Old Mac of the Month: The iBook (Dual USB)

This Old Mac of the Month entry is written by Brian Ashe, a Jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none when it comes to computers, networking, web app development, hardware, and design of all kinds. His website is perpetually coming soon and he neither tweets nor blogs but he loves hearing from strangers.

image courtesy of Apple PR

As Steve Jobs said in an oft-quoted interview with Newsweek in 2004, “At the critical juncture in the late ’80s, when [Apple] should have gone for market share, they went for profits. They made obscene profits for several years. And their products became mediocre.”

I graduated from college and started working in a publishing company’s design department in 1995, right at the end of that period. Back then, Macs really did cost 2-3x as much as comparable PCs, and the just-released Windows 95 really was about as good as the Mac OS of the time — better in some ways, worse in others, but overall pretty close.

When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, he made a lot of changes. The most visible was the introduction of the iMac in 1998 but much more important was a total change of the product lineup. Before his return, Apple had (in addition to the PowerMac and their laptops) the Performa line, which spawned 26 models in 4 years. The lineup was a mess and Steve famously cut it down to four categories: professional desktop, professional laptop, consumer desktop, and consumer laptop. (This was before the iPod existed — that was literally all they made.) However, their professional products were still a little on the pricey side, and their consumer products, as good as they were, lacked features that a lot of people wanted. There was not yet any sense of serving a “prosumer” market. The iMac had a decent CPU but it was not expandable at all beyond USB peripherals, and the original “clamshell” iBook had a larger body and lower screen resolution than other laptops of the time.

Introduced on May 1st, 2001, the white iBook was the first Mac in a long time to offer a lot of bang for the buck and lots of features. It was a clean, compact design with no wasted space — especially compared to the original iBook — and it had lots of ports, a good screen, and a low price. It was a very capable machine and you didn’t get the feeling that they left off crucial bits just to make you consider getting a PowerBook instead. (Other than lacking extended-desktop support when used with an external display, there were no artificial limitations on performance.) Oh yeah, and they ditched the wacky colors, offering only white, which was unusual for a notebook at the time and very visible but not gaudy or garish. It was the first colorful Mac to lose its color and paved the way for their trend toward minimalism, now that the colorful computers had done their job of attracting attention. Like a maturing Hollywood star, Apple products were going from flashy to classy.

Wikipedia sums up the technical advancements nicely: the new iBook was “30% lighter, and occupied less than 50% of the volume of the model it replaced, being smaller in all 3 dimensions… Apple claimed the compact design did not sacrifice durability, saying it was ‘twice as durable’ as the previous model.” Besides being smaller and lighter, the iBook gained a second speaker for proper stereo sound and its 12″ screen was bumped up to a respectable 1024×768. It came in an array of prices (originally starting at $1299) with the main options being RAM, hard disk capacity, and a choice of four optical drives: CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, or combo drive (combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW.)

I think it really takes a list to show just how complete this machine was:

  • 500 MHz G3 CPU
  • 64 or 128 MB RAM; max of 640
  • 10 GB hard drive
  • Optical drive
  • FireWire
  • USB
  • 10/100 Ethernet
  • 56k modem
  • Mini-VGA output (also supported composite and S-video)
  • Microphone
  • Stereo speakers
  • Headphone jack
  • AirPort-ready

A nice little bonus: the power plug was compatible with the previous-generation iBook and the current PowerBook, so charging became easier. If you went to a Mac-friendly office or conference, someone was bound to have a charger you could borrow for a bit. Apple used that one plug design for many years, only dropping it when they moved to the new MagSafe connector, which was a solid technological advancement and not just a ploy to sell more adapters.

Obviously the iBook was a lower-end line but it was a solid performer in its day. Other Macs of the time included were the PowerBook G4 (introduced just 4 months earlier) at 400 and 500 MHz, the PowerMac G4 at 466-733 MHz (the 733 MHz G4 had also just been introduced in January), and the G3 iMac at 400-600 MHz (after a refresh in February 2001.) So a 500 MHz G3 was still a decent CPU, especially in a portable. And, most amazingly of all, Apple updated the G3 iBook literally every six months, jumping to 600, 700, 800 and finally 900 MHz in less than two years and then to a G4 in six more months. It also jumped to a peppy 100 MHz front-side bus with the 600 MHz model after the first refresh in October 2001.

I waited a bit and bought an 800 MHz model in early January 2003. It was $1,149, refurbished, and I spent another $100 to bring it up to 640 MB RAM right away. (From a third party, natch.) I added an AirPort card a little later. A 30 GB hard drive made it suitable for lots of work with iMovie. Thanks to OS X 10.2’s Quartz Extreme and the iBook’s 32 MB of discreet VRAM, it ran Jaguar better than the 533 MHz dual-G4 PowerMac I had at work, which lacked a Quartz Extreme-capable card. Besides helping make OS X run a lot better than 10.1, Quartz Extreme also let you do fun party tricks, like dragging a few colorful, semi-transparent Terminal windows on top of a playing DVD window with no jittering in the movie or the windows.

Party tricks aside, I loved it to death because it was compact, powerful, and inexpensive — a rare combination to find anywhere, and certainly rare in the Apple world at the time. It was fully-featured upon its release, at a time when people were still smarting from Apple dropping SCSI and A/V options from the PowerMac, and everything else from the iMac. It had every port and feature a modern Mac user could want, including the ability to boot into OS 9, which was still useful at the time.

My iBook was the first Mac I bought new (refurbished-ness aside) and I used it almost daily for years. Before WiFi was everywhere, I’d load up a bunch of news stories in tabs and take it with me to lunch. Back then, my work sent me to conferences every so often (including WWDC in 2004) and my iBook went with me to every one. I gave it to my dad in late 2007 so he could spend some time with OS X. He didn’t use it too much but it kept ticking and one of the last things I did with it was use Internet Sharing to turn it into an access point when I visited him in early 2011. I took it back home at that time and sold it later that year. I hated to do so but I knew I’d never doing anything meaningful with it, having bought a white MacBook (also refurbished) to replace it. I couldn’t even use the iBook for a server, since I already had a G4 Mini — roughly twice as powerful and easier to store — doing that. Still, it lasted a good 8 years (and at the end, the battery still held a good 30-minute charge, thanks to me being compulsive about charging it up and running it down) and served me well all along.

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