Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

Oct 10

Apple’s Back to Mac event

Apple’s “Back to Mac” event has happened, and with it, many exciting new announcements for their Mac operating system, iLife creative suite, and their new designs for the Macbook Air. Overall, the announcements seem to be largely about integrating much of the technology and user-experience of their mobile devices, such as the iPhone and iPad, with the greater processing power available on a full computer. Their single hardware announcement, the Air, was done with the stated idea of, “…what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?”

Since I’m the type of person who likes dessert first, we’ll start with their last

announcement, the Macbook Air. At first blush, it looks like Apple has reached their goal with this product of creating a sort of bridge between their iPad and a full Macbook. The most noticeable feature is the form factor: their 13″ model, when closed, is only 0.68″ at the thickest point. Go ahead, take out a ruler and measure that (it’s what I did). That’s incredibly thin for a laptop computer, and it tapers to a mere 0.11″. The body uses the uni-body aluminum frame that Macbook Pro users are familiar with, giving it an incredibly sleek look. It’s one good-looking laptop.

But since (some) people don’t necessarily buy a laptop just for the fashion statement, the real question is how does it perform? Pretty well, given the announced specs. The first major difference between the Air and their regular Macbook laptops is the use of flash memory. Because it doesn’t use any moving parts, it’s more durable (important in a mobile device), and doesn’t require any energy when it’s not in use, so the standby power use is much lower than in a traditional hard drive. For processing power, it’s using an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, which is plenty of processing power for most tasks you’d be using a laptop for. The graphics card is the NVIDIA GeForce 320M which is not going to be busting out the best possible graphics or doing heavy rendering but, again, is sufficient for surfing the web, watching movies, or doing some light photo manipulation.

The battery (which is the largest part of the laptop) clocks in with 7 hours (5 hours for the smaller 11″ version) of wireless web use, and 30 days of standby power. For those wondering why the battery life may seems somewhat small compared to other laptops out there, Apple has begun using a process they dub “Better battery test,” which supposedly gives a better real world value for battery life.

For those just looking for a summary (or tl;dr): The Macbook Air is a sexy looking laptop that’s a perfect complement to the iPad and a more powerful home computer.

Their next biggest announcement was the changes they have made to their iLife suite of software: iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand.

For iPhoto, changes focus more on the sharing aspect of photos, both in how you share, and how you can view photos shared with you. First and foremost are new full-screen options for the program, which gives you a much more immersive experience when viewing photos. New slideshow templates give the ability to create more interesting (at least, until these templates become passé) options to show off your memories, including a mapped tour of photos or a mobile (in this case, photos hanging from digital threads and sorted through) tour. You can also create digital photo books (sort of e-scrapbooking), and a new function for printing

photos to letterpress cards. iPhoto is also focusing more on integrating with popular websites, such as Facebook and Flickr, giving you the ability to tag, post, and even read comments on photos all within the structure of the program. You can also e-mail photos from iPhoto, and even provide interesting looking templates for the e-mails.

Overall (tl;dr again), the usability functions are a great step for iPhoto, and the integration with popular social apps is a great feature. Plus, anything to make photo e-mails more interesting gets a big thumbs-up in my book.

For iMovie, the changes are largely focused on usability. It’s still very much a little brother to more advanced programs like Final Cut Pro, but it has picked up some great features that move it a little closer. Audio (the bane of many a’home movie) has gotten a feature upgrade: the bar is more visible, and you can make edits to it live, such as fade-ins or –outs, with relative ease. This also has the advantage of not requiring you to recompile the movie every time you want to review edits you’ve made. Another big plus is the addition of edit collections (or, edit macros), which take several edits you commonly see together (for example, a fade in and out, an instant replay) and puts all the necessary steps into a single function. iMovie now also includes a trailer maker, which allows you to (I know, the suspense is killing you) create movie-trailer style films (or actual trailers I suppose) out of your clips. There are multiple templates for different types of films (e.g. Suspense, Adventure, Road Trip) that guide you through the building process, plus music recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra especially for iMovie.

For those who didn’t read that (ditto from before), iMovie has picked up some big usability upgrades to make the program easier to use for those without large amounts of video editing training; and, for better or worse, we’ll probably be seeing a lot of “movie trailers” popping up around the web in the next few months.

GarageBand has picked up some professional-style tools to help make music made in it sound better. Perhaps the most talked about upgrade is the “beat matcher” which will take one track, establish it as a beat, and match up other recorded tracks to match its time. The second (and perhaps more fun for the non-musically trained) are guitar and piano lessons built into the software that teach you lessons, keep track of how you did, and then report back to you. Overall, some great changes, but they are not as sweeping as with the other programs.

The final announcement was on the Mac OS itself. Apple is introducing it’s Lion software to replace the current Snow Leopard (see the theme there?) software line.

The biggest change here is the introduction of a Mac Apps store which, if you haven’t guessed already, caters downloadable applications to be used with the Mac computer, similar to the apps store available with the iPad and iPhone. Once you download an app using the iTunes like interface, it downloads, installs, and sits pleasantly in your taskbar for you, or they can be sorted into folders for better organization on a separate bar. There is also an apps overlay-grid that can be brought up to show you all of your applications (not much information on whether this will show ALL of them, or only the ones downloaded through the app store itself). The apps are also licensed to be used on all of your apple computers, which not only makes it easier to use them across multiple computers, but also to download them again if you switch computers later on.

Gesture-based navigation was also a key point during the Back to Mac presentation, and it’s integration with the new OS. How much this will end up being a feature and not just a side-show (I still can’t get away from my two button mouse, for example) for desktop computers, especially those that aren’t touch screens, remains to be seen.

Apple’s presentation, true to its usual form, has introduced some really cool new looks at what are, essentially, existing products. Increased integration, and the addition of iPad-like features into it’s existing operating system also give some clues as to what Apple’s overall product direction is. It also shows that they continue their goal of creating a seamless transition between their various platforms. And of course, the Macbook Air overhaul is an interesting approach to the netbook-style of computing.

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