Hands-on with Apple MacBook Air, Time Capsule, Apple TV, updated iPod touch & iPhone and iTunes rentals

Apple has launched the world's thinnest laptop -- the MacBook Air -- along with Time Capsule, updates to the iPod touch and iPhone, new Apple TV and iTunes movie rentals

Apple fans around the world have been getting closer and closer to achieving a truly euphoric level of excitement, but today at Macworld their wait was over. Steve Jobs took to the stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco to tell the world about his fruity company's new products.

But we weren't in California; we were in the BBC Television Centre in London watching a satellite linkup -- thank goodness, we've only just got back from Vegas. After a brief run down of Apple's successes over the last 12 months, we got to new iPhone and iPod touch software, Apple TV news and most excitingly, the brand new MacBook Air -- the thinnest laptop ever created.

Before launching into a heap of unveilings and demos, Jobs offered some words from his not-so-cold heart. "It was an extraordinary year for Apple, and I just want to say thank you... thank you for an extraordinary 2007." Bless.

Well that's quite enough of that. Let's check out the new gear...

Update: Read our full Apple MacBook Air review, along with a full Apple Time Capsule review.

Jobs started off by talking about Time Machine -- that's the automated backup facility inside Leopard. It's all well and good backing up to external hard drives, but if you forget to plug the drive in you're screwed. So, Apple has launched Time Capsule.

Time Capsule is essentially an external hard drive. It's encased in an enclosure that looks suspiciously like Apple TV. It connects wirelessly, via the standard Airport Extreme hardware, to any Macs in your house. So hourly backups needn't consume precious disk space inside your main machine any longer.

It also works as an 802.11n router, with dual-band antennae for 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies, three Gigabit LAN port, one Gigabit Ethernet port, one USB 2.0 port WPA and 128bit WEP encryption support and a built-in NAT firewall. It's like a NAS, only less rubbish-looking.

The Capsules will come in 500GB and 1TB flavours for £199 and £329 respectively, when they're on sale in February.

Next up was some iPhone news. New firmware, released free of charge today, will add better functionality for maps, the ability to send multiple text messages at once, plus some very impressive new tools for use with the phone's home screen.

Our favourite was the ability to add 'Web clips' to the main screen of the iPhone. This lets you zoom in on a certain area of a Web site, then bookmark both the page and the level of zoom you've applied. A quick thumbnail is created for that 'clip' and is automatically added to the home screen for easy access in the future. Up to nine such home screens can be created, each accessible with a finger swipe from right to left. Or vice-versa if you're so inclined.

The iPhone will also now show you your current location on the handset's maps. Apple didn't build GPS into its Jesus Phone, so how does it achieve it? Well, Apple has incorporated a system that triangulates your current position based on your proximity to the three closest Wi-Fi signals or phone masts. Our hands-on just now confirmed it works perfectly at the BBC, with the Apple rep saying that it mostly used phone masts in the UK, but a future hands-on will confirm whether this works nationwide.

iPhone videos also now support movies that come with alternate language tracks and/or subtitles. This is very good news, for reasons we'll come to shortly. These iPhone updates are to be available free, via a software update available today.

There's a fat dollop of good news for iPod touch owners, too. Apple has added five new apps for the full-screen iPod: mail, maps, stocks, notes and weather. Yes, just like on the iPhone. Maps work just like on the newly updated iPhone, and position triangulation works the same, too.

You'll also have the iPhone's new 'Web clips' feature, customisable home screens, chapters and alternate languages, should they be upgrade for uses.

But there's a catch, and it comes with a specially brewed side portion of fail: this will cost you £12.99 for the software update, despite it having already been built for the iPhone. Cheeky buggers. Unlike for everything else, the audience didn't clap at the news of this charge.

We raised this issue with an Apple rep who told us, "It costs more to do business in the UK," which didn't help us much.

New models of the iPod touch will come with this software update pre-installed for the same prices they always have been. We were told existing models that ship with the old software will be sold at a discount equivalent to the cost of purchasing the upgrade.

Now for some really big news: Apple has launched on-demand movie rentals. The rental service starts today in the US, with an international launch later this year.

All the major movie studios are on-board and prices start at $2.99 (£1.50) in the US. Over 1,000 movies will be available by the end of February, with new titles available in the iTunes Store 30 days after their commercial DVD release. They'll work on PC, Mac and all current generation iPods, and of course the iPhone.

After confirming a rental, you've got 30 days to start watching. Once you start watching you'll have 24 hours to finish the film. Most films are shorter than 24 hours and repeat viewings are unlimited.

In the US, prices are $2.99 for library (read: older) titles, and $3.99  (£2) for new releases. Oh, did we mention there are 100 HD movies available for rental, too? We didn't? Ah. Well, they'll cost $3.99 for library titles, and $4.99 (£2.50) for new releases. We have no doubt this catalogue of 100 will be greatly expanded in the coming months.

Keep your eyes on Crave for news of a UK release date.

Jobs began the next bit of news with, "We're back with Apple TV... take two." That's CEO spiel for same product, new firmware.

With the free software update available to Apple TV owners (and of course future owners), you're able to buy, rent and watch purchased and rented movies from iTunes, from your sofa, without using a computer. HD rentals also come with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

There's a slinky new interface available to make browsing all this new stuff even easier. Browsing photos from Flickr and .Mac looks terrific, and anything you purchase or download to the updated Apple TV will be synced back to your PC or Mac when it's next connected.

In the US, Apple has slashed the price of the Apple TV by $80. There was no mention of a price cut for the UK -- the Apple Store still has it from £199 -- but we'll keep you posted. We're told it won't go on sale until the movie rental stuff has been sorted for the UK anyway, so no need to hold your breath.

Last but, as the highly appropriate saying goes, not least, came the big boy. The true Mac-inspired mac daddy. It was the MacBook Air -- the thinnest laptop ever made. At its fattest end it's still thinner than the nearest competitor's thinnest.

We've played with it and if anything deserves a round of applause, it's the MacBook Air. Even if you hate Apple, you should give a round of applause for the engineers who built it. It's truly unbelievable.

At its thickest edge (towards the rear) it's a mere 19.3mm, while at its thinnest its just 4mm. It's got a 13.3-inch glossy screen, a full-size backlit keyboard, built-in iSight Web camera, microphone and stereo speakers, and -- oh yes -- a multi-touch trackpad. This lets you squeeze and pinch things like photos just like on the iPhone and iPod touch. You can even zoom into areas of the MacBook's desktop environment with multi-touch and navigate with two fingers -- again, just like on the iPhone.

The standard specifications are as follows:

  • 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU with 4MB of L2 cache
  • 2GB 667MHz DDR2 RAM
  • 80GB 1.8-inch hard disk with Sudden Motion Sensor
  • Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
  • Built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking
  • Bluetooth 2.1

  • Should you want it, you can upgrade the hard disk to a 64GB SSD alternative -- something Apple fans were almost bleeding over in anticipation. The CPU can be upgraded to the 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo should you require the extra power.

    Now, you may have noticed the lack of an optical drive. When it comes to ultraportable laptops, optical drives are rather cumbersome. So Apple got rid. Instead, a piece of software inside the Air -- along with a bundled app for Macs and PCs -- lets you connect to another computer's drive wirelessly. Or you could buy the MacBook Air SuperDrive -- a tiny USB-toting external DVD R/W drive. It costs £65.

    Wired connectivity comes in the form of a single USB 2.0 socket, a single Micro-DVI socket and a headphone socket. Although there's a built-in microphone, there's no socket for plugging in your favourite, podcast-friendly condenser mic.

    Prices in the UK start at a rather steep £1,199 for the standard model. The fully tripped-out SSD-boasting, 1.8GHz clocking version costs a breathtaking £2,028. They're available to order from today.

    Expect further hands-on with this product tomorrow morning and a full review as soon as we can get this new kit into our labs. -Nate Lanxon

     

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