Miscellaneous Ramblings

Is a Used iBook Still a Sensible Low-end Option?

Charles Moore - 2007.10.23 - Tip Jar

I have a nearly five-year-old 700 MHz G3 iBook, and my daughter's iBook 1.2 GHz G4 is approaching its third anniversary. The G3 has been essentially trouble-free function-wise, despite the high number of hours on it. The G4 unit, which has been lugged around three continents, has begun to manifest the dreaded "sudden shutdown" problem, and one of the last 1.33 GHz 12" iBooks made, purchased by a friend a week before the MacBook debuted, lasted just long enough for the warranty to expire, so my direct empirical experience with iBooks is mixed, to say the least.

I have also observed that the standard of finish on the late 2004 iBook G4 is not nearly as good as that of my late 2002 G3 unit. The plastics of my machine are definitely whiter and glossier than on the two years newer G4 model, the panel fits are sloppier on the newer unit as well, and the keyboard, which is mediocre on my G3 unit, is even worse on the G4, which is evidencing a bit of the dreaded keycap lettering flaking off that plagued some of that model. I also think the screen in the G3 is better than the G4's, although the difference is not dramatic.

If Lexus or Mercedes-precise panel fits are a priority, the iBook is probably not for you. You might better consider a PowerBook, MacBook, or even a MacBook Pro, although I've heard reports of case warpage with the aluminum-skinned machines.

If you're looking for the best all-round power and value for the money in a used Mac laptop right now, my current pick is a 12" aluminum PowerBook, although there are so many used iBooks out there - given the dual-USB model's long, nearly five-year production run - that deals on used G3 and G4 iBooks are easy to find.

These machines are available in clock speeds of 500, 600, 700, 800, and 900 MHz for the G3; and 800 and 933 MHz, and 1.0, 1.2, 1.33, and 1.42 GHz for the G4.

With Leopard about to pounce, it bears noting that only the 933 MHz, and 1.0, 1.2, 1.33, and 1.42 GHz G4 units equipped with Combo drives or SuperDrives will be supported by OS X 10.5.

Prices currently range from less than $200 for the early 500 MHz G3s to about $700 (too much, IMHO, considering the price of new and refurbished MacBooks) for the last revision 14" models, and everything in between.

Compared with, say, a Pismo or early revision Titanium PowerBook, the 700 MHz G3 and later WhiteBooks had a much better video card and two to four times the video RAM of a Pismo or Mercury TiBook.

For a bit more money, the 1.2 GHz and higher G4 iBooks are especially well-equipped, with USB 2.0, at least a Combo drive, 32 MB of video RAM, and, on the last revision 1.33/1.42 GHz machines, 512 MB of RAM soldered to the motherboard (expandable to 1.5 GB) plus Apple's Sudden Motion Sensor and Scrolling Trackpad technology, as well as a Radeon 9550 graphics processor unit fully supporting Core Image in OS X 10.4 "Tiger".

With the G3 WhiteBooks, there is the matter of all those motherboard failures. I've heard from and read about users who have had up to four logic board replacements under either AppleCare or the extended service program Apple had in place covering certain G3 dual USB iBook models. My 700 MHz unit has been almost flawless for going on five years, so the problems are definitely not universal, but it's definitely something to consider before purchasing a G3 WhiteBook especially, and the G4 models apparently have a somewhat similar issue with the "sudden shutdown" thing.

Speaking of the MacBook, it had a palm rest discoloration issue afflicting very early production white models, and there have also been reports of cases spontaneously cracking, and their famous heat-generating capacity, especially with the Revision A models, has been a problem as well as some reported heat sink-related short circuit causing spontaneous shutdowns, so iBooks are not the only 'Books with reliability and quality issues.

Despite the above-noted caveats, there are an awful lot of satisfied iBook users out there, including your humble servant. I really like my G3 iBook. I love its sassy white looks and its trim, compact form factor, which I think is just about the perfect size for a road warrioring laptop.

The 12" 1024 x 768 display has been a gem from day one; it runs OS X 10.4 "Tiger" smoothly and with reasonably lively performance; and the fact that it has hardly given me a moment's trouble in nearly five years (and nothing serious at all) certainly helps.

Indeed, I still enjoy using the iBook so much that I've been procrastinating about handing it off to my wife to replace the old WallStreet she's using (Note: she really likes the WallStreet, especially its beautiful keyboard, but I think it's time she graduated to OS X).

Consequently, based on my experience with this machine, I can say that life with an iBook can be good, and that a used iBook is worth considering if you're looking for a reasonably powerful Apple portable at a budget price, although other potential alternatives may be a better bet statistically on the reliability front.

Notwithstanding my friend's unfortunate experience with a late production 1.33 GHz unit, that would still be my pick among iBooks (I've never been that smitten with the 14" iBook). In the last iBook revision of August 2005, Apple, in aid of stimulating sales in the lame duck interval before the Macintel machines were released, threw in a whole raft of high-end features previously reserved for PowerBooks, and while widescreens, illuminated keyboards, high-end graphics cards, 167 MHz system buses, gigabit ethernet, and PC Card slots were still exclusive to the professional 'Books, the last-generation iBooks offered 1.33 GHz and 1.42 GHz processors (a shade slower than the 1.5 GHz and 1.67 GHz PowerBook chips, but not a whole lot); 512 MB of standard RAM across the board (twice as much as in the 12" PowerBook); an ATI Mobility Radeon 9550 graphics processor that fully supports Core Image in OS X 10.4; scrolling trackpads and sudden motion sensors, Airport Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 EDR (enhanced data rate) support - all standard in a $999 iBook!

The shift to 512 MB of RAM soldered to the motherboard made the former virtual necessity of buying a RAM upgrade optional for non-power users. It also made an upgrade to a full gigabyte of RAM possible with one relatively inexpensive 512 MB expansion module and increased the upgrade capacity to 1.5 GB.

Check out The 'Book Review here on Low End Mac on Fridays for the latest used Apple notebook prices.

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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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