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iBook revisited

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I’ve got my new iBook for a few weeks now and it’s time to recap what’s good and what’s bad about it. Sadly and obviously it’s a decline in style from my old Powerbook, so I remain a bit bitter but I’m trying to give it a fair review.

Let me start with something good. The keyboard feels better than the Powerbook’s. And while they’re not particularly pretty, having non-transparent keys means that I won’t have to see the dirt that has fallen into the keyboard a year or two from now. The change of keyboard layout – which has been used for a few years by now – which gives you a command and an enter key to the right of the space bar rather than the enter and option key keeps irritating me. I can deal with the order of the keys having changed but I so miss having an option key there. The option key was good for copying and application hiding. The command key is good for – uh – aligning icons and some keyboard equivalents like open or print. Guess which I need more frequently.

Another thing about the keyboard that I am a bit disappointed with is the caps lock light. Mac OS X.4 has the nice ability to ignore the caps lock key. And when using an external Apple keyboard where the caps lock light is controlled by software, the implementation is good enough to not turn on the caps lock light when the key is hit. That’s good software. But the iBook doesn’t have the hardware to match it as it seems that the caps lock light is still controlled by hardware and cannot be manipulated by software in the iBooks. Apple should have revised this.

The new trackpad with two-finger scrolling is amazing. It took me about two seconds to learn this new behaviour and four seconds to get completely hooked to it. Everybody who tried it absolutely loved it so far. It’s one of the best improvements we’ve seen in the past years in my opinion. It’s tremendously useful without getting in your way when you don’t need it. Interestingly the trackpad stops working completely when you’re using three fingers. I wonder whether that data could be evaluated as well.

What’s strange about the trackpad is when you use it at startup time, in the screen for choosing the startup drive that comes up when holding the option key, say, or when running the hardware test software that’s handily included as a separate partition on the system DVD that comes with the computer. Using the trackpad feels terribly jerky in those bits of software. It feels like it’ll only let you make strictly horizontal or vertical movements. The mouse never felt particularly smooth in those places, but it’s worse now than it used to be.

Next up is the sound. While the built-in speakers are quite good for their size – much better than my old Powerbook’s crappy speakers anyway, I had a bit of trouble with the headphone jack. I sometimes like using a headphone extension chord from my old walkman with the computer. Which never failed me so far. But on the iBook I have to make sure to not plug it in completely as the sound will come out severely distorted in that case.

Furthermore, I have the impression that the sound from the headphone jack isn’t as loud and clear as it was on the Powerbook. The built-in microphone at the side of the screen seems to be reasonably good as well. At least my brother said I was much better to understand on iChat than I used to be – even when the fan or the CD drive were running. I won’t even start about the lack of a line-in port…

Closely related is the topic of Bluetooth, one of the few things the iBook can do out of the box that I didn’t have a USB plug for on my Powerbook. I got the Bluetooth headset from my mum’s mobile phone to use with iChat. The sound quality isn’t particularly good but it works smoothly. You can direct the system’s complete sound output through it or just iChat’s which is the handy solution. In addition, it ‘just worked’. When transferring some photos from a friend’s phone, I also had the impression that the Bluetooth support was faster than the glacial speeds I had seen with the D-Link USB plug and other phones before. I’m not sure whether the iBook or the phone is responsible for that but I liked being able to transfer those photos at super-glacial speeds.

While at the topic of wireless connections, Airport comes to mind first. With a first generation Powerbook G4 I probably had the computer with the worst Airport reception ever. The iBook’s reception is much better. Suddenly we do have neighbours with wireless networks, I can see the university wireless network from my office with a strong signal rather than none or a minimal one and so on. Seeing all those wireless networks when visiting friends I got the impression that your chances of finding a non-encrypted network and being able to easily and quickly check your e-mail are much lower around here than people usually say. Unfortunate, I’d say…

The downside of the Airport thing is the mouse jumping phenomenon which is also discussed at Apple’s support site and looks like a problem that only appears on systems which have extra RAM added. Indeed I removed my extra RAM and couldn’t reproduce the problem then. But working with just 512MB of RAM is next to impossible. Not only does it put me in a situation that I considered to be in the past well over two years ago but it also puts me into swapping hell.

And swapping hell means things are slow. In fact, the iBook doesn’t feel particularly fast anyway. While it is of course faster than the old Powerbook, the gap is nowhere as large as even conservative guesses about the speed increase caused by tripling the clock speed and having more modern memory and mainboard would suggest. The number crunching may be faster, but the general feel isn’t. And with just 512MB of RAM the machine didn’t feel faster at all. With all 1,5GB being in there things are considerably better and smoother.

While writing about the adding of hardware let me add another good and another bad point about that. The good point is that when hooking my iPod up to the iBook’s Firewire port while the iBook is sleeping but attached to its charger, the iPod will be charged. That’s extremely convenient and a feature I really like. On the other hand, the USB ports seem to be a bit wonky. The external bus-powered drive enclosure I got myself only works on one of them (in fact, it works perfectly on my old Titanium Powerbook, doesn’t work on my mum’s Pismo Powerbook, doesn’t work on my powered USB hub and doesn’t work on the port of my dad’s Aluminium Powerbook I tried it with… I never got any error messages or warnings, though… so this does suck considerably).

Next, let me address the hardware. Ever since the iBook G4 came out and the plastic used for its case has been changed to cheap white stuff rather than the transparent one the G3 iBooks had, the machines looked cheap. Of course I knew that before but it’s still less than ideal. The machine feels cheap as well. Particularly the latch which doesn’t lock the iBook immediately but often needs to be held for a moment to lock properly. Not a big problem, but not what you’d consider good engineering / manufacturing.

Another thing that’s driving me mad on a daily basis is the fact that the ‘port’ where you can attach a lock is on the left hand side now. Not only does that make it harder for me to use as a right-handed-person, it also means that the numbers on my numeric lock will be shown upside down and that I can only turn the lock away from me rather than towards me when using it. Apparently those locks have been be ‘optimised’ for being attached at the right hand side… so attaching them there would be nice.

Finally, there’s the battery. While the guy sitting next to me on the train was impressed by it as I used the iBook all the way from Berlin to Göttingen (just two hours) and then started whining about his cheapo PC laptop just giving him 10 minutes after three months, I don’t think it’s particularly impressive. I doubt that I can get four hours of running time even when using the machine lightly. I do like the way the little lights indicating the current charge status come on one-by-one, though. Completely superfluous but a nice feature making me want to press that button more often.

I assume that the non-impressive running time is related to the machine being quite hot all the time. Warmer than my old Powerbook and with less symmetric distribution of the heat. The Titanium Powerbook’s processor and hard drive are centred in the machine which means that in lap-top use you can arrange for the hot spots to be between your legs and not too much trouble. The iBook is hotter on the left (although a friend told me that I can fry both of my hands by charging the battery at the same time…) which is an awkward feeling while typing. And I found that the fan likes to come on quite easily as well. Its sound is reasonably quiet and tame, though.

My conclusion on this is that Apple is really lacking good technology here. If my four year old Powerbook from a time when putting a G4 processor into a portable computer was considered to be a challenge is better in its thermal characteristics than the slowest processor they sell in a portable computer today, this doesn’t reflect too well on Apple’s engineers and the chips they are using. While I don’t know what IBM and Motorola (or whatever they’re called now) have up their sleeves to address this, I assume that is the performance per Watt issue that was used to apologise for using Intel processors in upcoming generations of Macs. And if they make my hands feel cooler, I have to admit that I have to be in favour of using them despite my aesthetic considerations.

September 26, 2005, 19:23

Tagged as hardware.


Comment by Bradley: User icon

My iBook G3 is 900MHz originally 800MHz and gets hotter than a G4. Even before the over-clock. But Speaking of transparent VS opaque, my iBook G3 is the same as the G4 as the external plastics. I like my G3 as it does do what I need to get done, in a considerably well amount of time, on a considerably long lasting battery. But I have 2 batteries. THe more the better. I range about 5 hours (6 rated for the G3 I think ) and charging isn’t an issue. Heat is all over the left side, and on the right, none at all. The recall of the G4 batteries may be the reason why the right side where the battery is so hot when charging. I hope to get a midrange MacBook here soon, and I hope that the MacBooks care cooler than any iBook. Oh and about the sound, the MacBook’s sound is much better than my iBook any day. Thank you for your time.

June 24, 2007, 0:14

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