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Apple: Small Mac, Big Market

Apple's latest home computer, the Mac Mini, is generating industry buzz as a new way to store and distribute audio and video content to TV, stereos and other devices. It is expected to kick-start the home-media-center market.

“The Mac Mini offers an easy-to-reach entry into the elegant world of Apple,” says Jonathan Blum, a gadget guru for WPIX New York and contributing editor to Popular Science and Sync magazines. “It is the simplest way to deal with digital content.”

Apple's edge is size. At only 2 inches tall and 6.5 inches square, the $499 Mac Mini can easily sit next to, below or even atop the TV set. And while Apple CEO Steve Jobs says the unit is not being pushed as a media-center computer, the market may pull it that way.

The PC market has spent years trying to sell consumers on a home-media-center PC that stores audio, video and still photos. The industry envisioned the PC distributing content to various devices in the home. The problem? The typical PC is so unattractive it's not welcomed near a TV or stereo. Fan noise is another issue. But the Mac Mini, which is fan-free, could change that, and jump-start the market segment.

More important, digital content is a huge part of Apple's future. During the fourth quarter, Apple shipped more than 4.5 million iPod portable music players as opposed to 1 million Macintosh computers.

“Digital content is the company's future,” adds Blum. “And considering the leg up they have in the digital-content brand, it would be almost irresponsible for them not to pursue it.”

While the look of the Mac Mini makes it a perfect home- media server, it will probably require some external drives to handle video, audio and photo storage. It currently maxes out at 80GB of storage, an amount that would be quickly strained if it was storing video content alongside audio files. (For a large record collection, for instance, 40 GB can store about 10,000 songs.)

But current technology can fill in any gaps in the system. TV tuner cards from such companies as El Gato, for example, can record and play back TV programs. Apple's DVI-to-S-video, or component video converter, allows a user to view images on a TV. And Apple's AirPort Extreme board and AirPort Express enable audio files to be played through a stereo receiver wirelessly.