The higher-end model in Apple's budget-friendly iBook line, the 14-inch iBook G4, offers a few welcome enhancements over its previous iteration--namely, a slightly faster 1.42GHz PowerPC processor, more standard memory (512MB), Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), and a lower $1,299 price. Though the 14-inch iBook G4 is no slouch and is perfectly adequate for basic use, we often direct serious users toward the souped-up, though more expensive, 12-inch PowerBook G4. But Steve Jobs changed everything when he promised to transition the entire Apple line to Intel's Core Duo platform sometime in 2006. We like the current 14-inch iBook G4 fine, but if you can afford to bide your time, hold off until the new Intel-powered iBooks arrive. (The considerably more expensive MacBook Pro will be the first Intel Mac laptop out the door.)
The latest 14-inch iBook G4 features the same solid case design as the prior generation. The 12.7-inch-wide, 10.2-inch-deep, 1.4-inch-thick case consists of a bright white polycarbonate shell with a grayish eggshell-white keyboard and a wrist rest. Weighing 5.9 pounds, the iBook G4 falls at the heavier end of the thin-and-light spectrum, though it's still fairly portable. By comparison, the ThinkPad Z60t (starting at $799) has a 4.9-pound base weight, while the Dell XPS M140 (starting at $999) weighs 5.9 pounds. It's also worth considering that the 14-inch displays on the ThinkPad and the Dell are wide-aspect, whereas the iBook G4's is not. Plan on toting another 0.8 pound with the iBook G4's three-prong AC adapter, which also ships with a convenient two-prong adapter plug.
Like the 12.1-inch iBook G4, the 14-inch version has a comfortable keyboard, although the arrow keys are very small. We admire the standard-size one-button touch pad; its two-finger feature for scrolling horizontally and vertically is magical (use it for a few days, and you'll wonder how you ever did without it). While the 14-inch screen offers plenty of real estate, we'd prefer to see a higher native resolution than the standard 1,024x768. We also wish the laptop offered better speakers and a few external controls, like those on the ThinkPad Z60t and the XPS M140, for manipulating multimedia features such as volume and disc play.
Despite the 14-inch iBook G4's larger size, it offers no more ports, slots, or jacks than the 12.1-inch version; you get some higher-end ports, while some basic ones go missing. All of its ports and jacks lie on the left edge. They include four-pin FireWire, 56Kbps modem, 10/100 Ethernet, and USB 2.0 (two), as well as a headphone jack and a video port that accommodates an included VGA adapter and optional S-Video and composite-video adapters. Notable absences include an integrated audio input (Apple sells an audio-in adapter), a PC Card/ExpressCard slot, and a flash-media slot, all of which the ThinkPad Z60t and the XPS M140 provide. The single-layer DVD burner on the right edge has a slot-loading design that we love; it's a sturdy alternative to fragile optical-drive trays.
Though the iBook G4 lacks a true productivity suite, it ships with some really strong software. You get the latest version of the terrific Mac OS X, nicknamed Tiger, plus Apple's iLife '05 software bundle. The iLife bundle is a generation behind the one that comes with the new Intel iMacs, but the included apps, such as iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie, still speak to users who plan to use the system for multimedia tasks.
For its $1,299 price, our 14-inch iBook G4 evaluation system offered a mixed bag of components: a sluggish 1.42GHz PowerPC G4 processor, a decent 512MB of memory (now upgradable to 1.5GB), cutting-edge Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, 802.11g AirPort Extreme wireless, a low-end ATI Mobility Radeon 9550 graphics chip with 32MB of dedicated VRAM, a single-layer DVD burner, and an average-size 60GB hard drive protected by Sudden Motion Sensor technology, which theoretically protects the hard drive from damage if you drop or bump the laptop. Our recent roundup of five $1,000 laptops revealed that some PC laptops offer superior hardware for a few hundred dollars less.
In CNET Labs' tests, the latest 14-inch iBook G4 made a mockery of the older version's performance. It completed our Photoshop CS test in less than half the time of the older model; it also earned faster scores in our iTunes and Unreal Tournament 2004 benchmarks. Not unexpectedly, the 14-inch iBook G4 finished behind the 17-inch PowerBook G4 in every test. Still, Apple says that the new breed of MacBooks will run four to five times faster than the PowerBook G4, so we think it's worthwhile holding off until the iBook line gets that Intel chip.
That said, the 14-inch iBook G4 showed improvement over the prior generation in CNET Labs' battery-drain tests. It played our DVD for 4.1 hours before petering out (the old 14-inch iBook lasted a shorter 3.9 hours). The 12.1-inch iBook G4 lasted an even longer 4.4 hours, largely because a smaller screen requires less juice.
Apple ships the iBook G4 with the bare minimum in service and support: a one-year warranty and 90 days of free, toll-free telephone support. Fortunately, use of the company's online support Web site, which offers a forum section, FAQs, and troubleshooting info, is always free.
For more detailed information about warranties and service plans, check out Computer Shopper's overview of 37 major computer vendors.
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iBook G4 (1.33GHz, 12-inch)
OS X 10.4.2; PowerPC G4 1.33GHz; 512MB PC2700 333MHz DDR SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 9550 32MB; Fujitsu MHV2040AT 40GB 4,200rpm
iBook G4 (1.33GHz, 14-inch)
OS X 10.3.8; PowerPC G4 1.33GHz; 256MB PC2100 266MHz DDR SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 9200 32MB; Fujitsu MHT2060AT 60GB 4,200rpm
PowerBook G4 (1.5GHz, 12-inch)
OS X 10.4.2; PowerPC G4 1.5GHz; 512MB PC2700 333MHz DDR SDRAM; Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 64MB; Hitachi Travelstar 5K100 80GB 5,400rpm
PowerBook G4 (1.67GHz, 15-inch)
OS X 10.4.1; PowerPC G4 1.67GHz; 512MB PC2700 333MHz DDR SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 64MB; Fujitsu MHT2080AH 80GB 5,400rpm
PowerBook G4 (1.67GHz, 17-inch)
OS X 10.4.2; PowerPC G4 1.67GHz; 512MB PC4200 333MHz DDR2 SDRAM; ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 128MB; Seagate Momentus 5400.2 120GB 5,400rpm