.

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Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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