Apple Computer last week pulled a long-awaited polycarbonate rabbit from its design hat. The technical specifications of the second-generation iBook are pretty much what you'd expect from a revision to Apple's consumer and education portable computer, but they come in a package significantly smaller and lighter than its predecessor, with an eye-catching Titanium-like design and the extra connectivity ports consumers have wanted. The package is so attractive, in fact, that the Henrico County (Virginia) school district announced that it is leasing 23,000 iBooks from Apple - a large commitment writ larger when you realize Apple sold only 55,000 iBooks in the entire March quarter.
Thinking Outside the Box -- Although it's hard to see from the pictures on Apple's Web site, the iBook (whose official Apple designation is the "iBook (Dual USB)") probably counts as a subnotebook computer, for the only definition I can find says a subnotebook "is slightly lighter and smaller than a full-sized notebook." In that respect, the iBook (Dual USB) certainly qualifies. At 11.2 inches (28.5 cm) wide, it's more than two inches narrower than the previous iBook design; its width of 9.1 inches (23.0 cm) is a full two and a half inches narrower than the last iBook. The iBook (Dual USB) is 1.35 inches (3.4 cm) thick, compared to 2.06 inches (5.23 cm) for the previous iBook models (measured at the thickest point). And it weighs an average 4.9 pounds (2.2 kg), compared to 6.7 pounds (3.04 kg) on average for the previous iBook. It's not much bigger than a notebook. In fact, it's smaller in all three dimensions than the much-beloved PowerBook 2400c (which was often called a "subnotebook") and only slightly larger and heavier than Apple's first subnotebooks, the PowerBook Duos.
The weight reduction primarily comes from the shift in batteries. The new iBook's 42-watt-hour lithium ion battery is slightly less powerful than the 45-watt-hour battery in the original iBook, but is substantially smaller. The original iBook battery was notably bulky, but not so the new one, which is also easier to install and has LED charge indicators on it. Apple claimed a six-hour battery life for the old iBooks, but only a five-hour battery life for this one - the same as for the PowerBook G4. The battery charger can recharge the battery in six hours while the iBook is running, or in three and a half hours if the computer is shut down or asleep.
According to Apple's iBook Developer Note, there is also an "airliner power cable" for use on airplanes. The cable has a special sense resistor; when the iBook detects it, it uses the AC power supplied by the cable but does not try to charge the battery, because voltage on most airplane outlets is not high enough to charge the battery and power the computer simultaneously.
The case is also lighter, a polycarbonate plastic that looks good next to the titanium-cased PowerBook G4 but is clearly not composed of metal. The new iBook does have a magnesium frame for strength, though, and includes metallic shields around the rubberized feet to keep them from falling off so easily. It also has a thin rubbery coating to help provide a stable grip, "even in small hands" as Macworld editor Andy Gore describes it.
When closed, you see the same magnetic latch and release button as on the PowerBook G4. When opened, the iBook (Dual USB) is barely wider than its keyboard, which is almost identical to the one found in the PowerBook G4 models. As with previous iBooks there are no doors or panels that could get detached, as PowerBook port covers are notorious for doing. The only hinge is the one that opens the case, and even it is different - it pivots so that, when open, the top of the case is behind and below the bottom part, giving a bit more depth while minimizing height. The keyboard is below a pair of speakers. The handle of previous models is gone, though few will miss it - even though I always liked the look and concept of the handle, it's hard to imagine someone carrying an iBook down the street by the handle. The new model instead offers a standard security slot for a cable lock, since the handle served that purpose in older models.
On the left side, you'll find a more extensive complement of ports than on any previous iBook. The "Dual USB" designation gives away that there are two USB ports for the first time on an iBook, as well as a single 400 Mbps FireWire port, an internal V.90 56K modem, a 10/100Base-T Ethernet port, the same audio/video port introduced with the iBook (FireWire) that enables TV and analog audio output through a special cable, and a brand new RGB output port that connects to any monitor that supports the DDC identification standard, complete with an included cable. You can only do video mirroring, though, and to do that with Mac OS X you need Mac OS X 10.0.2 or later. Unfortunately, the analog "Apple AV cable" is no longer included - it's $20 extra. The reset pinhole is above the audio/video port; the power connector is on the right side of the case.
In a promotional video about the new computer, a man who works for a computer store is shown holding one, and it looks like it's barely bigger than his hands. Reporters who witnessed the introduction are raving for a reason - the iBook (Dual USB) is small and light. For these reasons alone, it should be extremely popular in Japan, where compact products command a price premium. Yet the iBook doesn't have to coast on its case - it's got game.
Thinking Inside the Box -- Like the iMac, the iBook is still based on the PowerPC G3 processor family, and with good reason - they're inexpensive and don't require a lot of power, but pack performance that challenges Pentium III systems with higher clock rates. Although the iBook (FireWire) started at 366 MHz and topped out at 466 MHz, the iBook (Dual USB) comes in only one speed - 500 MHz, as fast as last year's top-of-the-line PowerBook (FireWire) model, and it can use PowerStep to scale back to 400 MHz during non-critical times if you wish. Okay, it's not quite as fast as the PowerBook G3 (FireWire) - the iBook is still limited by a 66 MHz system bus, and by the PowerPC 750CX chip that bundles Level 2 cache on-board the processor but limits it to 256K. iBook performance won't equal PowerBook performance.
The iBook (Dual USB) display is, however, something to write home about - though still a 12.1-inch LCD, it now operates at a native resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels, instead of the 800 by 600 top resolution of the previous iBook models. That's a resolution of over 100 dots per inch, but attendees at the briefing say the display is sharp enough to pull it off. You can still use interpolation and scaling to get 800 by 600 or 640 by 480 if you really need those resolutions. The graphics remain driven by the ATI Rage Mobility 128 chip, but not the same one: this one is an ATI Rage Mobility 128M. The 128M model provides for the 1024 by 768 resolution, where the Rage Mobility 128 chip did not. The new 128M chip also has 3D graphics acceleration. Andrew Gore reported that, at the closed briefing, Apple executives said the Rage Mobility 128 provides the best trade-off between performance and power consumption at present. As before, the chip is backed by 8 MB of SDRAM graphics memory and sits on an AGP 2X dedicated graphics bus.
Having been criticized for whatever optical drive choice it makes in consumer computers (first DVD is the wrong choice, then replacing it with CD-RW is wrong, according to critics), Apple is now offering a choice of pretty much any tray-loading optical drive you want, as long as you don't want to burn DVDs. The base model, retailing for $1,300, comes with a 24x CD-ROM drive; a $1,500 configuration comes with an 8x DVD-ROM drive that also reads CD-ROMs at 24x. A $1,600 model comes with a built-in CD-RW drive (8x writing CD-R, 4x writing CD-RW, 24x reading CDs), and a build-to-order $1,800 configuration, available from the Apple Store or any reseller that sells build-to-order systems, features a "Combo" drive that works like the 8x4x24x CD-RW but also reads DVD-ROM at up to 8x speeds.
Except for the optical drive, the three upper-end iBook (Dual USB) models are identical. That means the CD-RW drive costs $100 more than the DVD-ROM, and the Combo drive costs $300 more than DVD-ROM alone. There is no longer an eject button for any of the drives, but holding down the F12 key for a few seconds ejects the optical disk (if you're using Mac OS X, though, you need Mac OS X 10.0.2 or later to make F12 eject the tray if it's empty).
All models but the least expensive come with 128 MB of RAM soldered to the motherboard (the $1,300 model has only 64 MB); a single PC100 SO-DIMM slot allows adding up to 512 MB of extra RAM for a total of either 576 MB or 640 MB of RAM. All models come with an Ultra DMA/33 10 GB hard drive, though you can upgrade to 20 GB for $200 on build-to-order systems. The hard drive is in a rubber enclosure, providing extra shock absorbance without excessive weight. Like every Apple system since the original iBook in July 1999, the new model is ready to accept a $100 AirPort card. Extra batteries retail for $130 each, extra AC adapters (that also work with the PowerBook G4) cost $70 each.
The Classroom and Beyond -- These are hot little products, folks. The original iBook garnered a few strong criticisms - it was too boldly designed with bright colors, weighed too much, didn't have full connectivity, and cost too much. Apple has eliminated all of these problems in the new iBook - a strong, lightweight, powerful computer with a sharp but conservative design. If you need more convincing that there's more to the update than style, such as moving from a 366 MHz processor to a 500 MHz chip in the entry-level models, check out the comparison page provided by the Mac Observer.
You really need to see the iBook in action. When Apple introduces new hardware, it usually produces a short promotional video, but it's typically shown only to the audience at the introduction, and sent via satellite to press outlets. This time, Apple has posted that five-and-a-half minute video so you can watch it. If you're at all interested in these machines, it's worth a viewing, but be warned: the ISDN-or-faster movie is at least 21 MB (earlier in the week, I got a 35 MB version); the version for slower-than- ISDN connections is 7.7 MB. Unless you have a broadband connection, prepare to spend 20 to 30 minutes downloading the video. You'll see just how small the iBook is, and close-up views of most of its design.
Reports suggesting this is a full frontal assault on the education market are spot on. Three years ago, Apple announced the iMac in early May, months before the product was ready to ship, so education purchasers knew something good was coming in August. Schools are making purchase decisions this month, and Apple is right to drum up support for the new machines before they actually ship (even though the company says they'll be available in "mid- May," and we've seen reports that some units might even be shipping now). At $1,200 per unit for schools, plus $70 for an AirPort card, the iBook (Dual USB) is a compelling student workstation.
Why all those extra ports if its aimed at the school market? Because now, aside from some performance issues, the iBook is just as capable as the iMac. It comes with iTunes and iMovie 2, has a similar RGB video mirroring port for hooking to school equipment, and has two USB ports so you can use one for audio and one for other USB peripherals. The only difference between the two systems now is performance; the iBook even gets the iMac's higher 1024 by 768 resolution in this revision. The trade-off is pretty clear: the iBook is portable and a little slower, the iMac is cheaper and a little faster. This isn't last year's recycled technology, either: the iBook (Dual USB) is Apple's first computer to use the new Pangea controller chip to run most of the system's hardware functions, including DMA FireWire, Ethernet, Ultra DMA IDE, USB, and Apple's new Tumbler digital audio sound circuitry, which handles audio conversion, volume, and equalization.
In nearly two years of sales, Apple has moved about 700,000 iBook units, so the lease of 23,000 on a single day is quite noteworthy. It's also a shot across Michael Dell's bow, as his company has been regularly emitting boasts about large sales to school districts. Dell is trying to establish itself as the leading educational computer company by default, and Apple is reminding analysts and press that it is far from the only computer company capable of putting a lot of computers in schools. Apple normally doesn't brag about specific sales via press release, but since Dell implies that large sales make a leader, Apple is happy to set the record straight.
The current line of iMacs is designed more for consumers but great for education, and the new iBooks are mostly designed for education but great for consumers as well. Small enough to fit in a backpack and weighing under five pounds, students of all ages will love the new iBook machines. After all, iTunes doesn't have that many classroom uses, and while iMovie 2 does, it's more of an individual product as well. Our favorite part of the promotional video is sixth grade student Harry Tannenbaum, talking about video he and his friends shot and that he edited in iMovie, sounding surprised that it "actually turned out kind of okay."
The iBook line has been underperforming for Apple for some time; it never quite lived up to iMac expectations, and even the overdue iBook (FireWire) didn't provide the kind of bump in numbers I thought the product was capable of generating. This may be the one that moves the iBook from second-class to first-class product, not only for Apple but in the broader computing world. A speed-bump revision in six months would position it perfectly for the holiday buying season, too.
This is an iBook whose appearance John C. Dvorak would not insult. It addresses every serious criticism of earlier models, costs less (or, on the high end, delivers a lot more for the same price), has everything schools need, fits well with kids, and runs Mac OS X. If Apple can't sell a few hundred thousand of these by September, maybe there's no real market for a consumer and education-oriented portable Macintosh - because if there is such a market, this product fills it perfectly. I want one.
[Matt Deatherage is the publisher of MacJournals.com, where he oversees MDJ, MWJ, and MMJ - daily, weekly, and monthly subscription-based, ad-free journals for serious Macintosh users. For a free trial of any of the journals, visit MacJournals.com. This article was assembled from material that appeared last week in MDJ.]