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Apple builds wireless hi-fi bridge with pocket router

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Apple has released a small device which will go a long way to bridging home stereo systems and the personal computer. The pocket-sized WiFi base station is designed to stream music through a home hi-fi amplifier. Priced at $129, Airport Express is an 802.11g router with an analog audio connector and Apple's new AirTunes software. Apple said that in addition to punters who want to play their iTunes music collections through a real hi-fi system, it's pitching Airport Express at mobile users who want to create an ad hoc WLAN network at say, a hotel room.

Apple positions this as complementary to the $249 Airport Extreme base station. Both have similar range, but Extreme handles more users - 50 - as opposed to ten with Express. But like its big brother, the Express router features a USB port for sharing a printer. Of the two, only Extreme offers a LAN out port, and at the very high-end model, power over Ethernet, and the capacity to extend the range with an external antenna.

The device requires the next version of iTunes, 4.6, but PC users will be able to use Windows computers to take advantage of its features. Apple's US store was quoting a ship date of mid-July for the product today.

The upside for Apple? If it works as promised, Airport Express may encourage people to view their PC as the central store for their music collections, driving up demand for computers and remote controls: some of these could be Macintosh computers and iPods. The downsides? Perhaps we'll begin to realize how crummy our MP3s really sound on a good Hi-Fi. Either way, this understated and well-priced gadget puts the onus on the real consumer manufacturers to do one better. Once again Apple has made a task which has confounded the CE industry, and Wintel, look like a walk in the park. ®

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