Apple's home run

As Apple was conquering most of the world with the iPod and iTunes, it overlooked one bit of territory: the living room. While iLife software and iPod hardware have made us masters of creating and consuming digital media at our desks and on the go, getting at that media from our couches or easy chairs is still too difficult.

But over the past couple of years, Apple has been hinting that it does have designs on the room where most of us watch movies and TV and listen to music. With its introductions of the latest iPods and a new version of iTunes, plus a tantalizing first look at its forthcoming “iTV” home media box, Apple’s plans have become a good bit clearer.

Fall iPod fashions

The meat of Apple’s recent round of announcements—timed to give retailers an early present for the holidays—was the introduction of new versions of the iPod, iPod nano, and iPod shuffle (see page 15). Having seen and played with them all, I’m confident it’s going to be another record-breaking holiday season for Apple and its resellers.

The new full-size iPods are, at first glance, modest upgrades. But it’s worth noting that the $249 30GB model is the lowest-priced full-size iPod ever, and that the $349 80GB model holds more songs, photos, and videos than any other iPod ever. With the introduction of downloadable games, the new iPods are more effective time-wasters than ever before.

Last year, the company replaced the hugely popular multicolored iPod mini with the ultraslim but monochromatic iPod nano. Despite the howls from the mini’s many fans, the nano was a huge hit. So what does Apple do this year? It releases a new set of nanos that are even slimmer than the first generation and cloaks them in sleek metallic jackets that come in five bright, mini-esque colors. Mini fans, rejoice.

Then there’s the new iPod shuffle. The original shuffle’s tiny size blew us all away. But the new iPod shuffle is a fraction of the original’s size. It’s basically the size of Apple’s clip-on wired iPod remote—except the remote is the iPod. It’s the music player I’ll be listening to when I’m mowing my lawn next spring.

All hail iTV

The iPods might get all the attention in stores this holiday season, but next year another Apple product will make an even bigger splash. The $299 “iTV”—a code name, Apple says, and not the product’s final moniker—was my hands-down favorite of Apple’s latest announcements. When it finally arrives in stores (sometime in the first quarter of 2007), I can finally break down the wall between my Mac and my home theater.

I’ve been hacking at that wall for years. I’ve been somewhat successful when it comes to audio. Slim Devices’ excellent Squeezebox (   ) lets me play my iTunes library through my stereo, using an interface—a remote control!—that’s actually designed for the living room.

But when it comes to videos and photos, that wall is still there. When the Mac mini arrived last year, I thought it might be the answer. But that original mini didn’t come with a remote control, and the software for third-party remotes didn’t work well enough. The second-generation mini, with its Front Row software and Apple Remote, got me closer, but I still have to break out the keyboard and mouse too often. And getting Mac video to display properly on a digital television is still more of a black art than a science.

The solution is something like a TiVo—a home-entertainment computer that never acts like a computer. When you use TiVo, all you ever see is a slick, remote control-driven interface; you don’t care that it’s running Linux.

What I’ve needed from Apple or someone else is a small box that connects easily to my home-entertainment hardware and my iTunes media, and that uses a full-featured version of Front Row as an interface. From what I can tell, the iTV is that box.

The prototype Steve Jobs displayed looks like a squashed Mac mini, so it will make an easy fit next to a digital TV or home theater. With digital-video and -audio outputs and support for wireless and wired networking, the iTV will be the bridge between the music and photos on your Mac and the hardware in your living room. It will let you watch the iMovies you’ve made, as well as the TV shows and (now) movies you’ve bought on the iTunes online store—all from your favorite couch or chair.

Add it all up and 2007 is shaping up to be a great year for people who, like me, enjoy sitting on their couch with a remote in hand. As a result, it’s looking like it might be another good year for Apple, too.

[ Which new iPod is on your holiday wish list? Will you be in line with me when the iTV comes out? Come on over to the Macworld forums and let me know. ]

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