Gizmos, Gadgets and Steve Jobs, Too

It’s a rock concert! It’s a pep rally! It’s a news conference!

No, it’s the Macworld Expo, the annual four-day trade show in San Francisco, where Apple introduces its latest products before adoring crowds.

On Tuesday, Steve Jobs unveiled four developments. Item 1: Time Capsule, a wireless backup hard drive for your entire network. It’s sleek and, considering it doubles as a wireless router, not unreasonably priced ($500 for a terabyte of storage).

Item 2: Software enhancements to the iPhone and iPod Touch. One of them pinpoints your current location on a Google map — pretty sneaky, considering these gadgets don’t actually have G.P.S. (Instead, they calculate your location by consulting signal strength from nearby wireless Internet hot spots and — on the iPhone — cellular towers.)

Item 3: Downloadable movies. You pay $4 for a new release, which you must finish watching 24 hours after you start.

That’s the same deal offered by Amazon, Vudu and so on, but Apple has deals with every major movie studio (although the selection will be slim at first). And you can start watching a movie on the computer, and finish it on your iPod or iPhone.

Item 3.5: New software and a lower price ($230) for Apple’s slow-selling Apple TV. Now this set-top box can download rent-a-movies (and Flickr photos, and iTunes music, and podcasts) for viewing on your TV directly — no computer required.

Apple’s last and best announcement, though, was its hotly rumored three-pound laptop, called the MacBook Air ($1,800). Apple says it’s the thinnest laptop in the world, and no wonder; this thing looks like it’s descended from a spatula.

It’s a stunningly beautiful aluminum slab, three-quarters of an inch thick. Its edges are beveled to look even thinner. When it’s on a table, you might mistake this laptop for a placemat.

The MacBook Air’s footprint is no smaller than the existing MacBook in the other dimensions (12.8 by 9.8 inches).

Macbook Air
Macbook Air

There’s some margin around the 13.3-inch screen and full-size keyboard, and that edge-tapering business wastes a bit of internal space.

But for anyone who shares Apple’s admiration for elegance, the trade-off is worth it. This laptop’s cool aluminum skin and smooth edges make it ridiculously satisfying to hold, carry, open and close. You can’t take your eyes or your hands off it.

Unlike other ultraportables, this one makes no sacrifice in screen size, keyboard size or battery life (Apple claims five hours a charge).

It also has an oversize trackpad that lets you scroll, rotate or magnify photos and other objects using iPhonish two-finger gestures (in Apple programs only, alas). You can’t make a three-pound laptop without sacrificing something, however. And some serious sacrifices were made on this machine.

Here’s the toughest one to take: the battery is sealed inside. You can’t swap it out during a long flight.

That’s a familiar Apple trick for saving bulk; as on the iPod and iPhone, sealing the battery eliminates the need for a walled compartment, battery contacts and a door. But when this battery no longer holds a charge, a couple of years from now, you’ll have to pay Apple $130 to install a new one.

The hard drive is the same miniature type that’s in the iPod. Its 80 gigabytes are plenty for office work, but a little tight for big photo or video collections.

Just as the Web’s rumor mill had predicted, you can order the MacBook Air with, instead, a 64-gigabyte solid-state drive (an up-and-coming acronym to learn: S.S.D.), meaning it’s made of flash memory instead of spinning disks. With no moving parts, an S.S.D. is extremely rugged; it’s also supposed to offer improved battery life and better speed, especially in starting up and opening programs.

Yet Apple is playing down this option, probably because these drives are still so small and expensive: the S.S.D. adds $1,000 to the Air’s price. Meanwhile, Apple hasn’t yet measured the speed and battery benefits, and doesn’t yet have any S.S.D.-equipped models to test.

As on most ultraportables, the Air also sacrifices a CD/DVD drive. You can buy Apple’s external U.S.B. drive for $100, if you’re so inclined — it’s tiny, just a hair bigger than an actual DVD.

But get this: Apple says that you don’t need a CD/DVD drive at all.

Gizmos, Gadgets and Steve Jobs, Too

Instead of burning music CDs for the car, Apple says you should get an iPod. Instead of playing movie DVDs, you should download movies from Apple. Instead of backing up onto CDs, you should use Apple’s new Time Capsule service.

Obviously, these arguments aren’t exactly convincing, especially since so many of them involve buying more Apple stuff. At least when it comes to the most critical use of a CD/DVD drive — installing new software or running disk-repair programs — Apple offers a free workaround.

The laptop comes with a little program called Remote Disk, which you can carry around on a CD or a U.S.B. flash drive. It turns any other computer — Mac or PC — into a glorified wireless CD/DVD drive for your MacBook Air. It works seamlessly, even when you’re accessing a Mac software installation CD in a Windows computer.

More sacrifices: the Air has only three jacks. They drop down as a trio from one edge of the machine. You get one U.S.B. jack, a video-output jack and an audio output.

In other words, there’s no Ethernet networking jack, dial-up modem, audio input or FireWire connector. Apple and other companies sell external U.S.B. versions of these items for $30 to $40 each. But even if you buy a U.S.B. FireWire adapter, you can’t use FireWire Disk Mode, which, on all other Mac models, lets you connect two computers with a single cable for superfast file transfers.

In other words, the name “Air” is particularly apt. It describes not only the laptop’s aerodynamic shape, but also its nearly complete inability to connect to cables.

Finally, this machine comes with a 1.6-gigahertz Intel Core 2 Duo chip (a 1.8-gigahertz chip costs $300 more). That’s faster than most ultraportables, and not underpowered by any means: During my day with one of Apple’s display models at the show, I didn’t experience a single hiccup editing video in iMovie, playing nine audio tracks simultaneously in GarageBand, or even conducting a wireless video chat with a friend in Paris. Still, technically, the MacBook Air, which arrives in stores in two weeks, is the slowest Mac available today. Even Apple’s starter laptop, the $1,100 MacBook, is faster.

It’s hard to compare the MacBook Air with Windows ultraportables, since every company plays the compromises differently. Toshiba, Sony and Fujitsu all make near-three-pounders with built-in CD/DVD drives and more jacks. But they generally have smaller screens, slower chips, thicker bodies and half the memory (1 gigabyte instead of 2). And they all cost more.

Most of them also lack the standard Apple laptop goodies like an illuminated keyboard, built-in video camera and a magnetic power adapter that doesn’t drag the laptop off the desk when you trip on the cord.

The new MacBook also runs cool, can use Windows and wakes from sleep in one second. Finally, of course, it’s free from viruses and spyware, and comes without any installed junk heap of trialware.

Even so, the Air isn’t for everyone. Bargain hunters, feature counters and people who don’t see the value of elegance — in general, the same people who despised the iPhone before it came out — would be better off with a bigger, less expensive, more complete laptop. Thanks to the small drive capacity, limited connectors and missing DVD drive, the Air doesn’t make a great primary computer, either.

But as a satellite machine for travelers, executives and presenters, it’s spectacular. Full-size screen, full-size keyboard and five-hour battery in three-quarters of an inch? Get psyched; this laptop is a razor-thin slice of heaven.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: