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ISSUE 536: The high tech office- Feb 1 2000


Apple's affordable iBook boasts style and power

More on things Apple.

Last week we looked at the company's latest operating system, OS9 -- and saw a bunch of new features, but also a product that may be overshadowed by the company hyping its next major release: OS X.

This week, we will look at another product Apple announced several months before anyone could buy -- the iBook. It is the company's first portable computer at the popular $2,500 price point.

The August announcement of the iBook brought about a storm of interest, but more for its colour scheme than its capabilities. It's available in an unbusiness-like choice of blue and grayish-white ("blueberry" in Apple-speak) or orange and white ("tangerine"). Its rounded clamshell shape reminded some of a make-up compact, others of a toilet seat.

Computer columnist John Dvorak referred to it as "a girly computer," stirring passionate comments for and against the iBook.

Respondents in an on-
line poll were split pret-
ty evenly about whether they'd want to be seen in public carrying one.

All the to-do may have paid off in sales. Once the iBook finally became available, it shot up to the top of the sales charts for retail notebooks for several months at the end of the year.

Colour and curves aside, though, how capable is it as a business machine?

At 12 inches, the screen size isn't huge but the iBook's active matrix (TFT) screen is a pleasure. It is bright and crisp and looks larger than it actually is. The keys and keypad are big and there isn't the cramped feeling you get with some notebooks. The combination rubber and plastic case feels solid, like it should be able to take the abuse that comes with being portable.

Battery life is exceptional. Apple claims a charge lasts six hours, but I found that four is more realistic. Nevertheless, it's still much better than you'll find on most comparably priced notebooks.

The iBook's PowerPC processor is rated at 300 MHz, around the same speed you'll find on a number of its PC competitors. But at the same megahertz rating, the PowerPC is more powerful than PC processors and seemed plenty fast enough for the writing, Web browsing and other tasks I threw at it. A 56k modem and 10/100 kb/sec Ethernet networking adapter is built in. Built-in networking is lacking in almost all PC notebooks. As well, antennae for Apple's Airport wireless networking are built in, though they can't be used without purchase of a $150 add-on card and a $450 base station.

Apple continues to pay attention to the fine details of design that many other manufacturers neglect. The power cord winds up neatly, making for less clutter in your briefcase. Where it plugs into the notebook, the power cable lights up, letting you know that it's connected. The case doesn't need any clasps to keep it closed. There's a handle, but if you don't want to use it, it tucks away neatly.

But there are some less appealing features. It's big and it's heavy. There's a lot of empty space around the screen and the keyboard -- the penalty for the iBook's curvaceous shape. You'll pay that price when you try to pack it up and tote it around.

There's no PC-card slot, though with the built-in modem and Ethernet connector, most users probably won't care. Like Apple's other recent models, there's no floppy drive, though again, many users won't notice. As is equally true with PC notebooks at this price, the iBook ships with a not-very-generous 32 MB of memory. With the operating system (Apple's no-longer-current OS 8.6) using up 19 of those megabytes, not much is left over. The iBook performs reasonably well browsing the Net or running the included AppleWorks software, but if you plan on any more intensive computing, budget a few hundred dollars to upgrade its memory.

The iBook is marketed at students and home users, which shows in its lack of a video-output port. You can't connect this computer to a larger monitor when you're working at your desk and you can't use it for business presentations -- there's no way to connect it to a projector. If you have those sorts of needs, Apple would prefer that you pay double the price for a more fully equipped Powerbook -- available in more corporate tones of basic black.

It's too bad; a slightly more expensive version -- call it an iBook Pro -- with more RAM, a bigger hard drive, video-output and perhaps the classy two-tone grey colour scheme found on some of Apple's recent models, would have a lot of business appeal. *


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan