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Apple’s new laptop, OS pack a powerful roar

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011

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It’s not just the iPad that makes Apple cool. The company’s Macintosh computer line gets fewer headlines, but the company sold nearly 16 million of them over the past year. They’re about to sell a whole lot more.

The new MacBook Air laptop computers, though pricey, are more elegant and powerful than ever. More significant is Apple’s latest operating system upgrade, nicknamed Lion. With a new iPad-like user interface that transcends old-fashioned mouse controls, Lion might be the biggest advance in user-friendly computing since the original Mac.

Hardware first: The new MacBook Air comes in 11-inch and 13-inch sizes, priced between $999 and $1,599 depending on screen size, processing power, and storage capacity. Apple loaned me the $1,299 model, a 13-incher with an Intel Core i5 processor, 4 gigabytes of random-access memory, and a 128-gigabyte slab of flash memory. Indeed, all Air models are flash-based, eliminating the need for fragile, noisy, slow hard drives.

The result is a stunningly fast laptop that shuts down in about two seconds and boots up in less than 25. Click an icon, any icon, and stuff just happens.

The Air has built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, of course, but unlike most laptops, it has no Ethernet port. Instead, it features Thunderbolt, a new interface (codeveloped with Intel Corp.) that is supposed to move data far faster than today’s USB ports. For now, there are hardly any Thunderbolt-compatible devices available. But you can use Thunderbolt adapters to connect to standard Ethernet networks or desktop video monitors.

The MacBook Air lacks a DVD drive. If you must use a disk, there’s software that lets you use the optical drive on another network-connected computer. But Apple is betting that optical disks will fade away as laptop users download all their new software. That’s why Apple said that its stores will soon stop carrying boxed, disk-based versions of its own programs.

It’s already happened with Lion. There’s no disk version; instead, you download all 3.8 gigabytes of it from Apple’s online software store. Like previous Mac OS X upgrades, Lion sells for $29.99, a remarkable bargain.

I enjoyed using Lion on a mouse-equipped Mac workstation, but pleasure turned to delight once I tried it on the Air. The laptop features Apple’s excellent multitouch trackpad, which lets you use the same kinds of finger gestures that work on the iPhone and iPad: swiping, twisting, pinching, and the like. Lion takes full advantage of these commands, becoming the first desktop operating system smart enough to work like a smartphone.

Not that it’s always so easy; new users must master an array of new hand gestures. When using the Mac’s iPhoto software to view pictures, you resize images by pinching thumb and forefinger against the touchpad, or rotate the image with a twisting motion. To scroll down a Web page, slide two fingers up the pad. To activate Mission Control, a smart feature that displays all your open applications, slide upward using three fingers.

I teach computer basics at my church to seniors who are often mystified by a standard computer mouse. Multitouch would drive them batty. But I love it.

There’s a lot more good stuff here. There’s no more hunting around for your installed software. The new Launchpad feature displays every installed program on an iPad-like screen, and you can combine similar apps - photo editors, for instance - into clearly marked folders.

Remember what you did yesterday? Lion does. On start-up, it returns to where you left it. Whatever programs you were running at shut down reappear. If you were using an Apple program, like the Pages word processor, you go right back to the spot you left off when you stopped typing. Everything is instantly backed up to save your work in case of a accidental shutdown.

Some of Lion’s new features work only with Apple’s own software, but the computer maker is helping other companies make their programs Lion-compatible. And with Mac sales surging, expect a good many software vendors to hop onto the bandwagon - maybe even Microsoft, which could cash in on a Lion version of its popular Mac Office software.

Speaking of Microsoft, sales of its flagship Windows software have fallen in recent months because so many people are buying iPads instead of Windows laptops. With Lion on the loose, it’s about to get worse for Windows, and a lot better for the rest of us.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.