Miscellaneous Ramblings

Getting the Most Out of the Clamshell iBook

Charles Moore - 2006.08.14 - Tip Jar

"I'm kind of looking for a laptop just like this one right now, but I went to the Apple site and can't find it on there," the reader's email said.

The "laptop just like this one" in the JPEG attachment was a tangerine 300 MHz iBook, one of the original models from way back in 1999, so it was no mystery why it couldn't be found on Apple's website. The query is testimony to the enduring appeal of these machines.

iBook"Unique" is an overworked adjective, but in the case of the clamshell iBook, it's justified. There's never been anything quite like it before or since.

Used iBooks

I was able to direct the reader to Wegener Media, which currently has 300 MHz iBooks available for a reasonable $229.99. You can also have an Airport wireless card installed for $109.99, 256 MB of RAM for $29.99, 512 MB for $99.99, and a new 4000 mAh battery for $79.99.

However, it's possible to do even better than that if you shop around. Last week,Charles Webb wrote about finding a clamshell iBook for his 14-year-old cousin with with 128 MB of RAM, a 6 GB hard drive, and an Airport card - all for a measly $120 (see Clamshell iBook Still a Fun and Practical Notebook).

You'll have to dig a bit for such bargains, perhaps on eBay. While used and refurbished dual USB iBooks (both G3 and G4 models) are prolifically available from online resellers, clamshell iBooks are relatively rare on the commercial used laptop market.


There are presumably a lot of these machines out there, still giving their owners great service, but with non-upgradable G3 processor power of 300 MHz to 466 MHz, 4-8 MB of video RAM, and limited expansion potential, the clamshell iBook is no more than barely adequate for running OS X - and indeed only officially supported by OS X 10.4 Tiger on the last ("Paris" or Sept. 2000) revision 366 MHz and 466 MHz machines with FireWire. (See our Guide to G3 iBooks for a quick comparison of the various clamshell iBook configurations.)

Another shortcoming is the 12" 800 x 600 screen, which is okay for working with text, but not really satisfactory in this day and age.

However, if you can live with the small display and your power requirements are modest, the clamshell iBook still has its charms, and there are a few hot rodding tweaks that can be employed to enhance its performance.

For example, some people aren't aware that the clamshell's single SDRAM slot will accommodate a 512 MB chip, since Apple's official specs list a 256 MB maximum. Indeed, the original maximum RAM spec Apple cited for the 300 MHz iBook was 160 MB!

However, Apple used to frequently understate maximum RAM capacity for its portable products (after all, they didn't want to claim they worked with memory densities that didn't yet exist and couldn't be tested). For example, the official maximum RAM configuration for the Pismo PowerBook is 512 MB, but I have 640 MB installed in mine, and you can go up to 1 GB with two 512 MB DIMMs.

The original 1999 iBook featured an advertised battery life of up to six hours, but you can do better than that these days with a high-capacity battery replacement from FastMac ($109.95 with 41% longer life) or Other World Computing (65 watt-hour and 71 watt-hour - 50% more capacity - available for $109.99 and $129.99 respectively).

The original clamshell iBook featured a 12.1" TFT display, a built-in 56K modem and 10/100Base-T ethernet networking, a single USB port, and a built-in 24x CD-ROM drive. The "Revision B" iBooks (unveiled in Tokyo in February 2000) came with 64 MB of RAM and a 6 GB hard drive - up from the not really adequate 32 MB and 3.2 GB of the original model.

There was, however, quite a lengthy list of features that the iBook did not have, including:

Unfortunately, none of this stuff is upgradable (except for the optical drive, and that with considerable difficulty), so the most desirable clamshell iBooks are the "Paris" models, which had an AV video-out port and a new composite video port, but output video to TV through a special cable, and FireWire, especially the SE model with its DVD drive.

The Paris iBooks also got speed bumps to 366 MHz and 466 MHz for the basic iBook and the iBook SE, respectively, and used IBM's PowerPC 750cx processor, which used less power than the 750 G3 of the earlier models (about 4W at 400 MHz vs. 7W).

The 750cx also has an integrated 256 KB level 2 (L2) cache running at full CPU speed, albeit the size of cache was reduced from the original iBook's 512 KB cache.

Additionally, the Paris models have an ATI Rage Mobility 128 video card with 8 MB of VRAM, 10 GB hard drives (and optional 20 GB units), and, as noted, are the only clamshell model officially supported by OS X 10.4.

If you are enamored of the case design of the clamshell iBook with its two-tone color schemes and fold-out carrying handle, the Paris models are definitely the best choice performance- and connectivity-wise - if you can find one at a reasonable price.

For available iBook RAM upgrades, the most convenient place to check out availability and compare prices is at ramseeker. Currently prices are averaging around $90 for 512 MB and $25-30 for 256 MB.

Hard Drive Upgrades

As for hard drive upgrades, as upgrade vendor MCE Technologies notes:

"The hard drive in the iBook is not end-user, or even dealer/service center, upgradable. Just accessing the hard drive bay is a job involving the removal of over two-dozen screws, hex-nuts, plastic parts, and very small, sensitive, electronic components. If the proper level of anti-static protection is not maintained and the take-apart procedure not properly documented then a successful upgrade is nearly impossible.... Fortunately, we have the facilities and can perform the upgrade for you. MCE offers an iBook hard drive upgrade program."

All of the upgrades listed below include the hard drive, installation, and data transfer from the original hard drive to the new hard drive. Once the upgrade has been completed the computer will be returned according to the shipping option selected at the time of ordering.

All 5400 rpm

From the time MCE receives the iBook to the time they ship it back out is generally 1-2 business days.

TechRestore offers overnight laptop upgrades from any location in the continental US. Prices include overnight pickup of your laptop, installation, data transfer and return overnight shipping, and will also send your old drive back to use as a backup.

Other World Computing also offers a wide variety of hard drive upgrades that will fit the clamshell iBook, but you'll have to arrange for installation.

If you think you have the skill and patience to tackle the job yourself, or want more information to help determine whether you do or not, check out iFixIt.com's free illustrated teardown guide for the clamshell iBook. IFixIt also has a selection of parts and upgrade items for the clamshell.

While the mostly non-upgradable clamshell iBook is not an ideal candidate for serious hot rodding, maxing out the RAM and getting a bigger, faster hard drive and higher capacity battery will extend their useful life.

However, if you're not especially attached to the clamshell form factor, I would suggest giving careful consideration to selling your machine and picking up a used or refurbished dual-USB iBook as an alternative. The bottom line cost might not be much higher than upgrading your present machine and you'll have a faster machine.


Clamshell iBook Specs

iBook (July 1999)

iBook "Revision B" and iBook SE (February 2000)

"Paris" iBook 366 MHz (September 2000)

"Paris" iBook SE 466 MHz (September 2000)

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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