Laptop, printer, television, stereo set, and DV-R: It doesn't take long for a household to look like an electronics mart, with a long, confusing cable jungle running along the floor.
But there's another way: the laptop as the central music server, dishing out music for personal use and for parties alike. What's needed is a good piece of organizational software on the laptop for the record collection and two carefully chosen investments in hardware.
One free, yet highly recommended, piece of software is Apple's iTunes, available for download from the Apple website, says Christine Tantschinez, sub-editor with German Audio magazine.
Windows PCs come with Media Player already built in and that software offers similar functionality, says Volker Zota from German c't magazine. Those looking to buy commercial software have many options: Software like MP3 Maker from Magix costs around $40, as do programmes from the Nero family.
Hardware investments are necessary to get the best possible sound. The first is for the computer itself. "Internal on-board soundcards just don't produce fantastic sound," Tantschinez says. The expert recommends external sound cards that are connected via USB.
"They have high quality outputs, often for multi-channel sound too and digital audio output as well." The cards cost between $90 and $150.
The biggest investment is generally dedicated to the speaker system. There are several factors to be considered in advance. Small speakers or an entire surround sound system; wireless or cable-based; and what kind of music is going to be played back using the hardware?
"The selection and price spectrum for such systems is large-there are sets for $20 and others for $2,000," Tantschinez says.
Another alternative is to designate the computer as an external signal source for the stereo. A WLAN bridge can be used for a wireless connection of the HiFi set and the computer. Both devices can then be put anywhere in the house.
One advantage with this set up is that no new hardware is needed. The computer simply works as a virtual CD changer.
Electronics companies are working with this technology as well, such as the "Streamium" product line from Philips. "Computer and stereo communicate using a wireless network," says Klaus Petri, Philips spokesman.
Apple has also refined this principle for its laptops, calling it "Airport Express." It's intended to make the clinch cable, which connects computer and stereo, a thing of the past.
"A base station is the size of a pack of cigarettes and sends out data using WLAN standard 802.11g at a speed of up to 54 MBit per second," Georg Albrecht, Apple spokesman, says.
A mini clinch connection allows for other audio devices to be hooked into the base station, not the computer. "iTunes handles the wireless transfer of MP3 or AAC data," Albrecht says. The station receives the data, decompresses it and forwards it to the stereo as analog audio data.