Apple's AirPort adds home music streaming

Apple Computer's $129 AirPort Express wireless base station, due in July, uses a technology the company calls AirTunes to stream digital music files to any stereo in a home.

Apple Computer unveiled on Monday a $129 device that acts as both a portable wireless base station and a way to stream music throughout the home.

The AirPort Express, due in July, features both analog and digital music outputs to connect to speakers or sound systems. The device also plugs directly into a wall outlet, with no need for additional cables or power adapters, which Apple said should make it appealing to travelers as well as to those who want to stream music in their homes.

Like Apple's existing AirPort Extreme products, the Express uses the 802.11g wireless standard. Music is streamed from an iTunes-equipped PC or Mac that uses a technology Apple is calling AirTunes.

"AirPort Express isn't just the world's first mobile 802.11g base station--with the addition of AirTunes, users can now play their iTunes music on any stereo in their home--all without wires," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a statement. The product, he said, "will appeal to both notebook users who want wireless freedom in their hotel rooms and to music lovers who want to listen to their iTunes music library on a stereo located anywhere in their home."

AirTunes is designed to work with a new update of iTunes , version 4.6, which is due out later this week and will be released as a free download in both Mac and PC versions. iTunes 4.6 will be able to automatically detect remote speakers and stream music to them securely at full quality from a distance of up to 150 feet, Apple said.

The AirPort Express base station can support up to 10 simultaneous users, and the device can act as a wireless bridge with another Express or AirPort Extreme base station to extend the range of the wireless network. The AirPort Express also has a USB port for connecting to a printer, which can then be shared by all the computers on the wireless network.

Apple has been investing heavily in both music technology and wireless, said Greg Joswiak, the company's vice president of hardware marketing.

"This is a product that really combines those two worlds," Joswiak said.

Apple introduced the original 802.11g AirPort Extreme wireless base station in January 2003. Joswiak said Apple will continue to sell that $249 device, which lacks the music option but has other features, such as a built-in modem and support for up to 50 simultaneous users. However, most consumers are likely to opt for the new device, he said.

"This will clearly become the mainstream," Joswiak said, adding that schools and other institutional customers in need of a wireless base station will still probably choose the original device.

For some time, Mac fans have been speculating that Apple would release a product of its own that allows music to be streamed from a Mac to a stereo. There are already third-party products that allow a stereo to stream music stored on a Mac.

The AirPort Express will work with Macs running at least Mac OS X 10.1.5. However, the AirTunes feature requires Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. PCs need Windows XP. The PC or Mac need not have an 802.11g card; AirPort Express will also work with computers that have an 802.11b card, such as the original AirPort card, Joswiak said.

Apple made the faster AirPort Extreme standard equipment on its PowerBook line in April, with the technology standard on some iBook models and optional on others.

IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said the new product offers a good price and appears to be easy to use--both key factors.

"If it's preceived to be too complicated or too technical, I think people will be hesitant," Kevorkian said.

Unlike Apple's prior AirPort products, which have appealed mainly to Mac owners, Kevorkian said the new device will attract Windows users as well.

"Apple has been devoting a lot of resources to making their music products PC-compatible, and this is no exception," Kevorkian said.

A variety of smaller companies have also sought ways to link computer-based music collections with home stereos, increasingly focusing on Wi-Fi based connections to stream songs across a home network.

One of the most advanced of these projects also rolled out Monday, from a company called Sonos, which launched a high-end product called the "Digital Music System." The $1,199 product consists of portable, wirelessly connected amplifiers that connect to a home PC and can be manipulated by a remote control with a small color LCD screen.

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    During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

     

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