Lessons for Apple's multimedia transition

Microsoft: Front Row vs. Windows Media Center

While the iMac G5’s software interface for multimedia—Front Row—is new to the Mac platform, Windows users have had similar tools—in Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition—for a couple of years now. Is it possible that, as Front Row matures, it could learn a thing or two from Windows?

Feel the music

For music, Front Row gives you a large, text-only interface with few options. You can shuffle the playback order of songs and search by several criteria. You can’t create playlists, but you can access playlists you’ve already created in iTunes. And you can’t browse Internet radio stations, but you can access stations you’ve bookmarked in iTunes.

Media Center gives you those same navigational and playback tools, and then it goes a couple of steps further. It shows album artwork. It also provides a search engine that will show results as you enter characters on the remote control. Some Media Center PCs have over-the-air radio tuners, but the software will also let you access Internet radio stations.

You can’t browse or buy new songs through Front Row; for that, you must use iTunes. Media Center displays a prominent Buy Music button once you start playback, but clicking on it calls up a page of albums and a “Not designed for Media Center” message. In other words, it doesn’t work any better than Front Row.

DVDs on the menu

Because the iMac G5’s remote has only six buttons, the fast-forward and fast-reverse buttons must do double duty as chapter-advancing buttons. And you can’t adjust the volume until after you begin playback. DVD playback is pretty simple, but I still found that I often pressed the wrong buttons, in part because response on the 20-inch iMac I used was surprisingly lethargic.

The remote control supplied with the Sony VAIO VGC-RB42G Media Center PC I tried out had dedicated buttons for nearly every DVD function, so it was easy to look at the remote and pick exactly what I wanted to do. The interface was quite snappy, so I always got quick confirmation that my button presses had registered.

Straight to video

Front Row gives you easy access to movie files and video Podcasts stored on your iMac, and to movie trailers stored on Apple’s servers. You can play back TV shows, too, but you have to use iTunes to find and purchase them. Everything plays back in a full-screen window, which makes the 320-by-240-pixel TV shows look pretty fuzzy.

Media Center lets you play back videos of all sorts on your PC, and it lets you burn them to CD or DVD with a couple of clicks. But it also gives you access to tons of online content, including movies from CinemaNow, prerecorded television shows from Akimbo.com, and news broadcasts from Reuters and other services. One huge irritation with Media Center is that clicking on some buttons calls up ads for paid content.

But when it comes to television, Media Center’s biggest advantage over Apple’s offerings is that you can connect a Media Center PC to a TV, often through high-quality component connections. Media Center plays, pauses, and records television programs; if the PC has a TV-tuner card with two tuners, it can simultaneously record two programs and play back a third. You can add an external TV tuner and digital video recorder, such as Elgato Systems’ EyeTV, to the iMac G5, but Front Row won’t have anything to do with it.

Currently, you can view over-the-air High-Definition (HD) broadcasts only with Media Center, and then only if the PC’s TV card supports HD. Microsoft recently announced that Media Center PCs with CableCard support will appear by the 2006 holiday season; those systems should be able to play, pause, and record HDTV programs, without the need for a set-top cable box.

A Media Center PC particularly outdoes the iMac in one area: it can act as a server, distributing content (including time-shifted television) to other devices throughout the house. Those devices include Media Center Extenders—Linksys’s WMCE54AG, for example, which sells for about $250—and the new Xbox 360 ($400), which has built-in wireless networking.

I tried out an Xbox Extender, a $35 device that lets you stream Media Center content to a previous-generation Xbox. It worked very well with a wired Ethernet connection, but you can also use it with a wireless adapter.

Playing catch-up

When it comes to controlling a multimedia computer, OS X isn’t anywhere near Windows XP Media Center Edition. But Media Center has been around for more than three years; comparing the fledgling Front Row to it is about as fair as comparing a bicycle to a Buick. And Apple’s success with digital audio players—which weren’t new when it began selling them—shows that the company can enter a product category and outdo the competition by offering better features and more style.

Clearly, Mac users are not going to be buying Media Center-equipped PCs anytime soon (and the same is true for Windows users and iMacs). But if Front Row picks up some of the extra features that Media Cen-ter has acquired over the years, those users may soon have reason to be very, very happy.— Alan Stafford

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