As with every Mac in recent memory, Apple’s latest hardware releases, the MacBook Air (Mid 2011) and Mac mini (Mid 2011), include the current versions of Mac OS X and iLife—in this case, Lion (OS X 10.7) and iLife ’11. (Interestingly, the new models include only iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. iWeb and iDVD are nowhere to be seen.) But these new models don’t include a DVD or thumb drive for reinstalling that software.
If you ever have a problem that requires you to reinstall the OS on one of these models, you use the new Lion Recovery feature to boot from a hidden recovery partition of your hard drive and download Lion on demand. Unlike older Macs running Lion, these new models also feature a special version of Lion Recovery, Lion Internet Recovery, that works even if your entire hard drive went south and you had to replace it—you essentially boot your Mac over the Internet, download Lion, and reinstall. When you’re back up and running, you can launch the Mac App Store and reinstall the iLife apps, which will be listed on the Purchases screen.
When you reinstall Lion via Lion Recovery, it seems Apple uses information about your Mac's hardware to verify that it has a license for Lion. But what about iLife? When you first set up one of the new Macs, you’re prompted for your Apple ID and password. That information is sent to the Mac App Store, which adds licenses for the iLife ’11 apps to your Mac App Store account.
But as we’ve explained when covering the Mac App Store, the license for Mac App Store-purchased software lets you install that software on any of the Macs you own that are authorized with your Apple ID. Purchase an app on your laptop, and you can launch the Mac App Store app on your iMac, click the Purchases button, and install that same app without having to purchase it again.
The iLife license you get when you set up one of the latest Macs is no different. Which means that if you haven’t yet gotten around to upgrading to iLife ’11, buying a new Mac mini or MacBook Air essentially gets you iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand for all your Macs running OS X 10.6.6 or later (since you need at least that version of Snow Leopard to run the Mac App Store). And this isn’t sneaky or dishonest—it’s right there in the Mac App Store’s software license.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the same as buying the boxed version of iLife ’11, since you don’t get iWeb or iDVD—you might even use the latter if one of your other Macs still has an optical drive. But it’s tough to complain that you aren’t getting enough software for free.
Updated 7/28/2011, 5:45pm to clarify that the Mac App Store license lets you install software on all Macs you own and authorize.