Old Mac of the Month: The Original iBook

Linus Edwards is a writer who hails from Pennsylvania and has been a lifelong Apple user. You can check out his blog VintageZen and follow him on twitter at VintageZen66.

If you lined up every laptop computer made in the last twenty years end to end, one would glaringly stand out from all the others, Apple’s original iBook. While the other laptops would mostly be monotone colors in rectangular shapes, the iBook was brightly colored and in a distinctive clamshell shape. The shape was so outside the norm that some came to refer to it as the ‘Toilet Seat Mac.’ It looked radically different because it was based upon Apple’s other radically different computer, the iMac.

Editor’s Note: I reviewed this machine two years ago. For real.

In the late 90s, Steve Jobs returned to Apple and immediately started rejuvenating the company. The introduction of the iMac began that rejuvenation and firmly planted Apple in its ‘Willy Wonka’ design phase, with their computers popping with candy colors and shiny, translucent plastic.[1] While today those designs might seem rather garish, at the time they were a breath of fresh air from the beige boxes that had dominated the computer industry. The iMac was the epitome of that design aesthetic, and with its popularity, Apple realized it should bring that aesthetic to a laptop.

This was all part of Steve Jobs’ ‘four box’ strategy of simplifying Apple’s computer line into four main types of computers: a professional desktop (Power Mac), a professional laptop (Powerbook), a consumer desktop (iMac), and a consumer laptop (iBook). The iBook came last and completed the puzzle, opening up a previously untapped market of people who wanted a cheaper, more stylish, and more user friendly laptop.

Being a high school student at the time, I fit perfectly into the demographic Apple was targeting with the iBook. I had been using a Performa 630cd for almost five years, and it was starting to really show its age. My mom finally took pity on me and bought me a blueberry colored iBook at the local Sears. Yes, Sears. This was a few years before Apple Stores even existed and there were only a few places where you could actually get a Mac at the time. Sears was the only store within a few miles of our house that actually had them in stock, so that is where we went.

The original iBook cost $1,599, which was fairly pricey compared to modern day consumer laptops, but almost a thousand dollars less than the cheapest available Powerbook. It had a 300 MHz G3 processor, 6 GB hard drive, and 32 MBs of RAM. It continued Apple’s push to simplify inputs, which began with the iMac, by having only a single USB port, along with modem, ethernet, and headphone jacks. It also had a CD-Rom drive, but no CD burning or DVD compatibility, as they hadn’t reached the mainstream at the time.

I remember bringing the iBook home and it looked like a miniature UFO had landed on our dining room table. It was so much smaller than any computer I ever had, and it seemed very futuristic. I remember opening and closing its lid, in wonder of the fact it had no latch, and also that when you closed it, it would automatically go to sleep and a tiny light on the outside case would dim in and out, as if it were breathing.

Apple was definitely aiming for a cute and friendly vibe with the iBook. It came in either blue or orange colors, named ‘blueberry’ and ‘tangerine,’ which made for an almost fruit salad motif if you add in the Apple brand. It also came with a sheet of tiny stickers that one would place above the function keys that had stylized cartoons symbolizing things such as volume or brightness. It also included a handle on the hinge of the computer, so you could carry it around without a case.[2] This was definitely a computer aimed more at students than professionals.

Yet, even with all its cutesy panache, the iBook was a veritable tank of a computer. It weighed 6.6 pounds and had a very solid feel. It was made out of extremely tough plastic and rubber, so you could throw it around all you want and never worry it was going to break. Even modern day unibody Macbooks still feel rather fragile compared to the original iBook. I had it a number of years, dropped it numerous times, and never had any problems. The solidness of that iBook is what I miss most about it.

In the years I had my iBook, it went through a lot of transitions. It originally came loaded with Mac OS 8.6, but I eventually upgraded it to OS X. It also came with a built in 56K modem, but when I switched my internet to high speed DSL the modem became an unused relic. The one thing I didn’t do was upgrade it with an Airport card. The iBook was a rather revolutionary system in that it was the first mainstream computer to use wifi, through the Apple Airport card. First generation iBooks did not come with the card installed, but you could later purchase it as an add-on. However, at the time, wifi was in its infant stages and there were few places that it was actually available, so I never bothered with the upgrade.

Apple eventually completely revised the iBook in May of 2001, less than two years after its debut. That revision was an iBook in name only, as it looked nothing like the original design, instead opting for a minimalist white appearance. The iBook name continued in that iteration for a number of years and was eventually replaced by the Macbook line. I used my original iBook for about four years until finally upgrading to a used Powerbook Pismo. My iBook sat in storage for years after that, but just a few months ago I took it out, plugged it in, and it booted up perfectly. I doubt Apple will ever go back to the radical design of the original iBook in future computers, but for its time, it was a rock solid computer that deserves some credit in helping invigorate the Apple consumer laptop line.

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  1. Steve Jobs actually had an idea of giving out a golden ticket in the millionth iMac sold and dressing up as Willy Wonka to give the winner a tour of Apple’s campus.  ↩
  2. For anyone who makes fun of Android phones with kickstands, remember Steve Jobs once approved a laptop computer with a built in handle.  ↩