Apple iBook

Everything I liked about the second-generation iBook in my previous hands-on review is still here in the latest revamping – and a mighty fine consumer portable has gotten even better.

The iBook, though still weighing just 4.9 pounds and measuring 11.2 x 9.1 x 1.35 inches, now packs more processing power, a faster system bus and a larger hard drive than before. Apple Computer Inc. says it’s the lightest all-in-one, full-featured consumer portable on the planet and I’ve found no reason to argue.

The revamped iBooks pack a 500 or 600MHz Power Mac G3 processor under the hood (I’m using the 600MHz version) with a 100MHz system bus on the higher end configuration. There’s also a 256K on-chip level 2 cache running at full processor speed for accelerating applications that offers up to double the cache memory of other consumer notebooks.

If you’re looking for top-notch graphics rendering and number crunching, you’ll want to go with the Titanium PowerBook. If, like me, your laptop is used mostly for word processing, e-mail, Web surfing, DVD playback and using iTunes and iMovie, the new iBooks are definitely fast enough. I’m using Mac OS X 10.1, AppleWorks 6.2 and playing around with a beta version of Office v. X on my iBook and I see no performance problems.

Apple has taken the logical step of making the iBooks come standard with 128MB of RAM in all configurations (you can beef them up to 640MB of SDRAM, if you wish). After all, you need 128MB of RAM to run Mac OS X and some applications. The new iBook accepts one 32MB, 64MB, 128MB, 256MB or 512MB 44-pin, PC100-compliant 1.25-inch SO-DIMM.

With the new iBooks, you can choose from a 15GB or 20GB hard drive – or upgrade to 30GB through the online Apple Store. This, too, is a wise move on Apple’s part. The previous 10GB wasn’t bad, but all those digital tunes and iMovies eat up hard disk space very quickly.

I also love the iBook screen hinge, which moves the display away from the keyboard, giving fingers room to stretch out for more comfortable typing. It also pivots down, lowering the overall height when the iBook is open. If you use your portable on an airplane frequently, you’ll appreciate this.

Travelers will also appreciate the hidden latch design that lets the iBook remain closed without any protruding latches or buttons that could be broken. Ditto with the lack of I/O doors and levers. Basically, there’s nothing to inadvertently hang on backpacks or briefcases. Apple was probably thinking of students when implementing these design elements, but they’re also great for on-the-go dads and moms who often whip out our laptops to get some work done during soccer half-times or while (as I’m doing now) sitting around the orthodontist’s office.

And though it shows scratches and fingerprints easily, the iBook is still one tough little system. It’s made of polycarbonate and it also sports an internal magnesium frame for extra strength. Not tough enough yet? Okay, then consider this: The hard drive is rubber-mounted for impact resistance.

Adding to the iBook’s portability is the new portable power adapter. It may not be as futuristic looking as its UFO-shaped predecessor, but it’s much better designed for travel. It hides two protracting “gull wings” that fold out to let the cable wind neatly around the adapter. A tiny AC plug eliminates the need for a cumbersome power cord. In fact, the new power adapter is small enough that it can be tucked into a small pocket if necessary. And if you need more cord length, Apple includes a standard AC cord.

By the way, if you’re lusting after the new portable power adapter, you can order one from the Apple Store. It will work with all iBook models shipped after May 2001, but not with previous models.

Unlike its TiPB big brother, it’s easy to add an AirPort card or additional memory. The steps are well detailed and illustrated in the small manual that comes with the iBook.

I also continue to be impressed by the iBook’s fantastic screen. The 12.1-inch TFT XGA active-matrix display serves up brilliant colors and surprising sharpness. In fact, inch for inch, I think it looks as good as the Titanium’s. Of course, the PowerBook’s screen is 15-inches and is easier on the eyes over long periods of time. After long hours of writing stories on the iBook, I tend to increase the font size from 12 to 14 point to ease my aching eyes.

What makes the iBook an excellent second computer for me is its support of FireWire Target Disk Mode. Using this mode, you can connect the iBook to another Mac (in my case, a desktop G4) and use it as an external hard drive. (FireWire Target Disk Mode can be used on any G4 system). I do this to quickly and easily back up and transfer writing documents and e-mail back and forth between my Macs. To use Target Disk Mode, connect the two computers with a FireWire cable, then start up the second one while holding down the “T” key on the keyboard.

If I have one complaint about the iBook, it’s that I often press the F12 key when I’m reaching for the Delete key and pop open the optical drive (the F12 key is the media-eject button for the iBook). I’m slowing training myself not to do this, but it’s a hard habit to break. On the other hand, the iBook does have a firm, full size keyboard, something not found on some portables of this compact size.

The iBook is touted as a consumer portable. But for lots of us professional users, it can also more than fill the bill.