Apple iBook series review: Apple iBook series

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CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars Good
  • Overall: 6.8
  • Design: 8.0
  • Features: 5.0
  • Performance: 6.0
  • Battery life: 8.0
  • Service and support: 6.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Great battery life; attractive design; nice display; cheapest Mac notebook.

The Bad Much slower performance than the G4 PowerBook; only 128MB of RAM in 12-inch models; no CD-RW in low-end version; doesn't support AirPort Extreme; no USB 2.0 or FireWire 800.

The Bottom Line The iBook is cheaper and has a longer battery life than the PowerBook G4 series, but it's also a lot slower and lacks sufficient memory. Save up for a 12-inch PowerBook instead.

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Review summary

Apple's iBook series is in danger of becoming irrelevant. The line no longer contains the company's smallest portable; the 12-inch PowerBook G4 is just a hair smaller than the 12.1-inch iBook. While its price--from just under $1,000 to about $1,400--and long battery life are attractive, the iBook seriously lacks features and components. Two of the three iBook models come standard with only 128MB of RAM--barely enough to run Mac OS X--and even the 800MHz and 900MHz G3 processors are significantly slower than the PowerBook G4. Worse, the low-end iBook offers only a CD-ROM drive--no CD-RW--and none of the iBooks supports Apple's new 802.11g wireless card, the AirPort Extreme. If you're dying for a Mac notebook, save your pennies for the 12-inch PowerBook. If a low price is what you're after, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck with a notebook like the Dell Inspiron 1100. Both iBooks feature the same overall design, with a gleaming white, scratch-resistant Lucite case.

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The new iBook design chooses sleekness over color.
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The 14-inch iBook's larger display.


The 12.1-inch iBook features a relatively diminutive screen, while the 14.1-inch iBook's LCD is a wonderful upgrade option--if slightly harder to fit on an airplane's seatback tray. The 14.1-inch version maintains the 1,024x768 resolution of the 12.1-inch screen, but the larger screen size helps visibility tremendously, especially for small text.


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Little keyboard, bigger iBook.
Unfortunately, the iBook's larger, eight-cell, 55-watt-hours battery makes it a bit heavier than newer, ultralight models such as the 5.25-pound IBM ThinkPad series and not quite as portable as its predecessor. The new battery boasts an additional hour of juice over its predecessor, but it expands the iBook's size to 12.7 inches wide by 10.2 deep by 1.35 thick, compared to 11.2 by 9.1 inches for the previous model. And at 5.99 pounds, along with 11 ounces for the power supply, the new iBook outweighs its forerunner's heft of 4.9 pounds.

The iBook's keyboard is full-sized, except for Function and screen navigation keys, which are half-sized. But because Apple uses the same keyboard hardware in both the small and large iBooks, the keyboard looks a bit lost in the bigger model. Typical for an Apple notebook, the touchpad and the single mouse button are conveniently centered just below the keyboard. Compared to mainstream Windows notebooks and the PowerBook G4 series, the iBook lineup falls short. Its 800MHz or 900MHz G3 processers delivered much slower performance in our tests, and both of the 12-inch models ship standard with just 128MB of RAM. While you can upgrade your iBook as you buy--or pop off a small heat sink to add more memory (it maxes out at 640MB), even your upgrade options are somewhat limited, and you can't add high-end features such as a DVD-burning SuperDrive or faster graphics.

The iBook comes in two models, a 12.1-inch version and a 14.1-inch model. The 900MHz G3, 14.1-inch model, sports an ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics card with 32MB of video RAM, 256MB of RAM, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW Combo drive, and a fairly roomy 40GB hard drive. A 900MHz 12.1-inch model gets you roughly the same specs but just 128MB of RAM. Finally, the entry-level iBook, at just less than $1,000, offers a fairly slow 800MHz G3, 128MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive, and amazingly, only a CD-ROM drive--you can't even upgrade this model to include the Combo drive. None of the three iBook models supports Apple's new AirPort Extreme 802.11g wireless card--you're stuck with the 802.11b AirPort card, which is a $79 extra on every model. In addition, you can't upgrade the graphics card.

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A full complement of ports, if you don't want USB 2.0 or the faster FireWire 800.
If you custom-build a 14.1-inch iBook with 640MB of RAM, a 60GB drive, and a built-in AirPort card, you'll pay almost $1,800--nearly the price of a 12-inch PowerBook G4. Unless you're desperate for long battery life--the G3 draws much less power than the G4, so iBooks stay alive a lot longer than PowerBooks--we can't imagine paying that price and not buying a PowerBook.

The iBook series offers adequate, if not outstanding, connectivity. You'll find all the ports on the left side (with AC on the right), including a 56K modem, 10/100BaseT Ethernet, FireWire, and two USB ports; and a miniature monitor output that, with the appropriate cable, can connect to a separate monitor or provide composite-video output so that you can display movies or presentations on televisions or projectors. There's also a headphone jack. Unfortunately, the series still lacks a PC Card slot or a modular expansion bay, none of Apple's machines come with the faster USB 2.0 standard, and the iBook doesn't offer the faster FireWire 800 port you'll find on new G4 towers and the 17-inch PowerBook.

The standard iBook software bundle includes AppleWorks, an entry-level business suite; Mac OS X, iLife, (which includes iDVD, iMovie, iPhoto, and iTunes); and a handful of Net software, including Internet Explorer and Mac OS X Mail. You'll also get the Microsoft Office X test-drive--30 days' use of the Office suite. That's a full package, especially considering that the PowerBook G4 ships entirely sans an office suite (other than the 30-day Office trial). Application performance

It's too bad the iBook ships with just 128MB of RAM in both 12-inch versions, because our tests showed the notebook's performance goes up only with added RAM. Both of the iBooks we tested feature 900MHz G3 processors, a 512K L2 cache, 40GB Ultra ATA hard drives, and an ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics card with 32MB of video RAM. But the 14.1-inch iBook comes with a minimum of 256MB PC100 SDRAM, while the base model 12.1-inch iBook has only a scant 128MB (both are expandable to 640MB).

The 12.1-inch iBook did not meet the minimum memory requirements for our Photoshop tests, which employ a particularly large image file. Even the 14.1-inch model, with 256MB of RAM, is not well equipped for intensive Photoshop work. It scored well below all of the PowerBook models we've tested, which feature the more powerful G4 processor.

In our iTunes test, the additional RAM helped the 14.1-inch iBook outscore the 12.1-inch by half a minute. Again, neither of the iBooks could keep up with the better-equipped PowerBook notebooks. In iMovie, the iBooks performed more evenly (the 12.1-inch system beat the 14.1-inch by just a fraction of a minute), but both were half as fast as the nearest PowerBook.

CNET Labs uses three different applications (Photoshop 7.0, iMovie, and iTunes) to test Apple notebook performance. We perform a number of common, processor-intensive tasks in Photoshop; in iMovie, we convert a large movie file into QuickTime; and in iTunes, we convert a music file into MP3, timing each procedure.

Photoshop 7.0 test  
Time, in seconds, to perform 10 functions (shorter bars indicate better performance)  
PowerBook G4-1GHz 15.2-inch
52 
PowerBook G4-1GHz 17-inch
61 
PowerBook G4-867MHz 12.1-inch
135 
iBook G3-900MHz 14.1-inch
201 
 
iMovie test  
Time, in minutes, to convert a movie to QuickTime (shorter bars indicate better performance)  
PowerBook G4-1GHz 15.2-inch
2.5 
PowerBook G4-1GHz 17-inch
2.6 
PowerBook G4-867MHz 12.1-inch
3.0 
iBook G3-900MHz 12.1-inch
5.9 
iBook G3-900MHz 14.1-inch
6.2 
 
iTunes test  
Time, in seconds, to convert a CD track into an MP3 file (shorter bars indicate better performance)  
PowerBook G4-1GHz 17-inch
52 
PowerBook G4-1GHz 15.2-inch
59 
PowerBook G4-867MHz 12.1-inch
70 
iBook G3-900MHz 14.1-inch
107 
iBook G3-900MHz 12.1-inch
139 
 
System configurations:

Apple iBook G3-900MHz 12.1-inch
PowerPC G3-900MHz; 128MB PC100 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.5

Apple iBook G3-900MHz 14.1-inch
PowerPC G3-900MHz; 256MB PC100 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.5

Apple PowerBook G4-1GHz 17-inch
PowerPC G4-1GHz; 512MB PC2700 (333MHz) DDR SDRAM; Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go 64MB; 60GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.4

Apple PowerBook G4-1GHz 15.2-inch
PowerPC G4-1GHz; 512MB PC133 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB; 60GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/66 hard drive; OS X 10.1.2

Apple PowerBook G4-867MHz
PowerPC G4-867MHz; 256MB PC2100 (266MHz) DDR SDRAM; Nvidia GeForce4 420 Go 32MB; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.3 Battery life
Despite its larger screen size, the 14.1-inch iBook lasted about 15 minutes longer than the 12.1-inch in our DVD movie battery-drain test. That's due to the 14.1-inch system's larger 55-watt-hour battery, compared to the 12.1-inch iBook's more compact 46-watt-hour battery. Both systems outlasted their PowerBook counterparts by significant margins, making the iBook the preferred Apple notebook for mobile DVD viewing.

In order to drain the battery of an Apple notebook, CNET Labs plays a DVD movie in full-screen mode with the sound on.


DVD movie battery-drain test  
In hours (longer bars equal better performance)  
iBook G3-900MHz 14.1-inch
3.4 
iBook G3-900MHz 12.1-inch
3.2 
PowerBook G4-867MHz 12.1-inch
2.6 
PowerBook G4-1GHz 15.2-inch
2.5 
PowerBook G4-1GHz 17-inch
2.4 
 
Find out more about how we test notebook systems.

System configurations:

Apple iBook G3-900MHz 12.1-inch
PowerPC G3-900MHz; 128MB PC100 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.5

Apple iBook G3-900MHz 14.1-inch
PowerPC G3-900MHz; 256MB PC100 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.5

Apple PowerBook G4-1GHz 17-inch
PowerPC G4-1GHz; 512MB PC2700 (333MHz) DDR SDRAM; Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go 64MB; 60GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.4

Apple PowerBook G4-1GHz 15.2-inch
PowerPC G4-1GHz; 512MB PC133 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB; 60GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/66 hard drive; OS X 10.1.2

Apple PowerBook G4-867MHz
PowerPC G4-867MHz; 256MB PC2100 (266MHz) DDR SDRAM; Nvidia GeForce4 420 Go 32MB; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100 hard drive; OS X 10.2.3 Apple's standard hardware service and support policies sing a consistently disappointing tune, from which the iBook doesn't deviate. Apple's one-year parts and labor warranty is acceptable, but the mere 90 days of toll-free technical support isn't (after that, you pay $49 per incident). While we've found the quality of that support to be generally high, it's still too short a term. An AppleCare warranty extension to three years costs a whopping $249; in most cases, it's not worth the fee.

If it's any consolation, the iBook is as easy to use as any Mac and comes with plenty of documentation. A handy Setup Assistant guides you through the initial launch in a matter of minutes. A 38-page booklet covers basic procedures and has a short troubleshooting section. Most of the information users will need, however, lies in the system's help menus or online at Apple's Web site, which features a rich collection of FAQs, knowledge-base documents, software updates, and discussion forums. However, you have to register at the site to access most support information.

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Where to Buy

Apple iBook series

Part Number: M9018LL/A Released: Apr 22, 2003

MSRP: $999.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Apr 22, 2003
  • Resolution 1024 x 768 ( XGA )
  • Installed Size 128 MB
  • Weight 4.9 lbs
  • Optical Drive CD-RW / DVD-ROM combo - fixed
  • Graphics Processor AGP 2x - ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 - 32 MB DDR SDRAM
  • CPU PowerPC G3 900 MHz