Digital Fossils

In Praise of the Refreshingly Different Clamshell iBook

- 2008.04.29 -Tip Jar

The recent columns on clamshelliBooks here on Low End Mac (Mother of the MacBookAir, GraphiteClamshell iMac Still a Real Eye Catcher and Useful Tool, Clamshell iBooksReconsidered) hit a real soft spot for me.

Back in the Fall of 2001, I was living in Knoxville and roadtrippingto Atlanta twice a month with my roommate, dragging our big Wintelboxes for weekend-long LAN parties. I thought it would be neat to havea portable DVD player to amuse myself during the ride down and duringthe occasional long breaks when the network was being updated withpatches or whatnot.

At the time, portable DVD players from any company you'd trust tomake anything more complex than a hat were running about a thousanddollars a pop. My roommate saw me paging through screens of Sonys oneevening and suggested that, since the "IceBooks" had just debuted, I wander over to Mac Of All Trades and see whatthey had in the way of clamshell iBooks. The last ones did have DVDplayers, after all....

Sure enough, they were running a deal on refurbished iBook SE FireWire machines inthe "Key Lime" color scheme for right at a grand. Neat! Not only couldI watch movies on the thing, but maybe I could use it to. . . surf the 'net or something. I mean, sure, it wasobsolete....

Tamara Keel with her iBook (copyright Oleg Volk)

Seven years down the road, that "obsolete" machine is sitting on mylap as I type this, relaxing on the front porch on a cool springtimeevening. For seven years that obsolete iBook has been my trusty roadwarrior, letting me moderate web forums from WiFi hotspots thanks toits AirPort card. It's let me update my blog from a friend's house inNashville, surf the 'net from my neighbor's hot tub, and check my emailin out-of-state hotel rooms. This little 466 MHz G3, with its 192 megsof RAM that are so meager by today's standards, runs OS X 10.3.9"Panther" without a hiccup and has uncomplainingly done whatever Ineeded it to do for the better part of a decade.

So, yes, it is safe to say I have a soft spot for the clamshelliBooks. The styling remains refreshingly different. If anything, itlooks more modern now than it did when it was released. The keyboard,while not garnering the euphoric praise of a WallStreet or PowerBook 1400, is roomy and sports afull suite of function keys. It was the first Mac laptop to dispensewith flimsy port doors, yet all its ports are protected from damage bybeing recessed at the end of tunnels in the housing. There's no fragilelid latch to break, either.

Sure, it has its faults. It's pretty limited in its expandability,and even what little can be done needs doing by someone who is a dabhand with tools and not panicked by complex instructions. It only hasthe one built-in speaker, and the sounds emanating from it are tinnyand flat when compared to even the old '040 Blackbirds. But these are allquibbles. The original iBook wasn't meant to be a massively upgradeablepower user's machine. It was a reasonably priced entry-level laptop,and it does what it was meant to do - and does it well.

The little touches it has - those little touches that are taken forgranted now - were so science-fiction when they debuted on theiBook. Touches like the gently snoring sleep light under the skin thatreplaced the harshly blinking surface-mounted LED on earlier 'Books. Orthe glow around the power port, changing from the amber of charging tothe green of a full charge. And, of course, there is the piece deresistance, the gimmick that makes you wonder why Apple didn't makeit a permanent feature of every laptop ever after: A built-in foldingcarry handle. Genius.

So is the clamshell iBook the machine for you? That depends. Forstarters, it's about as cheap a modern Mac laptop as you can buy. (By"modern", I mean a machine that supports USB, can run OS X withoutbeating your head against a wall, and has provision for an internalwireless card.) With its good keyboard, rugged build, and that niftybuilt-in carry handle, it's still a fantastic utility infielder of alaptop.

If you need the ultimate in compactness, or the ability to editvideo or play World of Warcraft at the local WiFi hotspot, then youprobably need to look elsewhere. For me, though? For me I just hopethat the next seven years of uncomplaining service are as drama-freeand lacking in hiccups as the first seven years have been. LEM

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