By Steve Wildstrom
Apple Computer always swings for the fences. As Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa know, the price of such ambition can be a strikeout. But when Apple connects, the ball goes a long, long way.
The PowerBook G4 Titanium, introduced early this year, redefined the laptop for creative professionals. The new iBook does the same for Apple's other crucial market, education. The iBook, richly featured and starting at $1,299, is close to ideal for students.
The original iBook was also aimed at the student market. While it has some appealing features, I found it garish, with its curvy lines and bright colors. I also considered it underpowered and, at $1,599 when introduced in 1999, overpriced. Despite the grousing of graybeards like me, it was an instant hit with the kids.
The new iBook is less dramatic but a lot more practical. Based on the reaction I've seen, it still has plenty of youth appeal. It's a rectangular white box, small enough to fit easily into a backpack, and lighter than most textbooks. It features a full-size keyboard and a 12.1-inch display.
Although it lacks the obvious rugged design of the original iBook, Apple says it has been engineered to withstand hard knocks. The case, polycarbonate with a magnesium frame, looks tough, and the iBook lacks the fussy doors and latches that quickly break on many laptops.
Apple devoted as much attention to how students use their notebooks as to how they abuse them. Perhaps most striking is the inclusion on the $1,799 top-of-the-line model of a drive that can play DVDs and read and write CDs. Such drives are immensely popular with those who use their computers both as tools and as entertainment centers. For once, Apple is offering such a high-end feature at a competitive price.
The iBook also comes with a full complement of ports for connecting to the outside world. Ethernet networks are pervasive at schools and colleges, and you get both a standard wired network jack and, as a $100 option, an AirPort card for wireless Ethernet. Wireless is increasingly important as institutions from primary schools to universities make it possible to connect laptops just about anywhere. Unlike the nightmarish installation of AirPort on the Titanium PowerBook, setup on the iBook is a simple, no-tools chore. There is also a built-in modem.
For attaching accessories, there are two universal serial bus ports plus a high-speed FireWire connector, which is especially good for use with digital video cameras. Educators were unhappy with the original iBook's lack of external video and audio connectors, which prevented its use with classroom monitors or projectors, so Apple added them. About the only thing lacking is a slot for a PC card, which could be useful for such things as connecting to a wireless phone network. The iBook has so many features built in that the slot is unlikely to be missed.
All of the ports are in a neat row on the left side. No cable connections on the back meant that Apple could design a clever and well-protected buried hinge that allows the lid to drop down over the back when it is opened. This produces a very stable design and, as a bonus, a lower profile that will be handy for people using their laptop in a cramped airplane seat.
The iBook has a few flaws. The 10-gigabit hard drive is too small for avid music or video collectors. A 20-GB drive is a $200 option -- anything more requires hooking an external drive. Since the cheapest model comes with an inadequate 64 megabytes of RAM, a $100 upgrade to 128 is required for decent performance. Battery life of about four hours is down about an hour from the first iBook because the design forced the use of a smaller battery. All the same, that remains exceptional for a notebook of this class.
The iBook comes with both Mac OS 9.1 and the new OS X installed, but Apple wisely chose to make the older operating system the default. Buyers will have an instant upgrade to OS X once there's enough software available to make the switch worthwhile.
Apple lost a lot of ground in educational markets when good products couldn't overcome botched marketing. The new iBook ought to give it a chance to win schools back. And Windows laptop makers, who see the school and student markets as a potential source for growth, should take a close look at Apple's winning design. For tips on how to buy a computer for college, click here.
Apple iBook Features
Processor: PowerPC G3, 500 MHz
Memory: 64-128 MB
Hard drive: 10-20 GB
Display: 12.1-inch., 1024x768 pixels
Removable storage: CD, DVD, CD-RW, CD-RW/DVD combo
Size: 11.2x9.1x1.3 in.
Weight: 4.9 lb.
Data: Apple Computer
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek.