iBook is a lean, clean machine

The sleek, thin Apple iBook comes with so much bundled software that it seems almost like a personal perk.

Olivier Douliery

The G4 Apple iBook reminds me a little of a greyhound. Looking sleek and way too delicate, it becomes a 'Like, wow, man!' competitor when the gun goes off.

Notebook PCs are usually dark, serious-looking machines that come in no-nonsense corrugated boxes. Not the iBook, which Apple recently re-introduced with a G4 Motorola PowerPC processor.

Mine came in a snazzy white box, and the computer itself is snow-white, from its lacquer-look shell (with the familiar backlit Apple logo) to the keyboard and deck, also pure white with a matte finish. It's a truly good-looking computer.

I admit to sometimes being swayed by product styling, even over performance. But the iBook didn't disappoint.

I've been testing the $1,299, 933-MHz midrange model with a 14.1-inch TFT active-matrix display. It has a 40G hard drive and a CD-burning, DVD-reading optical drive.

I upgraded the standard 256M of RAM to 640M of double-data-rate synchronous dynamic RAM and added an Apple AirPort Extreme IEEE 802.11b wireless card. Together they raised the price $300.

One thing I liked immediately is that the wireless card was mounted internally, in a bay under the keyboard. Nothing sticks out of the computer to get broken off.

Apple also makes a 12.1-inch iBook and a 14.1-inch one with a 1-GHz processor and 60G drive. All have integrated 10/100-Mbps Ethernet, V.92 56-Kbps modem and internal speakers.

They all run Mac OS X 10.3, nicknamed Panther, which has received deservedly good reviews. Apple built its shell around Berkeley System Distribution Unix. I've been using 10.x for 18 months and have found that only power interruptions are capable of crashing it'with one exception.

The newest version, 10.3, has a bug that tends to crash the iBook when it's in sleep mode for more than a couple of hours, unless you've logged out.

The iBook has been a solid performer at a variety of tasks. Using Apple's Safari browser and sharing a Verizon Wireless digital subscriber line connection via a Cisco Linksys wireless router, I downloaded Web pages as fast as on a hardwired Ethernet.

For ordinary e-mail and word processing, the computer felt as fast as any Microsoft Windows notebook I've used. PhotoStudio image-editing software from ArcSoft Inc. of Fremont, Calif., did tax the iBook's 133-MHz system bus and processor, however. Re-rendering a 5-megapixel color photo into 24-bit grayscale took about 10 seconds.

If you do a lot of graphics-intensive work, consider Apple's pricier PowerBooks with more Level 2 cache and beefier graphics subsystems.

I like many things about the iBook hardware. The full-sized keyboard has a solid key-throw, although the keys rattle a bit. One drawback is that the iBook lacks the handy forward-delete key. You must press Fn-Delete for that.

More important, Apple's touch pad is the most perfectly responsive I've ever used on a notebook'so much so that I turn to its single large button first, rather than the mouse I added for a rather steep 50 bucks.

Elegance

Apple's slot-loading optical drive is an elegant touch, as is the amazingly small and light'and also snow-white'power brick.

Where the power cord plugs into the computer, an LED ring changes from orange to green to show the battery is charged. On the bottom of the case, a four-LED display indicates the approximate battery power remaining.

I got a good three hours' running time from a battery charge, although in standby the battery can support the computer for several days.

There are a few drawbacks. Two USB 2.0 ports aren't enough, although I'm asking a lot when a similarly priced Dell Inc. notebook running Microsoft Windows has only one USB 2.0 port. And much as I like the iBook's super-clean design, I wonder how white it will look in six months.

The important advantage I find with Apple computers versus PCs could be a mixed blessing if you buy them off-the-shelf for agency users. That is the complete software bundle that comes with them. In my opinion, the included software negates the common notion that Apple hardware is overpriced.

You get a full office suite, AppleWorks, that is file-compatible with Microsoft Office, as well as fairly robust photography, music, DVD, movie-making, antivirus and e-mail applications, plus numerous other goodies. All this leaves a solid 30G of free disk space, but it also might make an agency-supplied computer seem too much like a personal perk.

All in all, the iBook confirmed my personal choice to switch from Windows to Mac OS. But there is a learning curve for new users. As a replacement unit for users of System 9, you won't get many complaints.

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