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C'mon Decide: Which Apple Laptop?

By Charles Haddad It's ice vs. metal. That's the choice facing those looking to buy a new Mac laptop this summer. The metal, of course, is Apple's much publicized TiBook. It's a gleaming inch-thick sliver of a computer. And the ice refers to Apple's latest release, the new iBook. Fans have already dubbed it the "iceBook" because of its translucent white plastic casing.

Both laptops are beautiful but flawed, like ravishing French models who reveal bad teeth when they smile. Some flaws are common to both models, such as trackpads that are hard to control. Others are specific to each computer.

Quirks aside, though, each machine is powerful and innovative. So how do you decide which is better? That's a tough question, I found, after having dallied with both and fallen in love with each. Remember that line from the old Lovin' Spoonful song, "Did you ever have to make up your mind?" Well, I never could with these two beauties, but hopefully my struggle will enlighten others who must buy one or the other.

HEAD-TURNER. The decision, when shorn of emotion, comes down to the answer to a simple question: What do you need a laptop for? If it's to build Web pages or edit video, then the TiBook is the clear choice. You can't beat its expansive screen and powerful microprocessor. The extra oomph will come in handy if you plan to upgrade to Apple's new operating system, OS X. While you get a lot for your money, the TiBook isn't cheap, starting at $2,500. You're paying a premium not only for power but style, because the the TiBook turns heads.

If you're more price- than style-conscious, the iceBook is for you. The basic model sells for $1,000 less than the TiBook. The iBook is cheaper in part because it's built around the slower G3 processor. That's the same one many users have complained runs OS X sluggishly. Its great strength is its mobility. The iceBook is wonderfully comfortable to both lug and use. This baby was made for airplanes and coffee shops. I highly recommend it for those who move around a lot and either write, edit, or publish newsletters.

So much for my overview assessment. Now let's take a closer look at each new laptop. The TiBook, announced in January, has already been a big hit -- and no wonder. It's the sleekest, most powerful laptop Apple has ever released. The TiBook has a brilliant 15.2-inch screen, Apple's latest G4 processor, and a 100 MHz system bus, which speeds up the processing of sound and video, and the mixture of the two. All this power comes in a computer that's barely thicker than a slice of bread and weights only a little more than 5 pounds. But what's really distinctive is the TiBook's wide rectangular look and metallic finish.

SMALL PROBLEMS. Now, for where it goes wrong. For one, it doesn't come in a configuration that includes a CD-writable drive. That baffles me, given that the TiBook is designed for graphic and video artists. They have a real need to back up large files on stable media such as CDs. Another problem is the screen, which picks up crud from the keyboard.

I also found the keyboard uncomfortable to use. It always felt like a stretch to move from the keys to the trackpad, for example. Last, the casing chips easily. None of these are problems that Apple can't fix in later models, and once they are fixed, the TiBook will be truly peerless.

In contrast, the smaller iceBook is a joy to use. There was never any stretching to use either the keys or the trackpad. The iceBook is slightly thicker than the TiBook but lighter by about 0.4 pounds. The footprint of its durable white plastic casing is also smaller. It's snug on a lap or on an airline tray. And while the screen is more than 3 inches smaller than the TiBook's, it's sharp and crisp. I easily watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the iBook. You can also buy one with a combo DVD and CD-writable drive.

BUMMER. The iceBook's biggest drawback is processing speed. It definitely feels slower, with many pauses and hiccups, compared to the TiBook. I'd think twice before installing OS X on it, given its performance. Another smaller problem is the lack of a PC-card slot, standard on most other Mac laptops. Apple has, in part, compensated for the missing slot by giving the iceBook lots of functionality -- a Firewire port and airport antenna and software, for example.

Firewire is a fast port, on both Macs and PCs, that's used primarily to transmit video between cameras and computers. It's becoming the industry standard, which is why it's important for a Mac to have one. But the lack of a PC-card slot will be a bummer to those who use them on their current laptops.

So, which is it for you, iBook or TiBook? It's a tough choice. I hope you have better luck than I have. I'm still singing, "Did you ever have to make your mind?" Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

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