Commentary: Why I like the new iBook

The iBook is the best laptop to come out of Apple in a long time, raves ZDNet columnist Stephan Somogyi. He explains why.

I have long lamented the passing of the PowerBook 2400, Apple's first sub-notebook, and a machine which has had a remarkably loyal following over the years.

Like me, many people I know still have and use their 2400s, retrofitted with G3 upgrades and 802.11b cards. For the longest time it looked as if Apple had decided that the all-in-one was the only way to go.

The introduction of the new iBook shows that Apple still has the wherewithal to produce a fully functional machine in a compact, sturdy package.

Better than the TiBook
Using a new machine is really the only way to get a sense of how well it's designed. The new iBook is very well designed, and I found myself quickly liking it more than I did the Titanium PowerBook G4.

While the higher-end machine has a wider screen, faster processor, and faster system bus, all of which are undeniably useful, the Titanium is also significantly larger, and its AirPort performance, well, sucks. At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference last month, the phrase "AirPort wave" was coined to describe the act of an individual taking a TiBook in hand, holding it up, and waving it around like a dish antenna until it found a usable signal again.

I'd noticed this problem while testing the TiBook back in April and mentioned it to Apple. The response I got was that Apple felt that it wasn't a serious problem and that since the TiBook's AirPort performance was within spec, everything was ok. If Apple wants its flagship technologies to be taken seriously and/or adopted widely, its flagship machines need to showcase them in the best possible way. The TiBook simply doesn't.

Fortunately, the new iBook does. Its AirPort reception (and transmission) is loads better than the TiBook's, and makes this new little laptop thoroughly pleasant to use wirelessly.

Does it go?
I had the good fortune to test an iBook with the combo DVD/CD-RW drive, but I still am unconvinced about the utility of burning CDs on a laptop. Perhaps I'm just old and set in my ways. DVD playback under Mac OS 9 worked well enough, although I do wish there were more keyboard shortcuts for various DVD Player features, and that the infernal tooltips could be disabled.

Performance-wise, the iBook is an excellent Mac OS 9 machine. None of the mainstream apps I used felt bogged-down, even in speed-reduced processor-cycling mode. That said, I wouldn't be inclined to throw processor-intensive apps at this machine on a regular basis, either. It's just not intended for that.

Mac OS X 10.0.4 is another matter entirely. Apple's new OS runs sluggishly enough on my desktop machine (a 450MHz G4), and it only just skulked along on the iBook. The most frequent example of this was OS X increasingly shrill-seeming exhortation to wait for an app to finish launching before double-clicking on it again. The only reason I double clicked again was that I didn't think it was launching in the first place. We can but hope that a future upgrade to OS X makes it usable on the iBook.

The iBook's physical design is slick. Much has been speculated about why it turned out white, but the answer seems readily apparent to me: white is an excellent base color for customization. I expect to see lots of stickers, Sharpie-drawn art, and similar customizations on iBooks during the coming school year.

The education focus of this machine also highlighted one minor shortcoming: the exposed ports along the left side. Every book bag and backpack I used during my academic years invariably accumulated fluff. I would not want such fluff invading my Ethernet, modem, FireWire, or USB ports. Recommendation to Apple: splurge a few cents for a grand unified rubber stopper widget that fits into all six big ports on the left side and protects their innards.

The iBook's hinge is slick in the way it flips the screen behind the base, making the whole machine less cramped. The hinge also seems solid enough. The only mild criticism I have, which may be specific to the test machine I used, is that a slight vibration to the base would traverse the hinge to the screen and cause noticeable torsion in the LCD's lower right corner.

Speaking of the LCD: it's nice. I was worried about squeezing 1024x768 into the smaller physical space, but this display is plenty legible. This is another way that specs and reality diverge: in this case, reality was better than the specs led me to think.

The iBook's battery life is long. I got around 5 hours under Mac OS 9 in regular use, over two hours when playing a DVD, and somewhere in the vicinity of 3 hours with OS X. The TiBook makes you think it wants to be an incandescent heating element; while the iBook's bottom surface does get warm with continued use, it's never uncomfortably hot.

Installing an AirPort card is a snap, and has the added benefit of getting the user to engage the keyboard locking screw. By default, the keyboard has way too much flex in it, making it almost too mushy for protracted typing. However, with the screw turned to the locked position, the iBook keyboard is pleasant indeed.

Adding a larger hard drive is apparently as difficult as adding an AirPort card is easy. I didn't try it myself on this machine, but I have heard from others who've installed the 30GB IBM TravelStar 30GN (the largest drive offered by Apple is a 20GB build-to-order option) in their iBooks that the process is not for the faint of heart. Be warned.

Despite the fact that I think this is the best laptop to come out of Apple in a long time, the new iBook has imperfections. Some can be solved easily, others require a little more effort.

The simple stuff: put at least one more wall-to-puck power cable in the box, or at least make that cable separately purchase-able for a reasonable price (ie under US$10). I don't want to buy multiple AC adapters at US$70 each, but I do want to travel between power sources without all that dangling cable. This seems so utterly obvious that I can't understand why Apple doesn't do it already.

Another simple thing: put the video adapter in the box as well. While I'd vastly prefer S-video to the composite plugs that Apple's adapter currently provides--how many TVs nowadays lack an S-Video in port?--asking US$19 for the adapter seems a bit steep.

While the poor performance I experienced under OS X was almost certainly the result of 10.0.4's lack of optimization, I still sometimes yearned for more horsepower under Mac OS 9. The combination of using a 500MHz 750CXe and a 66MHz bus is an understandable choice that results in the iBook's great battery life. However, I'd be willing to trade some battery life for additional computational oomph.

One possibility would be for Apple to offer an iBook Special Edition with the same form-factor, greater overall performance, and a pre-installed large drive.

Plenty good already
The bottom line is that this is a great PowerBook, and a worthy successor to the 2400. It's inexpensive, small and light, aesthetically pleasing and functional, and provides a well-balanced combination of performance, battery-life, and features. While there's always room for enhancement and improvement, this is the first Apple system in a long time that hasn't immediately evoked the need to wait for Rev B.

ZDNet columnist Stephan Somogyi is curious whether single-estate chocolate really will catch on.