The Connected Home—Disconnected

Sonos and others are taking the computer out of the home entertainment equation


Are Microsoft (MSFT ) and Apple (AAPL ) both missing the home entertainment boat? The two tech giants have been trying hard to make Macs and Windows PCs the hub of the digital home. But the arrival of a new generation of digital entertainment products that work just fine without a computer makes me wonder if the PC-centric approach isn't seriously wrongheaded.

My latest musings were prompted by a fresh look at the Sonos Digital Music System. Sonos is a high-end, multiroom system designed to fill the gap between relatively inexpensive products from Logitech (LOGI ) or Roku—which help you get your music from a computer to a stereo—and super-expensive, custom home-music systems.

When it was first brought out a couple years ago, Sonos was marketed as a way to take music copied to a Windows PC or Mac and stream it to as many as 32 zones in your house. It still does that, but a computer is no longer an essential part of the picture.

A Sonos system can now connect to a variety of online sources including free Internet radio stations; subscription services such as Napster (NAPS ), Pandora, and RealNetworks' Rhapsody; and Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI ). You can also access your digital music collection if you have stored it on one of the new generation of disk drives that can be attached directly to your home network.

Sonos is ideal for the user who would like to listen to digital music on the speakers attached to the stereo system, and in other rooms, too. The $999 Sonos Bundle 130 system I tried consists of a ZonePlayer 80 unit that plugs into the stereo, a ZonePlayer 100 that has a high-quality amplifier built in and hooks up straight to speakers, and a handheld controller you use to direct music to either of the Sonos players.

A Sonos system establishes its own wireless network, allowing the controller and players to communicate with each other. At least one device, however, has to be plugged into your wired network. This can be a real nuisance if the locations you've chosen for the players don't have ready access to an Ethernet jack, usually found on the router attached to your cable modem or DSL phone line. Sonos has now solved the problem, for an extra $99, with something called the ZoneBridge 100. You plug it into the network wherever it's most convenient, and the bridge then forms its own wireless links to the players and controller.

Setting up the Sonos requires little more than powering up each unit and pressing a button to register it as part of the system. All of the subscription services come with 30-day free trials, and it takes just a few minutes to get up and running. In addition to the Internet-based services, I was able to play my own music collection stored on a Netgear ReadyNAS, a storage device running on my network. Sonos plays any music that is not copy protected, including the new unprotected songs from Apple's iTunes Store, as well as music protected by Microsoft's PlaysforSure technology.

This whole combination of parts never required assistance or contact with any of my home computers. In that regard, Sonos joins a growing panoply of products, including the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3, the TiVo Series3 and TiVo HD, and the Vudu Movie Player, that can pull content off the Internet.

Macs and Windows PCs really aren't all that good at distributing entertainment content. Even if actual crashes have become fairly rare, PCs stop responding to requests when they're asleep. Laptops may not be on the network when you need them. And don't expect a computer to do a good job sending a movie to your TV if someone's playing an intense game.

Microsoft seems to recognize the problem. Its new Windows Home Server is a reliable and efficient entertainment hub. I'm testing it now and will review it in an upcoming column. Apple, though, is holding out. The Apple TV that was launched earlier this year can't do much unless it first connects to a PC or Mac to fetch movies or TV shows from the iTunes Store.

The computer makers' dream of the "connected home" is finally coming true. But that home may be filled with devices that are perfectly happy to connect all by themselves.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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