MacBook Air a light highlight

Matthew JC. Powell
16 January, 2008
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In an Expo keynote very nearly devoid of announcements relevant to Australian customers, the major news was a laptop that everyone, pretty much, knew was coming. The only mystery left in the speculation about the new sub-notebook was its name, and Apple pretty much blew that by putting posters up at the Moscone Center saying "There’s something in the air" with a picture of a MacBook. Oh well, who likes surprises anyway?

There were some surprises. The solid-state storage we expected turned out to be an option, while the standard storage is a 1.8-inch 80GB drive — the same drive you’ll find in an iPod classic.. It’s smaller than we thought — only .76 of an inch at the hinge (the thickest point) tapering to .16 of an inch at the leading edge — while still featuring a full-size backlit keyboard. All up it’s a good balance of form and function — what we’ve come to expect from Apple.

There’s no built-in optical drive. Jobs explained that most of the things people do with optical drives — watch movies, listen to music, store files and install software — can now be done wirelessly. If you do want an optical drive, you can buy an external one for $139.

For those who want to go the wireless path, Jobs introduced two products — Time Capsule and Remote Disc — to make them happen.

Time Capsule overcomes the main problem with Time Machine’s hyped ability to backup to wireless drives. The vast number of combinations and permutations of wireless routers and hard drives on the market made that feature impractical except for people with AirPort base stations and a fairly limited subset of drives. Time Capsule is essentially a package deal, selling you an Apple base Station and an Apple-approved drive, to ensure that Time Machine will work for you. It’s available in two configurations: 500GB for $249 and 1TB for $699 (not 1GB as reported in our live coverage). Doubtless we’ll see larger-capacity versions before too long.

Remote Disc is an extension of something you’ve been able to do on a Mac for quite some time: use the optical drive on a computer anywhere on your network to install software. I recall doing this trick to install Mac OS 8 on a machine with a broken CD drive back in 1996, so it isn’t exactly new. What Remote Disc does is make it very easy, including the ability to share optical drives on Windows machines.

For watching movies, Jobs announced that the second iteration of the Apple TV will allow movies to be downloaded (and even rented) directly from the iTunes Store without the need for a computer to get involved. Of course, this feature is only relevant to Americans, but as an increasing number of Australians are figuring out how to access the US iTunes Store it’s worth noting. The iTunes rental service includes both new release and "catalogue" films from all the major studios.

Jobs was joined on stage by Jim Gianopolous from 20th Century Fox, the first studio to sign on to iTunes rentals. He said that customers want choice, convenience and portability, and the solution Fox came up with was a partnership with Apple (illustrated by a silhoette of Homer Simpson as if in an iPod ad with the legend "Woo Hoo!"). Gianopolous also mentioned that the wireless download revolution did not mean that people would no longer need DVDs — he hinted at unprotected digital content being sold on discs, and held up a copy of the Family Guy Star Wars special that he said could be copied to any computer and transferred to multiple devices for playback. Intriguing.

Anyway, back to the MacBook Air. Its other really interesting feature is a trackpad that features a multi-touch capability not unlike that of the iPhone. You can pan around photos in iPhoto, rotate photos using three fingers, pinch and squeeze to zoom in and out, and more. Whether these capabilities will appear on a MacBook Pro is probably moot, but the question remains — when. Apple, of course, would not comment.

The MacBook Air features a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, optionally available at 1.8GHz. Apple worked with Intel to create an extra small version of this processor specifically for the Air. Aside from that, Jobs drew attention to the LED backlit screen which contains no mercury and uses arsenic-free glass, with no bromine-based flame retardants in the machine which is encased in recyclable aluminium. Clearly Apple is taking its environmental obligation sseriously.

The MacBook Air will be available in February starting at $2499. The 64GB solid-state drive option adds $1409 to the price, for a total of $3908. Quite a premium for robustness, but that’s what a lot of people seek in a laptop this portable.

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