"Can I touch it?"
Not the usual reaction you get when carrying a laptop computer, but that is the response I got with the iBook, Apple Computer Inc.'s stylish new laptop.
The iBook is Apple's final piece of a four-part strategy. As Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs has said repeatedly, the computer maker has radically pared its once-chaotic product line to four basic categories of machines.
The G3/G4 desktop boxes and the Powerbook laptops are muscle machines intended for the publishing and graphics industry.
For consumers, former bathroom sink designer Jonathon Ive and his Apple team have created the iMac line. The iMac theme has been an industry success story, with its able-bodied computers in translucent candy-color plastic covers.
The iMacs have been credited with bringing the Cupertino, Calif., company back from the brink.
The new iBook completes Apple's latest marketing campaign. Though it is no earth-shaking event like the iMac, the iBook does succeed in some ways.
There is nothing outstanding about any one iBook specification. There are plenty of PC laptops with enough oomph to keep up with the iBook's 300 MHz PowerPC G3 chip. The machine's 12.5-inch screen is a somewhat paltry portable landscape, considering the sprawling 14.1-inch display of the top-of-the-line IBM Thinkpad.
There are plenty of machines, including the ultra-slim 3.5-pound Sony VAIO notebook, that easily beat the iBook's hefty 6.6 pounds. It's the same all the way down the list of technical features: 3.2 gigabyte hard drive, 24x CD-ROM drive, included 32 megabyte SDRAM.
Yet when gathered together and wrapped in a blue or tangerine rubberized skin, the iBook becomes an incredible machine.
It is a collection of the little touches that make the iBook worthwhile.
For instance, when you put the iBook to sleep, either by closing the lid or choosing that function from an on-screen power bar, the screen goes blank and a small greenish light pulses slowly, like a resting heartbeat. The small socket where you plug in the power cord is ringed in a glowing light: Red for recharging, and green for charged.
The white plastic keyboard is soft. The power cord comes wrapped around a slick little flying-saucer-shaped reel. There also is a strong plastic handle that folds out from the iBook's hinge.
In keeping with the iMac theme of an easy out-of-the-box setup, the iBook comes fully charged. It includes an array of connections on-board and ready to go, such as an Ethernet port for network hookups (including DSL) and a USB port for adding a mouse or other peripherals. It has a good array of software and a few games.
Some minor quibbles: The single speaker is tiny, so don't count on using this as a boom box. The compact disc tray, like those in the iMac, is fragile, especially for a machine intended for work on the road. The new iMac models, slated for Christmas, will sport a CD drive that is a slot you feed disks into. The iBook could benefit from this improvement.
Also, the track pad is not my favorite way of moving a cursor around the screen, though some prefer it.
Another concern: The recent earthquake in Taiwan has disrupted the production of computer processor chips, including those slated for the iBook. Jobs said last week that production has resumed on the iBook. But expect some scarcity in the short term.
With a retail price of $1,599, the iBook is not the cheapest laptop. But as a complete package, you would be hard pressed to find a cooler, more functional machine.