Not long after the first Macintosh appeared in 1984, Apple computers began resembling other PCs in beige boxes. Back then, the company seemed to "Think Different" mainly with its operating system and hefty price tags.
After Steve Jobs returned in 1997, the style pendulum swung in the other direction with egg-shaped iMacs, sleek Cubes and iBooks laptops that looked like Fisher-Price toys. But the price was still premium.
Now, with the introduction of its latest iBook, Apple got it right. This laptop is light, stylish and cool without looking like a toy. It performs well, is loaded with features and boasts a very competitive price.
The base model with 64 megabytes of memory and a CD-ROM lists at $1,299. The high-end model, tested here, costs $1,799 and includes a combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive and 128 megabytes of memory.
The iBook sets up within minutes. Instead of a heavy black block, the power supply is a silver disk only slightly larger and heavier than a deck of cards. The cord wraps inside to prevent tangling.
At only 4.9 pounds (2 pounds less than the previous iBook models), 1.35 inches deep and about as wide and long as a sheet of paper, the iBook is small and light enough to carry around.
The lithium-ion battery lasts up to 5 hours between recharges, long enough to play a full-length movie on DVD.
Internet setup was a breeze, both via the included 56K modem and Ethernet. So was the optional $99 AirPort card, which snaps underneath the keyboard and provides wireless connectivity to a $299 base station plugged into our high-speed home network.
Before long, my wife was pulling up recipes off the Web in the kitchen and looking up information on bugs from the garden. Instead of browsing endless summer reruns from the couch, I checked out Web sites - when I could pry the iBook away from my wife.
This iBook is much more than just another nifty Web appliance, though.
It comes with software that can create MP3 files from compact discs, burn CDs and play DVDs, depending on the options purchased. It handles typical desktop applications, such as the AppleWorks and Microsoft Office for Macs, with no trouble.
I ripped several CDs and surfed the Internet at the same time. Unlike my 733 MHz Pentium III desktop PC, the iBook with its 500 MHz PowerPC processor managed to create MP3 files without popping and clicking noises.
Its rounded edges and silvery-white finish are a welcome departure from the iBook's colorful 1999 predecessors - not to mention the countless gray and black PC notebooks sold today.
In an elegant touch, the white Apple logo on the top of the case glows when the machine is on.
It goes into sleep mode when the lid is closed - and reawakens when reopened, unlike my PC laptop. When in sleep mode, a white light softly pulses at the front of the unit.
Two Universal Serial Bus ports and a single FireWire ports for high-speed peripherals are easily accessible on the left side, next to its Ethernet and modem connections.
A unique hinge lowers the screen below the main unit - something that will make for easier viewing in tight areas such as an airplane seat.
Though the monitor is only 12.1 inches measured diagonally, the active-matrix display is among the sharpest and richest I have seen. The screen supports a resolution of 1,024-by-768 picture elements, so there's plenty of real estate.
My grandmother, who uses a 19-inch monitor on her home PC because of poor eyesight, had no problem reading text on the iBook.
The biggest problem is the size of the hard drive. At only 10 gigabytes, it can quickly fill up with audio and video files. Apple does offer a 20 gig drive, but it costs another $200. External hard drives are another option, but portability is lost.
I also found the iBook's stereo speakers to sound a bit tinny, and one had an annoying rattle. Through headphones, the sound quality rivaled that of my home stereo.
Like all its other recent Apples, the iBook does not include a floppy disk drive. But who really uses those any more?
If the CD burner option is purchased, CDs are a good portable data medium. Another option - especially for those with high-speed Internet connections - is Apple's iDisk, an online storage service.
IBooks with 128 megabytes of memory also can handle Apple's new OS X operating system. I did notice a significant slowdown when starting up and launching applications in OS X compared to OS 9.1.
But once the applications were loaded, they ran smoothly and were always responsive. As promised, the new operating system handled crashes very well, allowing sick programs to die without bringing down the entire system.
My Epson Sylus 740 printer and Rio 600 MP3 player each were instantly recognized by OS X after plugging them into the USB port.
With its sleek look, flexibility and price, the iBook is clearly targeted at the education and home users. Students who want to do research online, write reports and run multimedia applications will be more than satisfied.
OS X also opens up a new realm for Apple users. Based on an open-source variant of the stable Unix operating system, OS X has an established core of developers, particularly in universities.
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