Apple’s thinner laptops

Apple unveils new MacBook Air, previews revamped Mac OS X

Get ready for a new, thinner — and most important, cheaper — version of Apple’s ultra-slim MacBook Air, including a smaller 11.6-inch version to go along with the 13-inch original. Also on the horizon: the next major version of the Mac OS, and a refreshed version of Apple’s iLife software suite.

Buzz over a new MacBook Air has been building for weeks, and Apple confirmed most of those rumors during its press event in San Francisco on Wednesday, including news that the new, slimmer Air will come in two sizes — the original 13.3-inch design, plus a smaller 11.6-inch version — boasting considerably cheaper price tags.

Weighing in at 2.9 pounds — a tiny bit lighter than its predecessor — the new 13-inch Air still has a full-size keyboard but replaces the old-style track pad-and-button combo with a single, clickable glass track pad. The revamped Air is also thinner than before: 0.68 inches at its thickest point (compared with 0.76 inches for the original), all the way down to 0.16 inches thick at its front edge. The 11.6-inch Air, meanwhile, weights just 2.3 pounds.

Starting at $1,299 for the new 13-inch Air ($200 cheaper than last year’s entry-level Air) and $999 for the 11.6-inch version, both models sport Intel Core 2 Duo processors with speeds up to 1.86GHz for the 13-inch model (a 2.13GHz processor is available as a $100 built-to-order option) along with Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics, stereo speakers, a built-in FaceTime camera (more on that in a moment), and seven hours of “wireless Web” battery life on the 13-inch Air, or five hours for the smaller model. Users can also expect a whopping 30 days of standby time.

Both of the new Airs (which are on sale now) lack optical drives, as did their predecessors, but they’ve also dispatched physical hard drives in the bargain, opting to go all the way with solid-state flash storage ranging from 64GB to 256GB. Also new: twin USB ports — one on each side, meaning no more awkward sliding door to open — as well as a built-in SD card reader on the bigger Air.

Preview of Mac OS X 10.7, a.k.a. “Lion”
Dubbed “Lion” — yep, another feline, in the tradition of “Tiger,” “Panther,” and “Snow Leopard” — and set for release next summer, the latest version of the Mac OS takes some key features from iOS for the iPhone and iPad and brings them — as Apple’s invitation to today’s press briefing said — back to the Mac.

Among the key iOS-type features coming to the Mac: the Mac App Store, which showcases new, noteworthy and popular apps in a manner very similar to that of the current App Store for iOS.

Uh oh — are we talking a new walled garden, this time for Mac apps? Well, no, claims CEO Steve Jobs, who promised that the Mac App Store “won’t be the only place” to purchase Mac OS X apps. That said, developers hoping to get a place in the slick new Mac App Store showcase will have to agree to give Apple a 30-percent share of their revenue, and I’m sure some kind of approval process will be part of the deal.

Meanwhile, Mac App Store users will get their new apps automatically downloaded and installed, and they’ll also get automatic notifications of any app updates. And while the Mac App Store will be a key part of the upcoming Lion OS, it’ll actually come a little sooner than the Mac OS upgrade — within 90 days or so, according to Jobs.

Also coming to Lion: Mission Control, a new desktop-organizing app that takes features from Expose (which lets you see all your open and minimized windows in a single click, or clear everything off the desktop at once) and Spaces (which creates a series of virtual desktops) and combines them into a single, unified interface.

There’s also Launchpad, a full-screen, swipe-able grid of all your apps that you can organize into separate pages and folders — again, very iPhone-like.

You’ll also be able to run all your apps in a full-screen mode, now natively supported in Lion, complete with the ability to use multitouch gestures to flip around various pages or views in an app or jump back to the desktop.

While showing off the new Mac OS X “Lion” features, Jobs dashed the recent rumors of an iMac with a touchscreen display, saying that multitouch on a desktop or laptop display simply “doesn’t work” (according to Apple’s own user testing, anyway) because “it’s ergonomically terrible” on a vertically oriented display, hence Apple’s decision to focus on multitouch gestures on a horizontal track pad (or the recently released, Bluetooth-enabled “Magic Trackpad”) rather than on the display itself. Well, that’s one way to go, although plenty of Windows-based PC manufacturers clearly see the situation differently.

FaceTime comes to the Mac
Video calls through the iPhone 4’s new FaceTime feature have been a hit — well, as long as you’ve got an iPhone 4 handy. Of course, a simple way to boost the number of people who can use FaceTime would be to allow iMac and MacBook users to do the Facebook thing, as well — and that’ll be coming with the beta release of the (aptly named) FaceTime for Mac, slated to arrive Wednesday as a free download. (And here it is, as promised.)

iLife ’11
Available now for $49 (or for free with a new Mac), the iLife ’11 suite includes a revamped version of iPhoto, which now lets you perform any and all iPhone activities — including photo organizing, checking out geo-tagged snapshots, and image editing — in a full-screen mode.

The new iPhoto also adds a series of new slideshow themes (including a cool one that shows your photos on an animated map, complete with pins), an easier, revised method for email photos (including pre-built photo frames and templates), an info panel that summarizes how and when you’ve shared your various snapshots (on, say, Facebook or Flickr), and a new carousel-style photo-book editor that highlights snapshots according to their star ratings and groups pictures together according to when they were taken. (You can always tweak the photo book after iPhoto has created its initial, automated version.)

Meanwhile, the new iMovie lets you create your own movie trailers. Just pick a trailer template, select a few snippets from your home videos, enter the names of your “cast members” and a title for your own private movie studio (as in “Patterson Pictures proudly presents…”), and then put it all together — complete with a full-on orchestral score, I kid you not — with the help of a predesigned storyboard (which tells you when you need an action shot, a group shot, a medium shot, and so on). Neat. You’ll also get new audio editing options (a visual audio display, for instance, highlights portions of the sound that are getting too loud), single-click audio effects, and “one-step” effects for instant replays and amped-up freeze frames.

Finally, we’ve got GarageBand ’11, which adds a feature called “groove matching” that fixes any music tracks that aren’t in rhythm, while “flex time” lets you stretch out or shorten individual notes. There’s also a revamped series of music lessons, including an interface that lets you play along with professional musicians and grades your performance in real time.

So, there you go. Initial thoughts? Fire away below.

(Correction: In my original post, I wrote that both MacBook Air factory models were available with Intel Core 2 Duo processor speeds up to 1.86Ghz; in fact, the processor options for the 11.6-inch Air top out at 1.6GHz. Apologies for the goof.)

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