The 'Book Page

Hands on the FireWire iBook

October 9, 2000 - Dan Knight - Tip Jar

A year ago I wrote about the first (and still only) iBook we got at work. Today I'm writing about my wife's new indigo iBook.

There's a sad story behind Indigo iBookit, which involves her PowerBook G3 Series II (also known as WallStreet) and some Diet Coke. The PowerBook lost.

Thank goodness we run backup religiously on our home network. Although she lost some work, we were able to restore everything as of the last backup. In fact, I put those files on her partition on my computer so she could work until the iBook arrived.

The first step was partitioning the hard drive. I wanted a separate partition for Virtual PC, one for a spare copy of the OS, and one for browser cache files - all in addition to the main working partition. We ended up with 7 GB for work, 512 MB for Virtual PC, 2 GB for emergencies (and OS X Beta!), and 32 MB for cache files.

The next step was using the Software Restore CD to put back everything wiped away when we partitioned the hard drive. Next boot from the emergency partition, connect ethernet, turn on sharing, and copy all the files from her partition on my hard drive to the main partition on the new iBook.

Benchmarks

MacBench 5

That done, the next step was to run MacBench 5.0 and see how the iBook's new PowerPC 750CX processor performs. (Yeah, I'm something of a geek at heart.) The first test was with Virtual Memory on and set to 65 MB, the iBook's default. The second test was with Virtual Memory turned off. To test a friend's theory that VM works best when set to multiples of 32, I also tested at 96 MB. (Since I can't locate my MacBench CD at the moment, I was unable to test graphics or CD-ROM performance.)

test      CPU     FPU    disk
VM 65     693    1221    1121
VM off    693    1222    1146
VM 96     696    1220    1113

There's no significant performance difference between these tests. Even the disk tests show no more than 3% difference from best to worst.

It's quite surprising to see such a low CPU test score, since MacBench 5.0 sets the beige Power Mac G3/300 at 1000. In fact, the original 233 MHz iMac scored 696! Why a 366 MHz PowerPC 750CX, the processor used in the new iBooks, should score so poorly under MacBench 5 was beyond me. For comparison, the original iBook scored 893 on the CPU test and 973 on the FPU test. Hoping it was some extension or control panel causing the slowdown, I booted with extensions off and obtained virtually identical CPU (697) and FPU (1234) scores.

In the final analysis, I must say I was disappointed to find the 366 MHz 750CX chip scoring worse than the 300 MHz 750 processor in the original iBook. All the PR from IBM pointed to significant efficiencies in the 750CX that should let it outperform a G3 at the same clock speed (with a 512 KB 02.1 cache). Instead, a chip that clocks 22% faster actually benchmarks 22% slower.

On the other hand, the new iBook scores 26% better on the FPU test, or as well as a G3/400 would if Apple had put one in an iBook.

Speedometer 4.0.2

I couldn't leave it at that, so I pulled out good old Speedometer 4.02, which is so old it uses the Quadra 605 as it's base score of 1.0. Time to see how the indigo iBook scores.

I ran Speedo 4 on my SuperMac S900 with 333 MHz Newer Tech G3 card for comparison. After seeing the MacBench 5 scores, I thought my S900 would blow past the new iBook.

test       CPU    disk    math
iBook     28.2    3.24    1016
S900      25.2    2.95     891

Here the 366 MHz PowerPC 750CX in the new iBook outperforms the G3 by 12.2% on the CPU test and 14.1% on the math test. Considering the iBook runs at a 10% higher clock speed, that's impressive.

According to Newer Tech's Clockometer utility, the G3 upgrade actually runs at 330 MHz with a 220 MHz 1 MB backside cache on a 44 MHz system bus. That accounts for another 1% of the iBook's performance.

When IBM introduced the PowerPC 750CX processor, they claimed that the 256 KB on-chip cache would provide similar performance to the old G3 with a 512 KB backside cache running at half processor speed. (For a lot more on the 750CX, see Should Apple Use the New G3?) Although I don't have Speedometer scores for the recently discontinued 366 MHz iBook SE, I suspect they would be very similar to the indigo iBook's scores. If anyone out there has run Speedometer 4 on the 366 MHz iBook SE, I would be very interested in receiving your results.

On Benchmarks

What's curious is the discrepancy between MacBench 5 and Speedometer 4. As we note on our benchmark index, "Remember that benchmarks are arbitrary. They measure certain types of performance that may or may not reflect the way you work."

Well, MacBench 5 and Speedometer 4 apparently measure CPU and math/FPU performance very differently.

Perhaps this is part of the reason Macworld has moved away from MacBench to a new test suite that uses application software. It's impossible to predict how a processor that has a 22% CPU score on MacBench and a 26% higher FPU score will compare in the real world.

I guess we'll just have to wait for Macworld to Speedmark the new iBooks and compare them with the older ones. I'm guessing overall performance will be about the same for the old 366 MHz iBook SE and the new 366 MHz FireWire iBook.

It's hard for my wife to judge the performance difference, since she has also migrated from Mac OS 8.6 to 9.0.4 in changing computers. As I commented when making the move a couple weeks back, switching between programs seems a bit more sluggish, but stability is better.

In the end, what counts is how well the computer works for you. Benchmarks can be a helpful way of comparing computers and components, but they only tell part of the story.

Back to the iBook

Regardless of benchmarks, the indigo iBook is faster than the 233 MHz WallStreet it replaced. And if performance is really no better than the old iBook, it also sells for $100 less, so the value remains excellent.

Anyhow, after porting all the files over and running the requisite benchmarks, the next step is integrating files from the old PowerBook with those on the iBook. Since the PowerBook had Mac OS 8.6 and the iBook comes with 9.0.4, you have to keep an eye out for software incompatibilities. It's a good thing I went through that process last week on my SuperMac S900 and made notes of the problem software.

The most important tool for this project is Clean-Install Assistant by Marc Moini. It goes through a System Folder and pulls out all the third-party control panels, extensions, fonts, etc. It places them in a new folder, which you then put on the same level as the System Folder on your hard drive. Then you dig out problem software and use C-IA to reintegrate the rest with your new System Folder.

Next, download the latest version of TechTool (1.2.1) from Micromat to wipe the desktop and force the iBook to rebuild it and fix all the generic icons.

After all that, I suggest you run your favorite utility program (Norton Utilities, TechTool Pro, or Disk Warrior, my current favorite) to make sure all the files are in good shape and optimize the hard drive.

The Computer Itself

As I said last year, the iBook was never intended to be a business computer, but it certainly has the right features. And this year it has a far more acceptable color.

The iBook still has the best keyboard of any portable computer I've used, and that included the most costly PowerBook. The feel, the feedback, the typing experience is great.

So is the texture and feel of the wrist rest, a cool plastic with an almost soft texture that feels just right. As I noted in my first iBook review, the trackpad isn't recessed below the work surface. Instead, it's flush with the case - and, like the keyboard, its feels great and works very nicely.

In fact, I'd have to say the iBook continues to provides the best tactile experience I've ever had with a portable computer. Everything about it feels right, from the soft curves and metal reinforced handle to the grippy plastic casing and the trackpad button.

The screen is positively luminescent; my wife says it's better than the one her WallStreet PowerBook had. I'd say it's at least a match for the one in the current PowerBook, except for the smaller size. As Steve Jobs said when introducing the iBook, it is an iMac to go.

Conclusion

Benchmark anomalies aside, the iBook remains a lot of laptop for the money. It has adequate speed and a big enough screen for most users. It has great battery life, excellent ergonomics, and even a handle to facilitate transportation. All this and a lower price tag than last year's model.

I'd have to call it the best portable computer under $2,000.

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