I've never before used a laptop that people felt compelled to put their hands all over, but Apple's new iBook is just that. As radical-looking as its popular desktop counterpart, the iMac, the iBook has a plastic case with a soft feel to it that causes people to want to put their mitts on it and keep them there. And, like the iMac, it comes with a choice of colors, bright shades of blueberry or tangerine.
What's underneath the bright plastic shell turns out to be a respectable machine overall, but there are a few grounds for complaint. Overall, I found that I wasn't as all-around dazzled with this computer as I was with the iMac at its debut.
First off, the 3.2-gigabyte hard drive that comes with the $1,599 iBook is on the skimpy side compared with most similarly priced laptops these days, which come with at least 4 gigs. And 32 megs of memory isn't really enough to run my first-generation iMac very well, so it's not surprising that it isn't enough for the iBook either. It's puzzling: This is a company that seems willing to spend countless man-years on designing a shapelier power brick but can't be bothered to upgrade the hard drive or pack in a larger memory chip for its customers.
Apple is sticking to its party line that floppy disks are a thing of the past, so there's no floppy drive here. Customers will either have to wean themselves off of floppies (as I've done and don't regret) or buy themselves some sort of removable media drive to plug into the iBook's one universal serial bus port. While you're at it, you might want to get an external mouse to plug in as well. The iBook's touchpad is very good, as far as touchpads go. But that's not very far.
At 6.6 pounds, the iBook doesn't have an edge on the competition in terms of weight, though there is a well-thought-out handle that folds into the case when you aren't lugging it around. The iBook's lid is also surprisingly hefty, causing the computer to threaten to do a backflip out of my lap.
The iBook's speaker is pretty weak, and I still wish that Apple could be persuaded to put a volume control knob on their new machines; there was an embarrassing moment at the office when--purely in the interest of investigative journalism--I installed Quake 2 and couldn't turn the volume down with the buttons on the keyboard.
The most obscure beef I have with the iBook is that it doesn't come with an infrared port--I was hoping to finally have a use for the one on the front of my iMac. Hopes of gracefully and wirelessly exchanging files between my desktop and laptop have been shelved until further notice.
On the plus side, though, the iBook does have some important things going for it in addition to good looks: This laptop has a nice, bright active-matrix screen. I also like the feel of the keyboard, though this may be a taste issue--some might find it a little too mushy.
Most impressive is the iBook's battery life--Apple claims that the iBook's battery can last a whopping six hours. I wasn't able to repeat that lifespan, but I did manage to keep an iBook running off its battery for nearly five hours (the screen was in a slightly darkened power-conserving mode for the last half-hour as the battery ran down its last reserves). Apple wants to create a laptop that students--or grown-ups--will be able to get a full day's use out of, and it's darn near accomplished that goal.
The most interesting innovation here, which was first announced with the rollout of the iBook but will also work with all the new iMacs coming down the line, is the prospect of wireless Web access with a new product from Apple called the AirPort. With a flying-saucer-shaped $299 base transmitter and the installation of a $99 AirPort card, iBook owners will be able to surf the Web from as far as 150 feet away (this gadget is coming out later this year and was not available in time for review).
Last, but not least, this is a Mac, so it's got that comfortable Mac interface, which is a pleasure to use (except when it crashes). With more battery time--and the wireless Internet connections possible with the AirPort option--Apple continues to expand how its customers can use their computers. Plenty of laptops fail to leave their owners' desks, but in an AirPort-equipped house, you really could take this thing anywhere you want and still use all of its functions. This laptop isn't perfect, but it certainly isn't boring.
CAPTION: The iBook, left, even comes with a cool-looking power adapter, below.