Fact Controlled
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View from the Classroom
Two Weeks with an iBook
by Steve Wood
June 4, 2001

  

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Shortly after posting my infamous declaration that "Steve Jobs killed Apple Education May 1," I received, through a roundabout source, a brand new iBook 2001. The model came from an excellent Apple K-12 representative and was intended to help sway my school's "Evil NT Techie" to the Mac platform. Unfortunately, the techie couldn't get Airport to work and dumped the iBook on me for its two-week evaluation period.

iBook 2001Our model was the base iBook with a CD-R, but upgraded with an Airport card and 128 MB RAM. While Apple has chosen to sell the new iBook with 64 MB of RAM stock, I really think 128 should be the minimum. If for no other reason, OS X will require at least that much. Pricing for this configuration would run $1338 for K-12 institutions, $1393 for K-12 education individuals, and $1448 retail.

Along with the installed Airport card came an Airport base station. While the techie hadn't succeeded in getting Airport to work for him, the base station was set up properly and I didn't mess with it. The Airport base station runs an extra $269-$281.

The new iBook was an instant hit in my classroom. My kids haven't seen a new Mac in our building in over 4 years, so they were more than willing to wait their turn to work on the new machine. With this new Mac we added a new "con" to our computer routine. My students are never allowed to "play" on a computer. When requesting to go to a computer (permission required for all computer activities other than practice spelling tests), they must use the word "work" on the computer. It's a small thing, but averts the problems that occur when children go home telling their parents, "I played on the computer, today!"

iBook closedThe new trick was in part due to the iBook's white color scheme. We have more than a few of our special ed kids who constantly must be reminded to wash their hands or wash breakfast, lunch, or whatever off their face. The new rule was that students had to first wash their hands with soap and pass a hand inspection before touching the hallowed new white keyboard!

It worked like a charm. Hands were clean, and students didn't disappear into the restroom for centuries at a time!

While practice spelling tests were a staple on the iBook, I'd loaded a bunch of small programs onto its hard drive, as the CD open key only worked on rare occasions. In addition, I allowed some purely fun applications onto this machine that simply don't appear on any of our other classroom Macs. Our basic rule has been, if it isn't educational software, we don't use it. This time I loaded Pangea Software's Nanosaur, Bugdom, and Cro-Mag Rally from one of the CD's that came with the iBook. Interestingly, the kids never got beyond Nanosaur. That may be that it was available last year on my 7500/G3 as a reward purchased with good behavior credits. The kids already knew it, and I was pretty lax about letting onlookers hang around and kibitz. We were into the last few days of school which had been tacked onto the end of the school calendar to make up for days missed due to snow and ice cancellations last winter.

While I really had my doubts about the plastic overlay type keyboard that Apple chose for this machine, the kids seemed to take right to it without complaint. Other than the failure of the F12 CD eject key, the keyboard seemed to perform well -- and it stayed surprisingly clean for a white keyboard:-). I still have my doubts as to how such a keyboard will hold up over time.

John P. Mello, Jr., of the Boston Globe recently expressed similar doubts in an otherwise positive review of the new iBook:

But the keyboard feels fragile. How fragile? I was typing less than 10 minutes on it when the delete key popped off. Now, I might be able to get along with a Z or a Q popping off, but not the delete key.
 
And once a key pops off the keyboard, you had better be careful trying to pop it back in place. The nubs that the key snap into are very frail. Apply too much pressure and they'll snap off, as they did on me.
 
A deletion key may be a small thing. But when you buy a new computer, you expect it to last more than 10 minutes before it starts falling apart.

After the first week with the iBook in regular use in the classroom, I took the laptop home for the weekend and decided to install OS X. Considering that all Macs will now come with the new operating system pre-installed, I thought this new unit might make a nice test for the newbie OS. While I exercised great care when I installed OS X on my venerable G3 minitower, this time I just fired up the iBook on battery power, inserted the installer CD, and let 'er rip. Mind you, I'd set up OS 9.1 on the iBook to suit my tastes, so I felt certain there'd be a few conflicts involved.

I chose to install OS X onto the same partition as my OS 9 installation. I selected the correct install choice, clicked through the licensing stuff, and went to take a shower while the CD installer did its thing.

It was a short shower, but I expected the installer to beat me, based on how fast the install on my minitower had gone. It didn't. I emerged into a house filled with smoke! I quickly checked first the iBook, then the ashtrays and so on, only to find I'd ruined one of my wife's new pans, boiling it dry. Whew! The pan was filled with bonded carbon from the sugar-saccharine mix that was to be iced tea syrup, so the installation was delayed by a trip 20 miles up the road to procure a look-alike replacement pan.

iBook & OS XMy next problem was one that had occurred frequently under OS 9 during setup. When info or a mouse click was needed, I'd begin fruitlessly clicking or typing away using the G3. I'd gotten into the habit of setting the iBook on the G3's computer table and consistently reached for the wrong input device. After reminding myself repeatedly to use the trackpad and iBook keyboard, I booted into OS 9, opened Conflict Catcher, named a new startup set "OS X compatible," and cleaned up any files I thought might crash Classic under OS X.

I rebooted into OS X and immediately selected the Classic app Word 2001 to test whether the changes worked. OS X asked to change some items and I agreed. Interestingly, it didn't boot out Conflict Catcher, which will ease switching from OS X to OS 9. Launch time for Word was over two minutes the first time, but it did work. Later, at school, I tried using Entourage, Microsoft's new Office 2001 email and personal information manager, to clear my email in the Classic shell, but never got it to work. I suspect that if I'd stayed at it long enough, it might have, but it was near the end of school and I had numerous 1 foot high piles of files, reports, etc. to sort, complete, evaluate...

Once OS X was working happily on the iBook, I chose to set up the Launcher for program selection for the kids. We use the Launcher on all of our classroom Macs instead of At Ease or other programs that restrict access to "forbidden areas" such as the system folder. I simply didn't have time to teach the kids how to launch programs from the Favorites or Applications folders. The Launcher under Classic behaved admirably and was a good choice since most of the applications had to run under Classic anyway. The experience made me feel somewhat better about using OS X in the elementary classroom.

I still have many reservations about the new operating system, but hope that the expected OS X 10.1 release this summer may favorably address some of the shortcomings of the current release. At this point, I find that using OS X without a number of third party add-ons is a pain. BeHierarchic for the Classic environment, and Permissions headachesDocking Maneuvers, DragThing, and X-Assist for OS X make OS X somewhat usable for me. The absence of an integrated Classic-OS X clipboard, printing support for serial port printers such as my excellent Epson Stylus Color 850's, limited support for third party CD burners, and the near-constant permissions problems under OS X, even when logged in as the administrator, make the new operating system an occasional novelty for me, rather than "the world's most advanced operating system" promoted by Apple.

Problems

A trio of items were quickly apparent with the unit we had received for evaluation. As noted previously, the CD eject button worked irregularly, if at all. A "high-tech" paper clip solved the problem, but this shouldn't happen with a brand new unit.

A second problem is one that is apparently present in many Apple laptops. As noted on my daily Educators' News site, the internal modem often has trouble connecting. When it does, it's often at a slow rate, but the speed does pick up to normal levels when loading pages and downloading items. Bill Fox of MacsOnly said in an email that this characteristic is pretty well documented on PowerBooks. On this iBook and with our phone lines, just getting any sort of connection via the modem was problematic. Bill noted that there is a third party software fix, Modem Magic, that runs $35-55. According to the folks who sell Modem Magic, the problem is with the old Apple modem scripts and not the modem itself. Anyway, connecting was a bummer. Good thing I was mostly using the iBook at school with Airport feeding into a T-1 line.

A final problem was with the trackpad, and it made the machine unusable at times! The trackpad had a funny feel from the beginning, with the cursor often hopping off the position to which it had been moved. Later, the trackpad would only draw the cursor down about one-third of the screen and immediately snap back to the top of the screen when released. This problem usually occurred when the machine had been in use for some time, possibly indicating a heat problem from the chip or hard drive. When it did occur, the only consistent cure was to shut the machine down for 30 minutes to an hour and then restart. While I hoped that I had the odd machine with this problem, a check of Rik Ford's Macintouch iBook Reader Reports says otherwise.

While any revision 1 release of a new design may have some problems, two of the three problems noted above might require repair or exchange of the unit. That's not a very positive statement for the design, quality control in production, or durability of the new iBook.

Positives

With the problems above, you might improperly infer that I didn't enjoy working with the new iBook. Nothing could be farther from the truth. First, I was quite pleased that Apple Education got a brand new iBook into our school's techie's hands when the things are in high demand.

iBook portsSecond, the new iBook certainly had adequate horsepower (500 MHz and 128 MB RAM) to perform all the tasks I asked of it. While the 12.1" screen was a bit small for my tastes, even with its excellent color and resolution, I'm pretty much locked into 17" CRT screens or larger to avoid using bi- or trifocals when computing. I especially liked the easily accessible ports along the left side of the iBook.

The iBook we received came with an adequate software bundle. While Quicken is great for consumer models, bundling it on education models, as has been done in the past, doesn't make much sense. Apple wisely equipped this iBook with AppleWorks 6, iMovie, iTunes, and the previously mentioned games, Nanosaur, Bugdom, and Cro-Mag Rally.

The Macintosh News Network has a page of links to generally positive iBook reviews.

iBook Lab

iBook LabApple has created a very attractive iBook portable lab offering for education. It comes as pictured at left with either 10 or 15 iBooks configured with 128 MB of RAM each, along with the cart, Airport base station, and necessary hubs and cables. There's a nice downloadable two-page PDF document (183K) that describes the package. I think I'll print up a couple for our "Evil NT techie" and our superintendent's mailboxes.

Our school's superintendent was the very first visitor of many to come to my classroom to "play" with the new iBook. While I'd love to fill out a purchase order for the iBook Wireless Lab and set it on his desk, I don't think a $16,000+ request will fly too far when I have difficulty getting a $150 kidney-shaped table for my assistant! I'd settle for a new iMac to augment the "youngest" Mac in the room, a 5-year-old 7200! During the superintendent's visit, we discussed the problems of keeping current in computer hardware. While a PC man, he clearly recognizes the need to update hardware. He just wonders from where the money will come. So do I. Maybe we need new tables more than we need new computers!

Apple also offers a companion iMac Wireless Classroom with 20 iMacs and a G4 server. It, too, has an excellent downloadable PDF descriptor (184K). Do notice that the lab iMacs described also come stock with an OS X adequate 128 MB RAM. 

Apple's price lists for education are available in downloadable PDF documents here. It's a good page to bookmark in your favorite web browser if you follow Apple Education pricing very closely. It also is nice for writers who wish to maintain a history of Apple's pricing over time:-).

Conclusions

From the press around the web, I think Apple may sell a ton of iBooks. If they reach users in any quantity with the problems inherent in our demo unit, it will be a PR and service nightmare. That's too bad, as I found the iBook to be a pretty respectable computer -- minus the noted problems.

When I returned our demo iBook to the techie's office for return to Apple Ed, I ran into a couple of staff members unpacking a brand new wireless-equipped PC laptop that was purchased through a grant. It had a considerably higher price tag than the iBook, somewhere in the $1,700's, but also had a 14" screen, CD-RW, a floppy drive, and a regular keyboard. When they fired it up, I noticed that its stereo speakers put the iBook to shame. Any iBook envy I'd been feeling disappeared when I saw this new unit. It suggests the need as rumored for an in-between Apple laptop, positioned between the iBook and TiBook lines.

I think the new iBook could be a great $999 educational laptop. Apple unfortunately chose to introduce it at an educational price of $1199. With the problems noted above and others now surfacing around the web, it's just not worth the current price tag to me. Maybe if and when Apple introduces the in-between laptop, the iBook will break the $1,000 laptop price barrier. At this point, I'd recommend prospective iBook buyers hold off a bit and wait for a revision and a price break.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

I'll be attending a surplus sale next week at our local school system. My school's techie clued me into what was being offered, and I find that I'm just tempted enough to attend. On the block will be a bunch of 68K Macs, along with a whole bunch of other stuff. Wouldn't it be great if in five years or so, surplus auctions might have iBooks and iMacs still in good working order for sale. I'm not terribly optimistic about the iBooks.

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©2001 Steven L. Wood