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Offerings Hint At Apple's New Flavor

I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed as I sat and listened to Apple CEO Steve Jobs announce the latest crop of Apple products. The overpriced $99 leather cases for the iPod did nothing for me, and the two Mac minis with the Intel processors, while quite nice, were exactly what people had expected. The new iPod HiFi, which Apple calls "Home stereo. Reinvented" struck me as a nice product at a good price but nothing to get too excited about.

Then I realized that aside from the leather cases, the products announced today are Apple's way of putting its little toe into what could be an enormous market: home entertainment.

The new Mac minis, for example, are unique not only because they have Intel processors and are up to five times faster than the previous version but because they connect to TV sets and are able to stream video, audio and photographs from other Macs and Windows PCs in the home directly to a TV set.

Like a lot of PCs on the market today, the minis have a DVI (digital video interface) connector on the back that can be used to connect them not only to PC monitors from Apple and other companies but to a growing number of TV sets, including most hi-definition sets sold today. Just as important, the minis will come with Front Row, Apple's excellent software that turns the Mac into an entertainment center, making it easy to show videos, display photographs and listen to music.

When Jobs demonstrated Front Row on the mini, he acted surprised because someone "forgot" to load media files on his demo unit. But that was a setup to show how the new machine can stream files from other nearby Macs and Windows machines. Sitting in the front row of the auditorium was Apple VP Phil Schiller, whose Mac laptop contained plenty of audio files, video and photos that Jobs was able to wirelessly stream to his onstage Mac mini. The systems come loaded with Apple "Bon Jour" software designed to help machines recognize each other and share data. Jobs said that Bon Jour is the same as Apple's Rendezvous software, which the company had to rename for legal reasons.

Jobs announced two versions of the mini. The one with the "single core" Intel processor sells for $599 and comes with a 1.5-GHz Intel Core Solo processor, 512 megabytes of memory, a 60-gigabyte hard drive, and a combo (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) drive that can read and write CDs and play DVDs. The high-end $799 model comes with a 1.66-GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, an 80-gigabyte hard drive and Apple's double-layer "SuperDrive" that can read and write both CDs and DVDs. Both models come with WiFi (Apple calls it AirPort Extreme) and Bluetooth, which enable them to connect via a wireless network and wirelessly connect to other devices such as printers and personal digital assistants. Both also come with a six-button remote control, Front Row and iLike 06 suite of consumer software applications.

Unlike Microsoft Media Center Edition PCs from Dell and other vendors, neither Mac comes with a TV tuner or software to record TV shows — but there are third-party products that make that possible.

The iPod HiFi is a single cabinet amplified speaker system with a slot on top that will accept any iPod with a dock adapter (which is most iPods currently in use). New iPod software provides a speaker icon that lets you control the speakers from the little device. On its Web site, Apple brags that the new device "features three speaker cones custom designed to provide balanced sound across the frequency range." It includes a 130 mm woofer which, from my listening post, did seem to do a good job reproducing the lower range of sound.

Still, they don't quite live up to the hype. Jobs said that he is an audiophile who has invested a great deal of money in high-end stereo equipment and that he now plans to get rid of his expensive stereo because he likes the new iPod HiFi better. I don't have nearly the budget to spend on equipment as Jobs, but as nice as the new speaker system is, it didn't sound as good as the Kenwood system I've had in my living room for years.

Of course, there is nothing unique about a home stereo converter for the iPod. Bose and many other companies have been making them for years, including the $299 Bose SoundDock Digital Music System that includes an iPod dock. Personally I've never bothered with any of these devices. I get great sound hooking my iPod up to my stereo with a simple $5 cable. But anyone who follows Apple knows that Steve Jobs is a great showman and a bit of an exaggerator when it comes to the supremacy of his company's products.

Had this been any other company with these types of products, there would have been a handful of trade press and a few notices, But it's Apple and it's Steve Jobs, which is why the parking lot was full of TV trucks and the auditorium jammed with reporters anxious to get the word out.

Well, the word is out and, as least as far as this columnist is concerned, the word is "nice products but no big deal." Yet this is definitely one of those "watch this space" stories. If Jobs (who is now a big shareholder in Disney after it merged with his Pixar animated movie production company) moves in the direction I think, watch for Apple to announce a lot more home entertainment products. If I were Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer, I'd be keeping a very close eye on Steve Jobs.

A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on-air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books, including "The Little PC Book."
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