Apple in the Living Room

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Apple is finally joining the battle for the living room, having arrived a bit later than rival combatants Microsoft and Sony. Apple fired its first salvo last week when it unveiled its iPod Hi-Fi and Macs with its updated media networking system Bonjour.

For $349, the Hi-Fi is something of a hybrid iPod dock — not quite a "bookshelf" stereo, but not quite a home-theater system either. It's more expensive than the Bose SoundDock and Klipsch iGroove, but those are meant for small spaces. The bigger, heavier Hi-Fi is meant to fill a room. Still, though it has an auxiliary input for stereo sources, it's not necessarily something you'd think to connect to your cable set-top box. And because it's all one piece, it wouldn't make a good speaker system for a computer.

To add to the confusion, unlike the Bose and the Klipsch, the Hi-Fi can run on six D-cell batteries. In what locations without a power plug would a 14.5-lb. sound system come in handy? Up in a tree fort, perhaps? Surely even Bart Simpson would rig up an extension cord.

Whereever one chooses to put the thing, it will certainly sound terrific. Hi-Fi can get a lot louder than the Bose and still maintain the clarity of its sound. (I didn't test it against the Klipsch.) And even though the left and right channels share a central 4.5-in. woofer for rich mid-range, I didn't hear a problem with stereo separation. Things were as spread as they can be in a single unit. The only thing buyers needs to be wary of is that the files on their iPods — not necessarily iTunes purchases, but perhaps songs downloaded elsewhere or ripped from CDs — might sound worse, because the imperfections of their compression will be revealed.

The Hi-Fi might have been the star last week, but the introduction of an Intel-based Mini and the updated Bonjour networking software have made Apple's home-theater aspirations a little clearer. Apple has two desktop lines and one laptop line that can be operated with remote controls, and that — according to my tests — are able to effortlessly access each other's music and video files. Now the company is hinting that perhaps one of these remote-controlled Macs should live next to your TV.

It's a little early — who will spend $600 on a Mini that only serves up movies and music stored on other Macs in the home? As it is, it takes home-theater enthusiasm and, possibly, a $19 DVI-to-video adapter, to get the thing hooked up to the sound system and TV. But if Apple were to sell a $300 version with no hard drive and built-in TV connectivity — and maybe some higher-definition video at the iTunes store — Microsoft and Sony will surely snap to attention.