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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek technology

DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48

Face Off: Thinking Notebooks
Apple's colorful iBook laptop has arrived in Asia. We see how it rates against the industry workhorse, IBM's ThinkPad
By STUART WHITMORE

When it comes to Apple's new iBook laptop computer, few people are short of an opinion. For some it is a design classic, for others a candy-colored toilet seat. But as with the iMac before it, many are seduced into a state of drooling overexcitement more readily associated with the fashion business than the beige old world of computing. At its Hong Kong launch one breathless admirer, picking up the closed clam shell by its built-in handle, was even heard to squeal "Gucci!"

FACE OFF
iBook
PROCESSOR: 300 MHz PowerPC G3
MEMORY: 32 MB. Total capacity: 128 MB
STORAGE: 3.2 GB hard disk
SCREEN: 12.1 inches
WEIGHT: 3 kg
SIZE: 34.4cm x 29.4 cm x 4.6 cm
BATTERY LIFE: Up to 6 hours
PROS: Robust, fast and portable. Great design touches, including a built-in handle. Optional wireless Internet connection with the AirPort. Long battery life. Cachet
CONS: No floppy disk drive, no serial ports, limited software availability
ThinkPad 390E
PROCESSOR: 300 MHz Intel Pentium II
MEMORY: 32 MB. Total capacity: 256 MB
STORAGE: 3.2 GB hard disk
SCREEN: 13.3 inches
WEIGHT: 3.4 kg
SIZE: 31.5 cm x 25.5 cm x 4.6 cm
BATTERY LIFE: Up to 3 hours
PROS: Highly expandable with a variety of ports for adding peripheral devices
CONS: Significantly slower performance than the iBook for a higher price. Battery runs hot during use and runs down quickly

I'm a much tougher sell. When I bought a laptop earlier this year I chose a stately black IBM ThinkPad over flashier rivals. Attempts at being cute cut no ice with me. My purchasing decisions were based on dull-but-worthy considerations like a solid keyboard and crisp screen. Besides, I happen to find the ThinkPad's clean lines quite appealing. If the iBook screams "Think Different," the ThinkPad whispers "No Nonsense." Around 12% of laptop users agree with my choice -- a share of the market that Apple can only dream about. Converting us won't be easy. If I'm going to be seen wearing something from Steve Jobs's fall collection, I want some substance behind the style. So I got my hands on an iBook to find out how it stacked up against my solid, if stolid, ThinkPad 390E.

Peeling away the polystyrene, I was initially taken aback by how big the iBook is. In publicity shots it looks like a toy. In reality its outsize curves make even the chunky ThinkPad look compact. I flipped out the built-in handle and a funny thing happened. Suddenly I was filled with the urge to wander around the office, swinging my hardware handbag for admiring eyes. Admire they did. When it is open, there is a slightly lavatorial look to the iBook. But with the top down it's a stunner.

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I was sold on the looks. While still partial to the ThinkPad's understated style, I was no longer afraid of looking like a Girl Guide if I take the iBook out in public. That is fortunate, because with its well-contoured case and the inspired addition of a handle, the iBook begs to be picked up. Its thick, translucent blue and white shell has a coating of hard rubber that shames the ThinkPad's thin and brittle plastic. Jobs claims it's the same material used in bulletproof vests. The iBook's curves mean no smashable corners. The screen and deep-sunk ports are well protected from in-transit banging and bumping. The iBook even closes without any fiddly, breakable catches. By comparison the ThinkPad feels awkward and fragile tucked under my arm. When I carry it anywhere, I strap it down in a padded case.

Even more important for a portable, the iBook has a battery life to die for. I run the ThinkPad into submission in less than three hours. I'm always on the lookout for an electrical socket. The iBook clocks between five and six hours at a stretch, long enough for me to feel confident about computing unplugged. Significantly, it's also long enough for the iBook to last out a school day. Apple is targeting the kidproof machine at classrooms.

Despite its heavy armor, the iBook weighs in at almost half a kilo lighter than the 3.4 kilogram ThinkPad. Not that your shoulder will spot the difference after walking a hundred meters -- neither is in the ultraportable class. But neither machine is a lightweight in performance terms either. With its 300 Megahertz Pentium II processor, the ThinkPad is an adequate stand-in for a budget desktop. The iBook practically is a desktop. Its 300 Megahertz G3 chip is twice as fast as the Pentium II. While you only get the full benefit of that poke using graphics-hungry applications, there is a tangible zip about everything the iBook does. Not bad for a machine that will sell for around $1,690 in Hong Kong -- about $250 less than I paid for my ThinkPad.

For the extra money the ThinkPad does come with some extra features. Like a floppy disk drive. Apple bills the iBook as "iMac to go," and as with its fruit-flavored desktops, the firm has refused to include a slot for floppies. Also absent are traditional serial and parallel ports for attaching peripheral devices such as a printer and a mouse. Only devices with the new plug-and-play USB (Universal Serial Bus) attachments can be hooked up to the iBook. There are clear signs that the rest of the computing world is moving Apple's way. But if you still rely on diskettes, or have non-USB peripherals you aren't about to consign to the scrapheap, then perhaps you're not ready for an iBook.

Some of Apple's new ideas are clear winners. Say hello to the AirPort, a wireless networking system that liberates the iBook from the phone jack. The $299 AirPort looks like a silver flying saucer and acts as the Internet equivalent of a cordless phone's base station. Plug it into your phone line (or cable modem) and slot a $99 card into your iBook and you can surf without a wire as long as you stay within 45 meters of the AirPort. My ThinkPad comes with a fairly long phone cord, but not so long that I can stretch it out of my office-cum-spare bedroom and flip through e-mail on the couch.

The AirPort is one of a number of design wins for the iBook. With the battery in, the powered up ThinkPad can heat a small room. The iBook remains cool to the touch. The iBook's keyboard has a light, springy nature perfect for the digits of Generation i (although it may confound old hands raised on typewriters). The screen is sharp and the iBook's solid, metallic track pad is the best I've seen. While the ThinkPad's power pack is an ugly black block trailing wires, the iBook gets a shiny round partner for the AirPort that neatly swallows its own cable. Even the light indicating that the iBook is in power-conserving sleep mode has character, pulsating rhythmically as though the machine is breathing.

Enough praise. The iBook has a tragic flaw familiar to all Apple lovers: lack of software. The Mac operating system is still a paragon of user friendliness, but when it comes to applications, Windows users have the advantage. Despite the success of the iMac, Apple still accounts for just 12% of the personal computer market. Software titles for the Mac are fewer and usually get released later.

Things are even worse on the Net. The hottest toys on the Web right now are chat application Gooey and MP3 music players. Mac users are shut out of both. Until the situation changes all the great design in the world won't tear me away from my ThinkPad. In the meantime, if I want a splash of color, I can get it. In response to Apple's design revolution, IBM recanted its "any color as long as it's black," faith. ThinkPad owners can now swap their dark carapaces for one of seven technicolor coats. I wonder if they come in apple green?

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