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MacBook Air Tops Apple’s Introductions

Amid a little less pomp and circumstance than usual, Apple chairman Steve Jobs unveiled “the world’s thinnest laptop computer,” the MacBook Air, to an enthusiastic crowd during his Macworld keynote at the Moscone Center last Tuesday.

In addition to the Air, Jobs announced major iPhone improvements, iTunes movie rentals and a next-generation Apple TV that can download movies in high-definition directly for viewing on a large-screen LCD or plasma TV without an intervening PC or Mac.

Jobs illustrated just how thin Apple’s “thinovation” was by slipping it out of a common interoffice envelope. The Air measures just 0.76 inches thick at the hinge and 0.16 of an inch at the opposite edge. Jobs asserted that the Air at its thickest was still thinner than the thinnest part of the current thinnest laptop.

Overall, the Air is 12.8 by 8.95 inches and weighs 3 pounds. The Air saves space by eliminating an optical drive, but is otherwise fully equipped with a 13.3-inch back-lit LCD, a full-sized back-lit keyboard, an 80 GB hard drive and 2 GB of SDRAM, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1, all encased in aluminum and powered by a 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip. The Air will go on sale in two weeks and will be priced at $1,799, which curiously drew cheers from the 3,000-plus media members and fans assembled.

To supplement the Air, a $99 accessory optical drive will be available, as will Remote Disc, software for both Mac and Windows that lets Air users “share” a nearby PC’s DVD drive. In addition, Time Capsule, a combination AirPort Extreme 802.11n router and hard drive, will let users wirelessly backup their Air. A Time Capsule equipped with 500 GB will be priced at $299, and a 1TB version will be available for $499.

The Air was the fourth and final announcement Jobs made. Jobs started off his keynote by reporting that the iPhone, on sale for only 200 days, had reached No. 2 in the smartphone market, according to Gartner. The iPhone represents 19.5 percent of smartphones sold, behind Blackberry’s 39 percent share, but well ahead of Palm’s 9.8 percent.

Jobs then announced major iPhone improvements, including location and directions features in Google Maps. The iPhone will use two triangulation techniques, cell towers and beacons from thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots cataloged by Skyhook, a Canadian Wi-Fi hot-spot aggregator. In addition, v1.1.3 of the iPhone firmware, now available through iTunes, offers Web clipping and home page customization, along with creating multiple recipients for text messaging.

Similar upgrades, along with email, notes, weather and stock information, will be available for the iPod Touch, but this upgrade will cost users $20, an announcement that elicited some disappointed groans from the gallery.

As expected, Jobs announced the iTunes movie-rental service would begin at the end of February. But what was unexpected was more than 1,000 movies will be available from all six major studios and their subsidiaries, not the handful of studios that bloggers and analysts had been expecting. Catalog titles will cost $2.99 and first-run movies, available 30 days after they’re available on DVD, will be priced at $3.99. Users can start watching their rentals up to 30 days after download but then must watch them within 24 hours. Users can start watching on one device, then continue watching on another.

Jobs then reviewed the sorry state of bridging PC content with living room TVs, including Apple TV. “We tried with Apple TV, but we failed,” Jobs admitted. “It’s not what people wanted. What we learned was what people wanted was movies, movies, movies.”

He then announced the availability of high-definition movies for rent through an updated Apple TV ($229), along with being able to purchase all iTunes content. High-def rental movies will cost $1 more than their SD versions. Jobs demonstrated the service by playing “Blades of Glory” and “Live Free and Die Hard” only 30 seconds after beginning the downloads.

Fox’s Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, then came out in front of a huge silhouette of Homer Simpson listening to an iPod shaped like a doughnut to laud the new HD service, which could compete with the new XStreamHD 1080p movie service announced last week at CES.