Apple gets ‘Air’ time for ultra-skinny notebook

A new wafer-thin laptop and a movie rental service for iTunes starred in this year’s keynote from Apple CEO Steve Jobs at Macworld Tuesday.

The notebook, called the MacBook Air, wasn’t the ultraportable that pundits had predicted, but it is “the world’s thinnest notebook,” according to Jobs, who produced it from a manilla office envelope to make his point.

Priced from US$1,799, the notebook has a 13.3-inch widescreen display and a full-sized back-lit keyboard. To keep the MacBook Air compact, it uses the same 1.8-inch hard drive found in the iPod and a smaller version of Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor built especially for Apple, Jobs said.

The model shown at Macworld was in brushed silver. It is three quarters of an inch thick at its thickest part and just 0.16 inches along the front edge, Jobs said. He compared it to another popular thin laptop, the Sony TZ series. At 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms) it is about the same weight, he said, but the new Apple notebook is about half its thickness.

“To fit an entire Mac in this thing was a major feat of engineering,” Jobs said. The MacBook Air will ship in about two weeks. It lacks an optical disk drive, which could make it tricky to load software. To get around that, Apple developed a program called Remote Disk, which allows users to download software from the optical drive of a nearby computer using its built in 802.11n wireless connection.

The standard configuration comes with an 80G-byte hard drive, 2G bytes of main memory and a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo. Options include a 64G-byte solid-state drive and a faster 1.8GHz processor.

Intel developed a Core 2 Duo chip package for Apple that is 60 percent smaller than the standard version, according to Jobs. “It’s the width of a dime and as thick as a nickel, with 400 million transistors,” said Intel CEO Paul Otellini, who joined Jobs onstage.

Apple will sell an optional portable optical drive for $99, Jobs said. He promised a battery life of 5 hours while surfing the Web and with Wi-Fi enabled.

Many had expected Apple to announce an ultraportable notebook, which would have filled a gap in Apple’s notebook product line, noted Robbie Laughlin, an assistant retail manager with Apple reseller Carbon Computing in Toronto.

“They had a 12-inch PowerBook a few years ago, and I’d like to see something small like that reintroduced,” he said before Jobs began his speech.

Still, Apple’s computer business is riding high from the popularity of its iPods and iPhone, Laughlin said. “They’re still on an upswing. We’ve seen a huge uptick in switchers the last six months, people who wouldn’t normally walk into an Apple store.”

The other big focus of Jobs’ speech was movies, including a movie rental service for iTunes and a new version of Apple TV that allows renting and downloading movies directly to a TV without using a PC.

Apple signed major film studios — Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Sony, Universal and Paramount — to sell movies through the store. Rentals are $3.99 for a new release and $2.99 for older films, or a dollar more for high-definition versions.

The movie rentals are available in the U.S. from Tuesday, and later this year internationally, Jobs said. Apple pledged to have 1,000 films available by the end of February, and films will come to iTunes 30 days after their DVD release, he said. Users will have 30 days to watch a film after renting it, and 24 hours to finish watching it after they have started.

Apple TV wasn’t more successful because it was sold as “an accessory for your computer,” Jobs said. “That’s not what people wanted. … So we’re back with Apple TV 2. It still syncs with your computer [if you want it to], but no computer is required.”

Apple TV also received a price cut to $229 from $299. The new version will be available in two weeks, Jobs said, and existing customers will be able to update to the new software.

He didn’t show a 3G (third-generation) iPhone as some had expected, but he did announce software updates available from Tuesday, including the ability to map an iPhone user’s location with Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular towers. The iPhone update also lets people send a text message to multiple users.

The iPhone shipped 200 days ago and 4 million have been sold since, Jobs said. The software developer kit for the iPhone will ship in February, he said.

Jobs also introduced a wireless backup product called Time Capsule, a companion to the Leopard operating system’s Time Machine, which constantly backs up work to a desktop hard drive. Time Capsule will ship in February and is basically an Airport Extreme base station plus a hard drive, Jobs said, “so you can back up your notebook wirelessly.”

Time Capsule will come in two models, with a 500G-byte offering for $299 and a 1T-byte version for $499.

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