Here’s one you don’t see too often – Apple copying an idea from Microsoft. A few weeks ago, Apple introduced its new iMac G5 with an application called Front Row – a big-screen interface, operated by remote control, that allows you to cue up music in iTunes, play DVDs, view photos in iPhoto, or play videos in iMovie. In 2002, Microsoft introduced something similar – though more extensive – in its Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system.
I’ve been playing with Front Row while researching an article on media PCs for Cargo magazine. My first impressions are favorable, but not ecstatic.
The itty-bitty infrared remote (which looks like an iPod shuffle) is cute and able to transfer a signal across the room. Apple does a pretty good job of integrating a lot of functions into its minimal-button design, but there are some trade-offs. For example, muting the volume requires a tortured backtrack through online menus that makes it impractical. It’s far easier to keep clicking the minus button until the volume is at zero.
Much has been made of the fact that the remote magnetically
sticks to the side of the G5. Ah, how times change. Remember the old days when
we dared not to put a magnet in even the same room with a hard drive? Now
they're in the same box! The magnetic sticking trick is pretty cool,
glitchy. There are no visual guides indicating where you should place the
remote, and if you miss the target spot, you can get magnetic repulsion instead
of attraction – causing the remote to flip upside down or go sputtering onto
The onscreen interface is attractive and works pretty well, but is still missing some obvious functions. For example, you can control iTunes pretty well, via a giant version of the same basic menu that appears on the iPod (showing artist, album, song, and a volume slider). This lets you navigate songs that live on the iMac, but not shared tunes on other networked systems running iTunes. You can, however, play those networked songs in the regular interface to iTunes (which has been possible for years). And if you cue up networked songs and then launch Front Row, the songs continue to play. You can even use the arrow keys on the remote to jump back or forward in the network song cue, but you won’t see a list of those songs in the Front Row iTunes interface. Oops!
And Apple has a long way to go on video quality. Some of my favorite test DVDs, like Charlotte Gray, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Kill Bill, vol. 1 easily illustrated the shortcomings. Colors were a bit pale, video noise was rampant, and the brightness level tended to jump up and down with scene changes. In other words, the movies screamed out “I’m being played on a PC!”
In all fairness, Microsoft’s first release of Media Center was also pretty rough on the video front. It took a lot of effort by Microsoft, graphics card makers, and the Imaging Science Foundation to get the video quality up. I’ve been reviewing a pile of new PCs running Media Center 2005 Edition and the latest ATI and nVidia graphics drivers, and I’m amazed at how good the video looks on all of them. Hopefully Apple will make similar efforts to improve image quality. Because a computer with a17- or 20-inch widescreen LCD is extra sweet when it can double as a decent DVD viewer.
Even better would be if it could triple as a TV. But we’re not there yet. The G5 has no tuner – digital or analog – and no video inputs for plugging in the feed from a set-top cable, satellite, or over-the-air tuner box. You can jerry-rig this, however, with a USB TV tuner, such as those from Eskape Labs.
All in all, Front Row is what I would expect it to be – a first generation product. But it’s quite good for a first gen. And I look forward to it getting better. Also, it’s a sign that in future more and more (and perhaps all) PCs will lead double lives as desktop machines and digital entertainment centers.