Friday, May 2, 2008

Apple's Latest Laptop: Small is In

San Francisco
There's never been a laptop as skinny as the new MacBook Air from Apple. At its thinnest, it measures just about four millimeters.

"When you first see MacBook Air, it's hard to believe it's a high-performance notebook with a full-size keyboard and display," gushed Apple CEO Steve Jobs while presenting the new laptop at the keynote speech of the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. "But it is."

The excitement at the Moscone Centre was also sparked in typically reserved observers like Michael Gartenberg, research director at the US market research firm Jupiter Research: "This will become the object of lust for all tech fans this year," Gartenberg said.

In advance of the MacWorld Expo, the chatter on many websites was focused on a potential combination of the iPhone and a normal laptop - more or less a retooling of the "Newton" PDA concept that Apple phased out 10 years ago. The MacBook Air is instead a full-value laptop with a robust aluminium casing with a 13-inch display and a full sized keyboard.

During his presentation, Steve Jobs compared the MacBook Air, which costs about $1,700, with the Vaio TZ series from Sony.

"The thinnest part of the Vaio is the thickest part of the MacBook Air," the Apple CEO told the cheering crowd. What he didn't mention in his comparison is that unlike the MacBook Air, the Sony laptops come with a DVD burner, a modem, and an integrated UMTS module.

With an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 1.6 or 1.8 gigahertz (GHz) of processing power, Apple has certainly sent its new laptop out into the world with a significantly stronger CPU than the Japanese devices against which it is competing.

The standard model contains a 1.8 inch hard drive offering 80 gigabytes (GB) of storage space. Users willing to hand out another $900 can upgrade to a 64 GB Flash hard drive. Flash memory works more quickly than a hard drive and consumes less power. The battery in the MacBook Air lasts five hours when working with a traditional hard drive.

The second major MacWorld Expo announcement centred on a second attempt at the "digital home" market, as well as launching an online video rental service. To facilitate all of this entertainment, Apple introduced an improved version of its "Apple TV" TV set-top box. It will enable HD video films to be rented from the Internet without having to connect with a computer.

Steve Jobs gained the support of all significant Hollywood studios for the "iTunes Video Rentals" platform. In the US, DVD-quality films will cost $3 or $4 for a rental limited to 30 days. High definition (HD) films will cost $1 extra.

"This is going to turn the video industry inside out the same way the iTunes store changed the music industry," says Jupiter analyst Michael Gartenberg. Ross Rubin from the market research institute NPD disagrees, seeing Sony and Microsoft as enjoying the better start position: "Both of those Apple competitors have already placed their Trojan Horses in the living room through the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360." Each game console is capable of downloading HD content online.

It's unclear how the Apple movie rental model will work outside the US. Jobs indicated plans to launch the service in Europe "later this year".

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