Apple unveils iPod home stereo

Apple Computer on Tuesday unveiled a new mini-computer designed as a hub for digital entertainment, and a home stereo system linked with its popular iPod music player.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs showed off the new-generation Mac Mini and the iPod Hi-Fi at a press conference at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California.

As expected, the new Mac mini-PC will run on microprocessors made by Intel. Apple is switching all of its PCs over to Intel chips, a process that Jobs has said will be completed this year.

The mini-PC is Apple’s answer to the so-called digital media hubs that run on Microsoft’s Windows Media Centre platform.

Apple, Microsoft and makers of consumer electronics are all seeking a share of the nascent market for devices that can run entertainment applications that are either downloaded from the internet or transferred from other digital media.

“I think they are going straight at the ultimate goal of digital convergence,” said Lehman Brothers analyst Harry Blount.

“Apple already has a powerful media portal on the internet and they need to extent the virtual portal into your living room.”

Apple was “evolving” toward being a complete server for home media, Blount said.

“There needs to be some steps before this becomes a home theatre system,” Blount said, suggesting Apple needed to build in digital video recording capability.

Apple has stepped out ahead of Microsoft’s platform, but that lead could be lost after the rival Redmond, Washington state company releases its new Vista operating system later this year, Blount said.

The Vista software Microsoft showed off at a recent electronics show promised digital recording capacity and integrated tuners for television programming, according to the analyst.

“If Microsoft delivers what it promised, Microsoft will make a big jump forward,” Blount said, predicting Apple would try to match or surpass the functionality.

Jobs demonstrated how the mini-PC could be linked other computers with a remote control and wireless connection software called Bonjour.

Using Front Row software, the Mac Mini can be linked to other Macintosh computers to play any movie or music stored in one of the devices, Jobs said.

The Mac Mini Solo was priced at $599 and the dual-core Mac Mini Duo at $799, Jobs said.

New Minis come with iLife, Front Row, Bonjour and Bluetooth software and can be operated with an Apple remote the size of a jumbo marker.

“Both of these models are available starting today,” Jobs said.

Jobs then turned to a second black cloth-draped pedestal and uncovered a home stereo base for Apple’s internationally top-selling iPod music players.

“This thing is a lot more under the hood than it seems like,” Jobs said with a wave toward the compact iPod Hi-Fi, which was priced in the “iPod economy space” at $349.

“I’m an audiophile,” Jobs said. “I’ve had stereos costing, well I won’t say because you’ll think I’m crazy. But, costing a lot more. And, I’m thinking of getting rid of mine for this.”

More than 42-million iPods have been sold worldwide and Apple’s iTunes online music store recently sold its billionth song.

“A billion sold in less than three years,” Jobs boasted. “We beat McDonald’s. That’s great.”

As of the end of January, iPod commanded 78% of the MP3 digital music player market, according to Apple. Forty percent of the car models sold in the United States offer iPod connectivity, Jobs said.

Jobs referred to iPod Hi-Fi as “home stereo reinvented”.

“They still need to do more work on the boom box,” Blount said, referring to the boxy iPod Hi-Fi. “That is where I wasn’t blown away.”

The Minis potential wirelessly connect digital-data devices in a home made it “a building block for what will be pivotal down the road,” but the price needed to drop to make it more attractive to today’s consumers, Blount said.

A set of offices in Apple’s headquarters had been converted into a mock dormitory room, kitchen, living room and home office, each equipped with Apple’s new technology.

“It’s simple and elegant,” Apple senior product manager Ji Chulani said as he remotely orchestrated Hi-Fi music and a Mac Mini photo slide shop on a television in the carpeted faux living room.

“Other companies give you the pieces and tell you to figure it out. The buck stops here. We make all the pieces and figure it out for you. You get to sit back and enjoy the show.” – AFP

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