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10 Trends for 2007: 5. Entertainment: The Mac as a Media Center

Since 2001, Apple has been slowly putting together the pieces of said leisure center. The iTV, when available in early 2007 (and may not be called iTV when it is finally available), will allow you to wirelessly connect your digital entertainment hardware to your Mac, thus becoming the final piece of the puzzle.

Evolutive development

The first steps towards the Mac media center date back to 2001, the year in which iPod and iTunes were introduced. Both products established the link between Apple and entertainment, thus starting the trend of loading hard drives with music and movies (as well as TV shows). Other key moments were July 2004, when Apple introduced AirPort Express with AirTunes and which allowed wireless broadcasting from the Mac to a stereo; the year 2005, when Apple introduced its second generation iMac G5, with Front Row software and the Apple Remote; and the beginning of 2006, when the second generation Mac mini was introduced with digital audio output and DVI connection, Front Row, Apple Remote, and an AirPort connection as standard.

But the Mac mini was an incomplete solution. By default it could play DVD video, movies purchased from iTunes, and user-created ones, but it still lacked a TV tuner and digital video recorder for television capture. The other key feature Swaurs want in a media center is a hub, a device that allows them to send content from a media server (such as the Mac) simultaneously to various screens throughout the house.

Will the iTV be the answer to these fringes? The iTV is expected to be able to access audio, video and images over a wireless network, but several issues remain to be resolved. Will it have a TV tuner and recording functions? Will it support high definition video? While many of today’s media centers have already made the leap to HD, the video downloads that can be made from iTunes still do not reach DVD quality. How many of us would be willing to watch a low resolution movie on our HD televisions?

But sending high-quality video over the Web and wirelessly poses a big problem: if we currently need almost an entire night to download any of the movies currently available on iTunes, imagine how long it would take to download a DVD-quality movie. . Additionally, the current 802.11g standard, which offers a theoretical maximum speed of 54 Mbps and a more realistic speed of 11 Mbps, are not by far enough to send the HD data stream in real time; so what would happen if you tried to send multiple data streams to multiple displays?

The answer to this problem could be the future 802.11n standard, which could offer up to 10 times the speed of the current 802.11g. Apple won’t hesitate to introduce 802.11na hardware throughout 2007, but will this standard be included in the first iteration of the iTV? Probably not.

The question of whether or not the iTV will incorporate a TV tuner might not be that important in the long run. According to analysts, television broadcast on the same broadband channel that you currently use to connect to iTunes could replace the current broadcast system or be a viable alternative within five years. If so, you wouldn’t need a TV tuner at all.

Buying advice

If you plan to view content on your computer, then you already have all the necessary pieces to create a media center: with a few third-party additions, and a Mac mini (or iMac, if the screen is big enough for you), you can handle music, videos, images and other content with sufficient aplomb. But if you want to extend your experience to the simultaneous support of several televisions then you should wait for the iTV.

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