Earlier this month, at a special event in San Jose, Apple unveiled its third generation iMac G5, a consumer oriented desktop computer that combines a mid-level PowerPC G5 microprocessor with an all-in-one design that, in typical Apple fashion, has redefined computer style and design. According to Apple, the new iMac G5 includes three great new features: It is even thinner than its predecessor, it includes an integrated iSight video camera, and it ships with an exclusive digital media environment called Front Row, which can be controlled via a bundled remote control. The Front Row software is what I'm concerned about today, because many people--myself included--have described Front Row as a Media Center rip-off.

One has to think that Microsoft has feared Apple's entry into the Media Center market for some time. Publicly, Microsoft says all the right things about Apple being a great competitor, and so on, but the truth is that Microsoft is scared to death of Apple. No one really believes that the Mac will ever regain serious market share per se. But Apple's digital media offerings--the iPod and iTunes, primarily--dominate their respective markets in the same ways that Windows and Office dominate theirs. Apple is beating Microsoft so badly in digital music, in fact, that Microsoft has privately conceded the market to Apple for the next few years. They're basically just waiting for smart phones with digital music capabilities to start appearing to see how the next generation fares. But leadership in digital music is important, because it's an emerging market, and it leads the way to other digital markets, including that for digital movies, which will one day be quite lucrative. If Microsoft concedes digital music, a loss in digital video is likely to follow.

Media Center, however, has been one of Microsoft's few digital media-related success stories. Introduced in 2002, Media Center is available only with a special version of Windows XP called Windows XP Media Center Edition, which is sold only with specially configured Media Centers PCs which, until recently, had to be sold with TV tuner cards. In the off chance that you're unfamiliar with Media Center, I'll just say this: Media Center provides a wonder, TV-friendly front-end to various digital media tasks, including TV viewing and recording. (See my

review of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 for more information). With PCs moving out of the home office and into bedrooms and dens, it's only a matter of time before the Media Center concept really takes off. And Microsoft, in a rare bit of innovation, has been leading the way, for once.

But here comes Apple, or so it seems.

Apple enters the Media Center market ... or does it?

Front Row, in actuality, is the second major hint that the Cupertino company is gunning for Media Center. The first was the G4-based Mac mini, a tiny and relatively inexpensive Macintosh that's aimed at PC customers who'd like to try a Mac but always found the products to be too expensive. The Mac mini ships sans keyboard, mouse, or monitor, and Apple expects most users to simply use extra PC equipment they have lying around, or to use a keyboard/mouse/display switcher to move between the Mac mini and their existing PC.

The Mac mini doesn't provide any Media Center-like functionality. But unlike most Media Center PCs, which closely mimic the form factors of typical tower PC designs, the Mac mini is quiet, small, and stylish, and would look right at home next to your TV in the den. While Apple remained mum on future possibilities, the Mac mini was quickly embraced by the Mac community as a first shot in an upcoming war for the living room.

The second major initiative Apple launched against Media Center was, of course, Front Row. Available now only with a new third generation iMac G5, Front Row is, at first glance, a Media Center competitor. It features front-ends for digital photos, music, videos, and DVD movies, and can be controlled with a remote. And though Apple never directly mentioned Media Center as its target, CEO Steve Jobs did compare the bundled Apple remote to the Media Center remote controls that Microsoft and HP ship, and his message was startlingly similar to Microsoft's messaging on Media Center (albeit three years later). "It's an incredible new way to enjoy your music, your photos, and your video from your sofa," Jobs said, as if Apple had invented the concept.

My initial reaction to Front Row was predictable. While lauding the software's clean user interface, I noted my surprise that there wasn't much outrage over Apple's obvious copying. "Apple's Front Row software ... is a complete Media Center rip-off (albeit one that offers only a subset of Media Center features). Joe Belfiore, the general manager of Microsoft's eHome division, is in New York this week for Digital Life for the soft-launch of Windows XP MCE 2005 UR2, and he's surprised about a completely different issue. 'I was surprised that it took them as long as this to do a feature like Media Center,' he said. Indeed."

A week later, Charlie Owen, a Microsoft employee who works on Media Center, offered a peek into Microsoft's opinion about Front Row after the dust had settled. Charlie picked up on something that hadn't occurred to me: Front Row, we wrote in a blog posting, does not emulate Media Center. Instead, it emulates the iPod user interface. "It was a no-brainer for Apple to port its iPod application over to Mac operating system and hook it up to a remote control," he wrote. "The interface has been tried and tested on millions of iPods.  It's low hanging fruit -- they probably didn't have to invest a ton of money to get the feature in their OS.  Microsoft kinda/sorta did the same thing, only in reverse order with the Media Center first, Portable Media Center second."

Charlie, however, wasn't the first person to make this observation. Holland Rhodes, writing in his

Nakfull Propaganda blog, had this to say a few days earlier. "Front Row seems to be little more than a window covering," he writes. "It simply allows you to use the remote to control several other apps, iTunes for music, DVD Player for playing DVDs, and Quicktime for movies. Other than the very nice movie trailer interface, no new features are added by Front Row."

These opinions are both correct. So I'll have to change my own opinion about Front Row and note that while the software is clearly aimed--or will some day be aimed--at the same general market as that for Media Center, it is only peripherally related to Media Center. That is, both software products provide a remote control-friendly, TV-viewable interface to digital media content. But Microsoft's approach is more powerful, with TV viewing and recording functionality and other features, while Apple's is simpler and arguably better looking, aiming for the iPod crowd, and not a high-end home theatre audience. In other words, Front Row is pure Apple: Lot's of style and flash, but not as functional as the competition. Not yet.

Using Front Row

With your expectations suitably dashed, let's take a look at Front Row, and the various hardware and software components that make up this solution.

Apple Remote

Though it can painfully be used with the keyboard (but not the mouse, interestingly), Front Row is designed to be used with Apple's stubby little remote control, logically dubbed the Apple Remote. Almost comically designed for children--the remote is smaller than an iPod shuffle and features tiny buttons that my large hands find difficult to use--the Apple Remote features just six buttons. "We've done a remote control, but we've done it Apple style," Jobs said during the Front Row introduction. "It's this: Six buttons. It's really thin, really nice."

I find the remote to be limited, not "nice". The six buttons it includes are Menu, Play/Pause, Back, Forward, Up, and Down. Those last two buttons can also be used to control volume where appropriate. And that's it. So if Apple decides to, say, add digital video recording (DVR) functionality in the future--a near certainty--than it will have to release a new Apple Remote with buttons for that. In the meantime, we get a limited remote that maps to Front Row's limited feature set.

The remote is also IR-based, so it's directional, has limited range, and can be frustrating to use if you're not pointing right at the IR receiver. But hey, at least you don't have 43 buttons to worry about.

The Front Row interface

When you click the Menu button on the Apple Remote, the Front Row interface gracefully slides in over your traditional Mac desktop. Currently, there are four parts to this interface: Music, Photos, Movies, and DVD. You navigate through the Front Row UI using the buttons on the remote (or the arrow keys on the keyboard) and select items using Play/Pause, which is a bit non-intuitive (Media Center remotes feature a handy OK button). To move "back," you use the Menu key, just as you would use the center button on an iPod.

Because this is Apple, everything is done with a graphical flourish, which will hopefully make users forget that there's precious little really going on here. Each of the four icons you see on the Front Row main screen feature the standard Apple reflection effect, and as you move back and forth between the icons, they move smoothly in a circular fashion. When you exit the Front Row interface, the desktop zooms in from top center and appears to fade into, and then over, Front Row.

What's really astonishing is that this application is really just a front-end to various Mac applications. And when I say front-end, I mean front-end in the traditional sense. If you access Front Row's Music section, for example, the iTunes application literally loads in the background. Ditto for photos, which loads iPhoto, Movies, which loads QuickTime Player, and DVD, which loads DVD Player. Because these applications were not built in a modular fashion like Microsoft's digital media offerings, you will literally have five separate applications running if you access each of Front Row's parts. This isn't the case with Media Center, which can display digital content all on its own. Hopefully, Apple will do merge this system into something more elegant in the future.

OK, let's examine each of the Front Row parts.

Music

Like the other modules, Music offers a number of menu items, which have to scroll up from the bottom of the screen. The menu items in Music include Shuffle Songs, Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Podcasts, Genres, Composers, and Audiobooks, all of which logically map to options in the Music menu on a newer iPod. If you just select Shuffle Songs, Front Row will simply play back your entire music collection, shuffled. The display is nice: It features a large album art graphic, song name, artist name, and album name information, and a progress bar depicting where you are in the playback of the song. In other words, it's a lot like the default music display on a color iPod (fourth of fifth generation).

Unlike the displays you see in Media Center, all of the music menus are text-based and are not graphical. For example, in Media Center, the default screen in the My Music section shows albums in a graphical view. Here, everything is text based. It's not horrible, but it doesn't really showcase how nicely this kind of content can look.

Photos

Unlike Music, the Photos section actually goes well beyond what's available on an iPod. By default, Photos will display a skewed slideshow to the left of its menu, quickly scrolling through random pictures stored in iPhoto. The Photos menu is based on what you see in iPhoto, however, and not on the iPod: You get Library, Last Roll (the last set of acquired photos), Last 12 Months, and then entries for the specific Albums and Folders you created in iPhoto. (I organize my photos by month, so I have Folders named October, September, and so on; what you see here will depend on how you organize iPhoto.)

If you select an Album, Front Row will simply launch a photo slideshow, using onscreen controls that are identical to those offered by iPhoto. If you select a Folder, however, you'll navigate to a submenu that displays the Albums and Folders found in that Folder.

What Photos lacks is a "Now Playing" view. If you trigger a slideshow, leave Photos, and then come back, you'll have to find that exact slideshow again. However, one thing you can do is launch a music playlist in Music, navigate to Photos, and then enjoy a soundtrack to your slideshow.

Videos

The Videos module is, perhaps, the only surprise in Front Row. In addition to the expected front end for home movies, this part also provides a unique view of the movie trailers Apple provides on its QuickTime Web site, as well as access to music videos and TV shows you've purchased from iTunes, and downloaded video podcasts.

Oddly enough, Movie Trailers is the first option in the list. This view is rather stunning and is the only part of Front Row that approaches the graphical nature of Media Center. You're provided with the DVD equivalent of album art for each movie title (making me wonder why they didn't think to do this in the Music section), and when you select a trailer, it's played back full screen, after it's downloaded from apple.com.

The Movies item integrates with the digital movies you have stored in your Movies folder, because OS X doesn't offer a video management application. As with Photos, each movie is listed in text format, but there's a nice skewed video preview on the left that plays in real time.

Music videos, TV Shows, and Video Podcasts provide similar front-ends for other purchased or downloaded content (all are available through iTunes). Each provides an in-place, skewed video preview next to a text list of available content.

DVD

The one part of Front Row that most people will be familiar with is DVD, because most of us have been playing DVDs via remote for quite a while. There isn't much to the DVD interface: It reads the DVD, and then starts playing. The interface is based on that offered by the latest Apple DVD Player software. (I was unable to obtain screen grabs of this module).

What's missing?

Media Center is so far ahead of Front Row from a functional perspective that the two products are hard to compare. Front Row doesn't include the DVR and television features offered by Media Center, isn't backed by a massive collection of online services and add-on features, can't be remoted to other televisions around the home with Media Center Extenders or Xboxes, and doesn't offer a way to view any of its content on the go unless you're lucky enough to own the single, recently-released iPod product that supports video. And even then, Front Row doesn't offer native device synchronization, CD and DVD burning and ripping, and other functionality. There's a reason Front Row has just six buttons. It doesn't do much.

Also, it's easy to get lost in the Front Row user interface, and since there are no dedicated buttons for various things on the remote, you can't easily find your way back. For example, if you start a song playing, then navigate to a different part of the UI, how do you get back to Now Playing? The answer is, you have to go through the entire menu structure again: You can't simply jump right there. This is a surprisingly inelegant solution from a company that prides itself on being elegant.

So does Front Row out-do Media Center in any way? The only truly unique feature in Front Row is its interface for movie trailers, which, frankly, is of limited interest. And Front Row, arguably, has a nicer looking UI than Media Center, even though it is less graphical. That's a matter of personal taste, of course.


Conclusions

Don't misread my criticisms of Front Row as blatant anti-Apple bias. I happen to be a huge fan of Apple Computer, and own numerous Apple products, including several iPods, the iPod remote, two Macintosh computers, an iSight video camera, an AirPort Express wireless networking device, and many other products. But I'm also an unabashed fan of Media Center, and my family has been using that product as our primary TV/home entertainment interface for over three and half years, since the first version was in early beta. That said, Front Row is late to market and lacking when compared to Media Center, and often in very obvious ways.

There is so much for Apple to do. Front Row needs more functionality, including TV recording features. It needs to work on its own and not load other applications each time the user wants to display various digital media content types. And Apple needs to make this software and the required hardware--the Apple Remote and an IR interface--available to all Mac OS X users. This is advice I gave to Microsoft repeatedly about Media Center, though they never listened.

For now, we have an interesting first step into the arena. With its iPod and iTunes products, Apple has proven that it's up to the task of taking on Microsoft. I fully expect Front Row to turn into a true Media Center challenger over time.

--Paul Thurrott
October 25, 2005