Digital Life: Incredibly thin Air is barely there
Apple always vowed never to build a netbook, those cheap mini-laptops that became wildly popular over the past two years. They required too many compromises, said Steve Jobs.
Instead, it created first the ultra-thin but pricey MacBook Air and then the relatively inexpensive iPad for people seeking maximum portability in a polished package.
Now, in a spectacular piece of cross-fertilisation, Apple gives us the redesigned MacBook Air, glibly described as an iPad with a keyboard. It comes in two versions, we tried the 11-inch screen but there's also a 13-incher.
Instead of a hard drive for storage, it uses smaller and much faster (but costlier) flash memory like the iPad. This confers several advantages but also has its downside.
Starting this baby up takes about 10 seconds, a small fraction of the time for other laptops, plus you can leave it sleeping for weeks and it wakes up instantly, exactly where you were.
The space-saving nature of flash memory enabled Apple to shrink the MacBook Air to ridiculously small and light proportions while retaining a full-sized keyboard and decent screen. It's easily held in two fingers yet its robust aluminium build means it doesn't flex like cheap plastic.
Tiny laptops by their nature are compromised -- the Air has no DVD drive and just two USB ports. But then there's the price. Flash memory commands a premium and so the bargain-basement Air costs €1,000 with just 64GB of disk space.
Stepping up to a barely adequate 128GB runs to €150 extra.
In the end, as with most things Apple, you'll either fall in love with the Air's gorgeously minimalist design and be prepared to shell out for it. Or you'll settle for second-best with a netbook twice as big but costing two-thirds less.
Every new Mac comes with the highly capable iLife suite of software that helps you manage your multimedia, from movies to photos to web pages. Apple periodically updates the software -- for a fee -- and recently released iLife 11, the first refresh in almost two years.
Although programs such as iDVD and iWeb are regrettably untouched, mainstays such as iPhoto and iMovie have been subtly overhauled with extra features. They're still performance hogs even on new machines, however.
Music-maker GarageBand gains some nifty sound-bending tricks but remains too deep for the tone-deaf like me.
At only €50, the upgrade costs less than in the past, making it easier to recommend. But unless you're already a heavy user of all components, iLife 11 feels optional.
Chasing the dragon in a fantasy wonderland
Twelve million subscribers and almost $2bn a year in revenue doesn't sound like failure. But clearly developer Blizzard reckons it can squeeze much more out of the money machine that is Warcraft.
Cataclysm, the latest expansion to the veteran Dungeons & Dragons RPG, goes back to the drawing board with the aim of luring millions more players to the land of Azeroth.
The awakening of evil dragon Deathwing has rent Azeroth asunder, remaking old zones as new, destroying familiar locations and creating others. Long-time players gain access to the beautiful underwater city of Vashj'ir and Egyptian-style desert of Uldum, including several new dungeons to raid.
But more importantly for newcomers the questing process has been further streamlined to strip away some of the grind of levelling up.
Sceptics will feel the early game is still far too focused on quests such as "slay 10 of these monsters" or "fetch me this trinket from a heavily guarded fort".
Yet just a few hours back in Azeroth is enough to make you fall in love again with its gorgeous landscapes, captivating soundtrack and bottomless well of fantasy battles.
The SingStar series has come to define the karaoke genre, adding innovations such as video recording and a community website to its considerable charms. But rap has never been its forte -- which is where DJR steps up to the mike.
Taking the SingStar template of tracking your musical performance, DJR is careful to score you as much for matching the beat on hot cuts of hip-hop as your vocal gymnastics.
Throw in a heap of clever audio and video effects, plus an ardently engaged online community to rate or challenge your uploads, and Rapstar has got its groove on.
If you can't be bothered to drag the old board out of the attic, this animated version makes for a flashy substitute. The familiar property-buying gameplay for up to four players is all here, with several possible tweaks including online mode.
The unskippable animations get stale after the first few trips around the board but this is Monopoly for the 21st century.
Bits & bytes
- For many people, the best bits of telly in 2010 weren't shown on the telly. YouTube is where it's at for the hepcats these days and the video site has recapped the popular clips of this year with the Rewind feature.
From funny ads to spoof songs to the hugely anticipated Twilight: Eclipse trailer, it's all in Rewind.
- It's always nice to see government money spent on sensible projects instead of piffling concerns such as national defence.
NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, does a good job every year of tracking Santa on his Christmas rounds. Log on this Friday evening with your little ones to see where the big guy is delivering right that second.
- From the people who brought us the complex gangster worlds of Grand Theft Auto, LA Noire looks an incredibly promising detective thriller, not least of its hugely impressive facial animation.
Its makers Rockstar claim you'll be able to tell when characters are lying simply from the twitch of any eye muscle or quiver of the lip.
Watch a sample of how they're achieving it at the Rockstar website.
- Check out Dublin in 3D on Google Maps if you have an Android phone.
One of 100 cities worldwide to be digitised, the traditional top-down maps now include 3D graphics to represent the shape and height of the buildings. The 3D option is already available on your desktop computer via the Earth button in Google Maps.