The Clamshell iBook: Beautiful but Lacking

The Clamshell iBook has to be one of Apple’s most debated products. Some say it’s gorgeous, some say it’s hideous, and it’s described in some of the most bizarre ways – Barbie’s handbag and the toilet seat to name a few.

It was Apple’s portable answer to the iMac – released in a similar colour scheme and aimed at the consumer market – in contrast to the PowerBook range, which was business-oriented.

Steve Jobs had a 2-by-2 attitude to the Mac range. One thing he did on his return was slim down the spiraling Mac range to a consumer and professional, desktop and laptop range, and the iBook was the final piece.

tangerine iBookoriginal blueberry iBook

The original 300 MHz Clamshell iBook was announced on July 21, 1999 and shipped in September – in blueberry and tangerine – just months after the 333 and 400 MHz Lombard PowerBook G3. It was a much cheaper alternative, but it was lower spec’d and lacked the power and expandability of its PowerBook counterpart.

Available with a 300 MHz G3 processor, 32 MB of built-in RAM (544 MB maximum), and 3.2 GB hard drive originally, and supplemented with a 366 MHz iBook Special Edition in February 2000, which had 64 MB of built-in RAM (576 MB max) and a 6 GB hard drive.

graphite iBook Special Edition

Clamshell iBooks came with a single USB port, ethernet, audio-out, and a CD-ROM drive. There was no PCMCIA expansion slot, meaning adding peripherals was very limited and a USB hub was really a necessity to save you swapping hardware all the time. Shipping with Mac OS 8, it could officially run up to Mac OS X 10.3.9 Panther (due to its lack of a FireWire port) and could run Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger if tweaked.

It was the first laptop to come wireless ready with a slot for Apple’s brand new Airport Card, Apple’s take on the 802.11b wireless standard, built inside the machine.

indigo iBookkey lime iBook

A second major revision was released in late 2000 at the Paris Macworld Expo. Available in indigo, key lime, and graphite – offering a 366 MHz processor, 64 MB built in RAM, 10 GB hard drive. It shipped with Mac OS 9 and could officially run up to Mac OS X 10.4.11. It also included a FireWire port. The Special Edition packed a whopping 466 MHz processor and a DVD-ROM drive.

I hankered after one for a long time, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I became the proud owner of an indigo 366 MHz model. It had been upgraded with a 40 GB hard drive, DVD-ROM, and 576 MB RAM prior to me getting it, so it was hardly stock. It arrived with OS 9 installed, which I promptly wiped and installed Tiger.

Simon Royal's indigo iBook running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger
Simon’s indigo iBook running OS X 10.4 Tiger.

To look at, it was gorgeous. The crisp white counter balanced by the indigo parts made it totally fantastic to look at – and then there was the handle. Yes, a handle. Close the lid, with its latchless snap shut operation, fold out the handle, and walk off with it like a bag. Design-wise it was a very odd laptop to use. It was huge, the large screen surround and massive palm rest gave it a very odd feel – a normal size keyboard and small screen tucked in to a large case.

Despite its aging hardware, it ran Mac OS X 10.4 very well. But the one thing that griped me instantly and was the reason I parted with it in the end was its 12″ screen with a tiny 800 x 600 resolution. It was horrible with OS X. The PowerBook range had a 14″ 1024 x 768 resolution, a much better screen to work on. I am sure it was a cost cutting exercise, but it was the biggest complaint against the Clamshell.

A piece of Apple history and one of the most bizarre computers ever designed. I will pick another up some day.

Hot pink BarbiBook mockup

No, it didn’t come in hot pink.

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