Apple's iBook: Flashy, Powerful, Inexpensive

Boasts long battery life and wireless links

Apple Computer Inc. touts the iBook, its new consumer-class Macintosh notebook computer, as an "iMac to go." It certainly looks the part: Its clamshell case sports colored panels in either a bright peacock blue ("blueberry") or an incandescent orange ("tangerine"). The computer has interesting curves and angles that make it resemble an experimental hypersonic airfoil.

To help you carry its 6.6-lb. weight, what appears to be a colored rim built into the hinge assembly pivots out to become a carrying handle. Much of the machine's bulk is due to its large lithium-ion battery, which the company claims provides six hours of battery life.

When you pick up the computer, you notice that the panels on the lid are rubberized, which provides a better grip. I've griped about the breakage-prone latch on the PowerBook G3 series. The iBook's engineers solved this problem by eliminating the thing: The lid simply flips up, exposing the keyboard and screen.

The iBook sports a full-size keyboard with a row of function keys and a silver track-pad. The lid houses a 12.1-in. thin-film transistor active-matrix screen with a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels.

An ATI Technologies Inc. Rage Mobility graphics application specific integrated circuit has 4M bytes of on-chip Video RAM and accelerates 2-D and 3-D graphics. The iBook uses a fast 66-MHz Accelerated Graphics Port bus to communicate with the ATI chip, and it also serves as a fast conduit to main memory for storing extra graphics data.

Internally, the system packs a 300-MHz PowerPC 750 (G3) processor and a 150-MHz backside L2 cache that consists of 512K bytes of fast static RAM. There's 32M bytes of synchronous dynamic RAM built in, with one Small Outline-DIMM socket for expanding memory. For mass storage, the iBook has a 3.2G-byte hard drive using an Ultra Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics interface, and a 24x CD-ROM drive.

To handle communications, the iBook has an internal 56K bit/sec. modem, a 10BaseT/100BaseTX RJ-45 Ethernet port. There's also one Universal Serial Bus (USB) port for attaching peripherals and a stereo sound output jack.

The iBook introduces novel wireless connections via the AirPort. The iBook's lid has two antennae built in, and an optional add-in card manages the required data processing and generation of radio frequency signals. The AirPort technology is based on the IEEE 802.11 standard for wireless communications and uses direct-sequence spread-spectrum modulation.

A properly equipped iBook can converse with an AirPort base station connected to a network or to another iBook. Other computers and devices that use these wireless standards should also be able to communicate with the iBook.

Needed: More RAM

The review unit came with the basic 32M bytes. Because Mac OS 8.6 requires about 18M bytes of memory to operate, that doesn't give you much room to run applications. The iBook spent a lot of time flogging the hard drive as the virtual memory subsystem ran, which made the system feel sluggish and did nothing for battery life. However, I used the machine on a 2 1/2-hour business trip and even with the disk thrashing, the iBook had battery capacity to spare.

Later, I added a 32M-byte memory module. It takes about five minutes to pop out the keyboard, remove two screws from a metal plate with a jeweler's screwdriver and snap in the DIMM. With 64M bytes, the iBook became a new machine -- very responsive and snappy.

The iBook's screen is crisp and bright, usable even outside on a clear day. However, direct sunlight on the display causes the antiglare coating to fog up, so you do have to watch your position outdoors. The screen's resolution is fine for Web browsing but might seem cramped to someone used to bigger screens.

One Lone Speaker

For a consumer-oriented machine, the iBook has some odd omissions. It has a lone built-in speaker, so there's no stereo sound when playing games or audio CDs. The stereo sound jack lets you connect the computer to external speakers, but this flies in the face of the iBook's portability. The CD-ROM bay isn't removable, so there's no option to swap it for a DVD drive, as you can on other PowerBooks.

The iBook has a few expansion ports: no SCSI port, no video out, no PC Card slots and no infrared port. Fortunately, there are many USB peripherals, such as color scanners and hard drives, available.

The iBook makes a surprisingly handy, self-contained business system for the home office or road warrior. The hard drive's size might seem puny for someone downloading MP3 music files or lots of digital images. But I could pack all of my Motorola and Intel processor manuals on it, as well as my workhorse applications and a Connectix Virtual PC emulator application with a 750M-byte partition file, and still have 500M bytes to spare.

Whether I'm visiting a client company or corporate headquarters, an iBook, a phone and a network connection are all I need to work. The iBook lets me do everything: send and receive faxes (with the bundled FaxSTF software), handle e-mails, write documents, run the occasional Windows program, download and read reference manuals and draw graphics for technical papers.

The Pretty Good Privacy encryption plug-ins worked flawlessly with my Eudora Pro e-mail application, so I could send and receive secure messages. The high-speed 100BaseTX Ethernet interface let me download a 26M-byte update in just a minute and a half. While I was at it, I snatched the compressed CD image of Mac OS 9 -- 161M bytes -- in a half-hour. Your mileage will vary due to Internet traffic and the Web server's capacity.

When I had to download a fresh copy of a VBScript host program to 17 Windows NT machines for a training session, I simply e-mailed myself the zipped archive from the iBook to a browser-based e-mail service. On the Windows machines, I retrieved the program from the mail service and installed it.

Although I didn't need a floppy drive for this situation, a USB-based floppy or Zip drive to shuttle files about might be handy where Internet access isn't available. Wireless data transfers at 11M bit/sec. will be possible when the AirPort technology becomes widely available.

Unless you require a lot of peripherals, the iBook makes an ideal mobile business system. It has good processing power, a high-speed Ethernet interface and a built-in modem. I didn't scientifically evaluate the battery life, but based on my experience with the system, Apple's claim seems credible. The integral wireless technology will create new ways to conduct business.

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon