Apple's new MacBook Air, iLife '11 plus OS X Lion preview


Apple's 2nd generation MacBook Air

Apple's 2nd generation MacBook Air

There’s no question, it’s always entertaining to watch an Apple event. The combination of expert speakers, terrific slides and videos and of course Steve Jobs in his usual role  of CEO/MC makes for an hour and half of geeky goodness.

And while there were some great announcements today, none are going to change your holiday shopping plans significantly.

Here’s the bullet-form view of what was presented:

  • The usual update on how well Apple is doing, specifically in the area of Mac sales
  • iLife ’11 – with updates for all major apps including iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand
  • An expansion of the FaceTime video chat feature to include all Macs with a webcam
  • A preview of some of the features we can expect in the next release of Mac OS X, which is dubbed “Lion”
  • A new App Store for Macs
  • An overhauled MacBook Air which now comes in two sizes and ditches the hard drive for 100% Flash memory

Although most people will likely focus most on the hardware aspect – that being the two new MacBook Airs, today’s event was really all about software – in particular the software that ships with all Mac computers, iLife.

iLife (free on new Macs, $50 to upgrade – available immediately) might just be the biggest reason non-Mac users eventually make the switch from the PC world. Yes, Apple’s computer products are sexy and their industrial design is just about the best in the business, but without some kick-ass software, it would just be a nice-looking computer.

iLife ’11 brings significant updates to the trio of apps that make using a Mac fun: iPhoto, iMovie and to a lesser extent GarageBand.

I had my first “wow” moment with iPhoto just the other day when I spent Thanksgiving at a relative’s house. I had been shooting photos outside all day – here in Southern Ontario the weather was stunning – and decided at the last minute to dump all of the pics to my aunt and uncle’s computer before leaving. They have an iMac and naturally I used iPhoto to import the pics. What should have been a 2-minute project turned into almost half an hour as I played with iPhoto’s various features including the full-screen slideshow mode. If you’ve never used it, you should make a point of trying it out – it’s quite stunning. My reaction was clearly not unique. In Apple’s update to iPhoto, they made the full-screen mode something you can essentially stay in the whole time you’re using the app, not just in slideshow mode.

Add to this new features such as improved photo sharing, a cool “places” function that maps your photos to a, well, a map and 12 professionally designed slideshow themes which are amazing to watch. I’m a big fan of Google’s Picasa – it’s free and has superb image organizing and editing tools. But the new iPhoto might just be the first time I’ve found myself wishing I was running a Mac.

iMovie gets a similarly profound makeover with a number of improvements, the most impressive of which is a tool that lets you create Hollywood-style “trailers” from your collection of video clips. Now if that sounds like a recipe for some incredibly cheezy home videos, I’m with you. But Apple hasn’t cheaped out on the stock music or the pro-designed themes, the result being trailers that will definitely illicit giggles, but they’re the giggles you make when you’re experiencing something really cool for the first time.

Now I’m no musician, so I can only assume that GarageBand fans will dig the changes to this app. Chief amongst them are the ability to clean-up the rhythm in a performance where some of the players may have had a challenge sticking to their chosen beat. Apple calls this “Groove Matching” and with GarageBand you can magically fix mis-timings with a few clicks. It also has a new lessons mode for keyboards and guitar that can give you real-time feedback on how well you’re playing. It looked to me like a real-world version of Guitar Hero, and in fact the new feature tracks your performances over time providing you with lots of incentive to get better at playing.

The FaceTime update – pardon the pun – speaks for itself. Even the demo that Jobs performed with Phil Schiller was laughably simple: Steve on a Mac called Phil on an iPhone via FaceTime. More interesting is the fact that between iPhone and iPod Touch shipments, the number of portable devices that can run FaceTime is 19 million. 19 million?? Yes. Now add to that every person who owns a Mac with a webcam – which by the way has been renamed from the “iSight camera” to the “FaceTime camera” – and that’s a huge community of users for Apple’s video-chat product. I don’t think Skype has to worry right away, but that day is surely coming. FaceTime is available immediately as a public beta here: www.apple.ca/mac/facetime.

OS X Lion, which is expected to ship in the summer of 2011, appears to be taking some of its cues from the popular iOS that runs Apple’s portables. The first ingredient in this new OS is an expansion of the App Store that will do for the Mac what it does for the i-devices: let you shop for and download apps directly to your Mac, with instant installs and automatic updates. It’s a great idea and my guess is that Apple’s already impressive developer community will expand even more as the lure of a virtual store-front for their products calls their name. Also shown was a feature called Mission Control. Think of it as a visual Task Manager for those of you who use Windows. You get a 50,000-foot view of everything that is currently running on your machine plus easy-access to all of your apps and widgets. You can then “jump in” to any running program. On a similar note, Lion is going to feature something called “Launchpad”. If you’re familiar with the iPad, you already know what this is. All of your Mac apps are displayed on a series of grid-aligned icon-filled pages which let you launch them with a click, or re-organize them, or sort them into logical folders – all of which mimics the behaviour of the i-devices. Your most commonly used apps are still waiting for you down in the Dock area, but Launchpad is a really easy way to browse all of your apps. Lastly, it was noted that Lion is designed to allow almost any app to run full-screen – something which iPhoto does as of this release, but which Apple thinks many more apps should do in the future.

Finally, the new MacBook Air. Physically, it’s remarkably similar to the first generation machine. Where the changes have really occurred is on the inside. The new machines – there are two of them: 15″ and 11.1″ models – are equipped exclusively with flash-memory, just like the iPad. Similar to the iPad, battery life has been taken to new extremes with 7 hours of “wireless web” use and a stunning 30 days of stand-by time (those are the stats from the larger of the two models). The other benefits to this arrangement are: no fan noise at all and an instant-on operation that has made the iPad such a great device. There is a down side however. Flash memory, despite the massive quantities in which Apple buys it, is still expensive. The base MacBook Air 11.1″ model ships with only 64GB of storage, which for a laptop is anemic. Given that this model is going for $999 USD or $1049 CDN, you’ll have to pay more if you want more storage. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that with all of the cloud storage services out there including those offered by Apple, local storage just isn’t as big a deal these days. I’m not convinced just yet. Apple users are often folks who deal in huge memory-munching activities like high-res photography and digital video. Will these users be okay with such small capacities? Another surprise (and not a good one) is their choice of processor for the MacBook Air: an Intel Core 2 Duo. It’s not a bad chip, but it’s an old chip. More than two years old in fact and that just doesn’t feel right when you’re buying a computer that in every other way is as state-of-the-art as this one. Apple does offer up one fact in defense of this choice: the use of flash-memory means that read-write operations occur at twice the speed of a conventional hard drive which should at least make the machine feelfaster than the processor suggests. We’ll have to see if this turns out to be the case. The new MacBook Airs are available immediately.

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