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Apple debuts new super-slim MacBook Air notebooks

At a special “Back to the Mac” event at Apple’s Cupertino campus today, Apple took the wraps off its new iLife ’11 lifestyle application suite, announced FaceTime and an App Store for Macintosh computers, teasued Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”—and roled out two new MacBook Airs with 13.3- and 11.6-inch displays and from 5 to 7 hours of battery life.

MacBook Airs (plural!)

Jumping straight to Jobs’s famous “one more thing”, Apple has unveiled two new super-slim MacBook Air notebook computers, billed as “What if a Macbook met an iPad?” The new systems feature 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch displays, five to seven hours of batter life, all-flash storage, full-size keyboards and trackpads, FaceTime cameras, Nvidia graphics, HDMI output, and prices starting at $999.

Apple thinks the new MacBook Airs are the future of notebooks: stunning and “really small.” Both systems feature unibody aluminum construction for rigidity, full-sized keyboads and trackpads, Intel Core 2 Duo processors, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics (with 256 MB of shared video memory), and flash-based solid-state storage right on the motherboard rather than enclosed in a separate SSD unit, which saves weight and leaves more room for batteries—although it means there’s no swapping out a drive for something bigger or faster.

The new 13.3-inch MacBook Air is 0.68 inches, tapering down to 0.11 inches at its thinnest, weighs just 2.9 pounds, and features a 1,440 by 900-pixel display. The 11-inch unit features a 1,366 by 768-pixel display and weighs just 2.3 pounds. Both are available with a minimum of 2 GB of RAM and Intel Core 2 Duo processors: the 13-inch model can be configured with 1.86 or 2.13 GHz chips, while the 11-inch model scales down to 1.4 or 1.6 GHz. Apple says the 13-inch unit can get up to 7 hours of wireless Web use off a single battery charge and has up to 30 days of standby time; the 11-inch model should get 5 hours of use, along with that 30-day standby.

Of course, the MacBook Airs come with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR wireless networking, and a separate USB Ethernet adapter is available for folks who want to do wired networking. The units sport two USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot, but lacks an optical drive; folks who want to watch a DVD will have to buy a separate USB peripheral. The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics enable the MacBook Airs to support VGA, DVI, and HDMI output via adapters and the units can drive a 27-inch Apple display.

The new MacBook Airs are available today, with pricing on the 11-inch unit starting at $999 (with 64 GB of onboard storage), and the 13-inch units starting at $1,299 (with 128 GB of storage).

Mac Success and Market Share

At the event, Apple CEO immediately ceded the stage to Apple’s Tim Cook, who noted Macintosh revenue accounted for a third of Apple’s revenue, totaling up some $22 billion. Cook noted that Apple’s Mac sales are growing 2.5 times faster than the rest of the PC market, with Mac users now accounting for some 50 million people and about 20 percent of the U.S. computer market (according to August 2010 figures from NPD). Cook also noted the Mac has a base of over 600,000 developers, including major game developers like Valve, as well as long-time mainstream developers like Microsoft; he also highlighted the success of Apple’s retail stores, noting that the company now has over 300 retail locations and about half the customers at those stores are new to the Macintosh.

iLife ’11

Jobs then returned to introduce iLife ’11, a new version of Apple’s iLife lifestyle application suite like iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. iPhoto ’11 will feature Facebook integration (enabling users to share photos and comments on Facebook), along with an expanded fullscreen mode and slideshow capabilities. iPhoto ’11 will feature significantly enhanced photo album and card printing services. Apple’s Phil Schiller demonstrated new features, including map-based photo plotting services: these can integrate with slide show services, enabling users to play map-based slide shows. An Album View can also pull images from a Facebook account (even if they weren’t explicitly added to iPhoto), and albums can be viewed in a variety of sophisticated slideshow templates. Photos can be sent via email using special message templates created directly within iPhoto, rather than exiting out to a separate email application: iPhoto takes care of all the heavy lifting of pulling and resizing photos. iPhoto’s info panel also features a Sharing panel that shows an image’s sharing history, whether it be via email, Facebook, or other mechanisms. iPhoto ’11 will also enable users to create letterpress cards produced using raised plates, creating physical printed photos with embossing.

Apple’s Randy Ubillos them moved on to demonstrate iMovie’11. iMovie ’11 gives users a great deal more control over audio, enabling users to adjust levels directly in a clip library, and create fades and level changes simply in the timeline mode. iMovie ’11 will also feature One Step Effects, including features like 50 percent speed instant replaces (with titling)—One Step Effects is designed to let people create complex video effects with simple steps. A new Film Trailer feature enables user to create cinematic movie trailers—expect to see YouTube littered with them.

GarageBand ’11—Apple’s consumer-friendly digital recording application—will feature new piano and guitar lessons, along with new guitar amp models (to get those bitchin’ tones!). GarageBand ’11 will also feature a new Groove Matching feature (a “spell checker for bad rhythm”) that can sync up out-of-rhythm tracks: users can pick one track as a “groove track” with the rhythm desired for the whole piece, then apply that groove to other tracks in the song so—magically—everyone starts playing in time. A new Flex Time feature enables users to fix individual elements within a waveform, enabling uers to compress or extend elements to meet time. (Features like this have long been staples of pro-level digital audio apps, but it’s great to see them migrating to consumer-level applications.) GarageBand’11 will also feature new guitar and piano lessons (including blues and rock guitar and classical piano). Lessons feature HD video from professional instructors, with step-by-step breakdowns of an entire piece. With keyboards, students will be able to play along with lessons directly, seeing where they do (and don’t!) hit the right notes and rhythm. GarageBand ’11 will keep a student’s “score” and history from play-along lessons, enabling self-paced learning.

iLife ’11 is available today; it will ship for free with every new Macintosh, and is also for sale from Apple for $49.

FaceTime for Mac

Jobs then shifted to Apple’s FaceTime technology, initially introduced with the iPhone 4 and then brought to the latest-generation iPod touch. Now, Apple is bringing FaceTime to the Macintosh, integrating directly with Mac OS X’s built-in Address Book. It can handle fullscreen video chat, as well as chat with iPhone 4 and iPod touch users. Obviously, Macs will have to have a video camera of some sort to use FaceTime—Apple’s notebooks and iMac computers feature integrated iSight cameras; no word on whether FaceTime works with third party cameras. A beta of FaceTime for Mac is available today. (Expect Apple to start referring to iSight cameras as “FaceTime Cameras” any second now.)

Mac OS X Lion

Finally, Jobs moved on to Mac OS X, noting that Apple has had seven major releases of Mac OS X in the last decade—including spinoff operating systems for the iPhone and iPad. The eighth major version of Mac OS X will be codenamed “Lion”—and Jobs says the major focus of Lion will be bringing back some of the innovations from Apple’s mobile successes back to the Macintosh: “Mac OS X meets the iPad.” Major features of Mac OS X Lion will bring multitouch gestures, the App Store, app home screens, full screen apps, autosaving technology, and apps that auto-resume at the point where users left off.

Apple says its research shows that vertical touch-based screens are “ergonomically terrible,” so Apple won’t be focussing on touchscreens: instead, it will focus on touch-capable pads like its existing notebook lines and Magic Trackpad.

Mac OS X Lion will also feature a Mac App Store, which will enable application discovery and one-click downloads, automatic installation and updates, and the same deal Apple has with iOS developers: they get 70 percent of the revenue. Apps will also be licensed for use on all a user’s Macs, rather than a single device. App Store Apps will live on a LaunchPad, which will function like iPhone/iPad home screens.

Finally, Mac OS X Lion will feature “Mission Control,” combining features of app-switching, its existing Expose, Spaces, and Dashboard features, along with full screen application into a single feature enabling application management.

Apple’s Craig Federighi demonstrated the Mac App Store applications, featuring single-click buy-download-and-install capabilities. The LaunchPad feature will show fullscreen access to applications, enabling users to organize applications into full-screen collections of programs; users will also be able to make folders of application groups (say, “games” or “utilities”). Full Screen Apps aims to make applications more immersive, removing desktop clutter and enabling easy gesture-based control of applications, and multi-gesture enter-and-exist of Full Screen mode. Full Screen Apps won’t replace a traditional windowed view, but things like Dashboard, full-screen applications, and windowed applications will all be accessible within Mission Control, which can present all running apps (full screen and traditional), Dashboard, and Dock in a single unified view.

Mac OS X Lion will also include a number of new features and technologies, which Apple will flesh out in the coming months. Right now, Apple is targeting mid-2011 for Mac OS X Lion. However, the Mac App Store will open within 90 days, and be available for Mac OS X Snow Leopard, with app submissions opening up during November 2010.