Winning converts with Apple’s iBook

My Toshiba Satellite Pro, purchased in 1996, was a great, dependable computer that survived numerous drops that would have scrambled a lesser machine. But after six years, the venerable laptop– with it’s 100 Mhtz processor and 40 meg of ram — was seriously dogging it.

I needed a new machine. Specifically, I needed one that was highly mobile, slim, and energy-efficient. I don’t travel much, but when I do travel, my trips tend to be very, very long — like my trip last year to Alaska (14 hours), or this June’s to Wyoming (8 hours). It also had to be affordable, but nicely loaded — an Ethernet connection and USB port (used to connect digital cameras, mice and such) were musts.

Enter the iBook.

The iBook is Apple’s low-end laptop. The original — inspired by the iMac — was decent enough computer saddled by a tacky-looking colorful exterior that made the thing look like Barbie’s purse. Some folks loved it, and it sold quite a few units, but it wasn’t something that professionals could take into business meetings. Not if they wanted to be taken seriously.

That changed with the new iBook, which is far lighter and thinner than its predecessor. The new laptop is about the size of a paper notebook, and only slightly thicker than one. The garish color scheme of the original has been ditched in favor of a sleek all-white look that’s wrapped in a translucent cover. On the technical side, it’s powered by a 600 mhtz G3 processor, a beautiful active matrix 024-by-768 pixel resolution screen, two USB ports, and a 400Mbps Firewire port. Network connections are handled by an internal 56k modem and an Ethernet jack.

The baseline model comes with a barely-tolerable 128 meg of ram, a 15 gig hard drive and a CD-Drive, while the full-loaded model has 128 meg of ram, a 30 gig hard drive, and a duel DVD/Rewritable CD drive. The machine’s upgradeable to 640 meg of ram. It has the Apple-standard single button track pad as a mouse.

It comes with both Mac OS 9 and the new Mac OS X operating system installed; by default it boots into the familiar OS 9.

A 21st century road warrior

The iBook that arrived on my door step in early August was a mid-range model with 128 meg of ram, a 20 gig hard drive drive and a DVD-ROM. It shipped before the speed bump with a 500 MHz processor. Knowing that I would be taking the computer on road-trips — including lengthy flights to points far west of Pennsylvania I opted to buy a second battery. All told, the machine cost about $1800 (with about another $100 going to the tax man).

I had the machine booted and AppleWorks — Apple’s word processor / spreadsheet / database program — running a minute after I took the machine out of its box. There was only one simple registration screen to deal with, and none of the “my user is an idiot” movies that Windows machines seem intent on playing every time you boot one for the first time. You know, the annoyingly fake movies that show shiny happy Microsoft users doing stuff in Windows. iBook owners don’t need a movie to tell them they should be happy to have their new computer — they are happy.

Connecting the Mac to the net was a snap — I just hooked it up to my home network via an Ethernet cable and whammo — I was on the Internet and downloading software. Not bad considering my iBook uses an entirely different operating system from my Windows Me-based desktop machine.

I have years of experience on Macs, so booting up into the iBook’s default OS 9 operating system was like visiting an old friend. Even so, I think Mac newbies would have an easy time of navigating the machine’s features. All of the important program links — AppleWorks, iTunes, iMovie, etc. — were on the desktop and the overall interface is similar to Windows (although of course Mac’s have looked like this since 1986).

After I configured OS 9 the way I like it, I decided to try booting up into of Mac: OS X.

OS X, Apple’s new operating system, is based on Unix, which is a staple of geekdom. Unix, and is cousin Linux, are used on high-end servers to run web sites and to provide very stable, very arcane environments. I say arcane because most diehard geeks love to bypass those annoying graphical interfaces and go straight to the command line. There they use a bewildering array of commands to tell the computer what they want it to do.

Mac OS X carefully protects normal users — folks who have no need to mess with the innards of Unix — with a snappy, futuristic interface called Aqua. Icons look three-dimensional and cast shadows, while pulldown menus are slightly translucent. The entire effect is mesmerizingly crisp — the first time I saw it I thought “this is what an computer is supposed to look like.

At the time, I was running OS 10.0.2, which wasn’t quite ready for prime time. It looked great, but it was sluggish and lacked fundamentals like DVD support. Fortunately, that all changed with the late-September release of OS 10.1. The first major update greatly increased enhanced system performance. OS X responds more quickly now, and windows resize much more gracefully, Classic mode (used for running older software) is much faster and I can finally play my movies on it. At this point, most of the smaller Apple ëhelper’ programs, like web editor BBEdit and file-compressor StuffIt, have been ported to the new operating system, and more are being updated regularly. I received my copy of 10.1 in mid-October, and I’ve been running it problem-free ever since. I can not say the same about last year’s Windows Me upgrade.

The iBook has worked well with all of my various accessories, including the USB printer that came with it, the Microsoft optical mouse that I ordered later (yes, both buttons and the scroller work), and my my USB Zip Drive. My digital camera worked well with it — my only complaint is that none of these devices uses FireWire.

My iBook was not without a few flaws. The power cord is a bit finicky, and has to be rotated just so for the machine to recognize it. That’s the bad news — to good news is I reported both problems to Apple, and they promptly dealt with them. They shipped a new keyboard and I had it within two days. They also directed me to an Apple repair shop down the street to look at the power problem. This impressed me. When I bought my first Pentium-class Compaq PC in 1995, I had a hard drive go bad. It took me nearly a month of arguing with tech support to get them to admit that there even was a problem! The power cord problem is one that other iBook owners have reported, but it’s not a wide spread one and — from what I’ve read — Apple is quick to fix it (the only reason mine isn’t fixed is I haven’t taken the time to go down the repair place).

The Final Analysis

Overall though, I’m very pleased with the iBook. It’s light, quick and holds a battery charge like no laptop I’ve ever used. It’s an incredibly comfortable machine — it’s the first laptop I’ve ever had that I could sit relax in bed with reading Nuketown’s e-mail or e-book review copies without straining my eyes Ö or cutting off circulation to my legs. It fits easily on my lap while watching television, and I suspect its small footprint will come in handy when I take it on cross-country flights.

The iBook is technology as it should be — a graceful tool that works fluidly, complementing (rather than interfering with) your work-style. It is, in a word, cool.

%d bloggers like this: