After a year of anticipation, Apple's consumer portable, the iBook, was officially announced in the summer of 1999 at the MacWorld Expo in New York City. A 300 MHz G3 based portable designed for durability rather than portability was a somewhat surprising choice for a consumer portable computer, but it made sense for a machine designed to survive the rigors of life in a backpack.
The months between the announcement of the product and when consumers finally got their hands on these blue and orange computers were filled with questions. How fast is it in real world use? Is the design of this computer as innovative as past Macs? And perhaps the most important question of all — could the iBook play games? Now that the iBook has been on the market for a few months, these questions can finally be answered. The following analysis is the result of an exhaustive three-month road test of the iBook by perhaps the most demanding of computer users — the gamer.
A Real World PerformerFor a consumer-grade machine, the speed of the iBook is very good. Typical productivity applications such as Microsoft Word, Netscape Communicator and Intuit Quicken perform well. Screen redraws are snappy on the sharp 12.1 inch LCD display, even running at millions of colors in the machine's maximum resolution of 800x600 pixels. While the screen is capable of being scaled down to 640x480 pixels for certain applications (like games) that require it, the screen really shines when being used at its 800x600 mode.
In addition to the obligatory 56k modem, 10/100 Ethernet, stereo audio out connector, and USB port, the iBook has two innovations: improved battery life and wireless networking. Apple claims that the iBook is capable of running on battery power for up to six hours. While this might be true in the lab, real world usage seems to be about four hours. This is still quite impressive and makes it reasonable to take your iBook out for an impromptu net gaming event while leaving the stylish but unwieldy AC adapter at home.
AirPort is the second innovation that was introduced alongside the iBook. The optional add-in card delivers 10 megabit Ethernet performance without wires. This speed delivers more than adequate performance for any gaming or file sharing chores. Keep in mind that in order to get the most out of AirPort technology, it is necessary to purchase an AirPort base station that will connect your AirPort-equipped iBook to the Internet. Macs with AirPort cards installed can communicate with one another without the base station. Apple currently does not provide software to allow an AirPort-enabled computer to act as a software base station to connect multiple computers to a single Internet connection.
The two biggest drawbacks to the shipping configuration of the iBook are its RAM and hard drive space. The 32 MB of RAM that ships by default with the machine ends up being a hidden cost to iBook users. The machine really needs to be upgraded to a minimum of 96 MB of RAM to avoid virtual memory related slow downs. Users hoping to use the iBook for any serious game-playing should consider maxing out the iBook to 160 MB of RAM.
The other drawback to the iBook is its hard drive. The built in ATA drive is fast for day-to-day operation, but the 3.2-GB drive is too small for even a casual user. In tests for this article, 2.5 GB of disk space were used up for applications alone. This did not include the documents and cache files generated by a typical user. Unlike the iBook's RAM, which is user-upgradeable, the hard drive is not easily removed by the user. While adventurous iBook owners have reported success in the installation of larger hard drives, this kind of upgrade voids the machine's warranty and can easily lead to damaged internal components if the upgrade is not performed by a professional.