Promising Prospect: MediaCentral
Since its introduction last fall, one of the most attention-getting Apple products has been Front Row. Offering an iPod-menu-like interface to your movies, music, and photos, Front Row—along with Apple’s six-button remote—has turned several new Mac models into up-and-coming media centers. The interface isn’t perfect—Jason Snell covered its deficiencies during his review of the iMac G5—but it’s attractive, easy to use, and offers the basic features you need to browse your media files.
Unfortunately, unless you’ve got a G5 iMac or an Intel-based Mac (a MacBook Pro, an Intel iMac, or a new Mac mini ), you don’t get Front Row. Sure, there are hacks floating around, but running said hacks is not without its risks.
What’s a Front-Row-wanting Mac users to do? Until Apple releases Front Row for all Macs—which it may never do—you’ll have to make due with one of the Front Row imitators out there. As of right now, the one I like the best is Equinux’s free MediaCentral 1.2.1 . With MediaCentral installed and running, pressing Shift-escape brings up the Front-Row-like, onscreen browser, which lets you access music in your iTunes Library, in a shared iTunes Library, or on a connected iPod; video in your Movies folder (and VIDEO_TS folders ripped from DVDs anywhere on your drive); photos in iPhoto; and, if you have a broadband Internet connection, movie trailers and streaming Internet video. (The latter requires that you have the Windows Media and Real Player browser plug-ins installed.)
In most ways, MediaCentral looks and feels very much like Front Row: You use the keyboard’s arrow keys to navigate menus; Return access the next menu or begins playback; and Escape takes you up one menu level. It’s easy to nagivate your media, and the onscreen display shows you basic information about playback.
However, MediaCentral bests Front Row in a few areas. For example, you get quite a bit more control over playback via MediaCentral’s keyboard shortcuts, including the ability to jump to items starting with a particular letter by pressing that letter on the keyboard—great for navigating sizable iTunes Libraries. Unlike Front Row, MediaCentral lets you shuffle playback within an iTunes playlist, and it also supports more video formats than Front Row, including AVI, DivX, DV, Xvid, MP3, AC3, MPEG1, MPEG2, and MPEG4. And if you’ve got an eyeTV, a new eyeTV item will appear in MediaCentral’s TV menu, allowing you to watch live TV. You can even create your own soundsets for audio feedback.
On the other hand, MediaCentral also has a number of quirks that lead me to name it a “Promising Prospect” instead of a full-fledged Mac Gem. For example, when browsing a shared iTunes Library, tracks from the iTunes Music Store won’t play in MediaCentral (even if the computer running MediaCentral is authorized); they will in Front Row. On the interface front, when browsing your iTunes Library, you can’t browse by composer; when browsing by playlist, the playlists are at times listed in an apparently random order, and some (Smart Playlists, for example) are unavailable for browsing; and if you start playing an individual song in a playlist, only that song plays—the playlist doesn’t continue from that point. I also experienced a crash when running MediaCentral on my PowerBook after connecting a second display, and several when browsing large shared iTunes Libraries. Finally, MediaCentral doesn’t automatically find movie files in your iTunes Library; although the company plans to add support for iTunes-managed video in a future version, you can work around this limitation by creating aliases to those video files and placing the aliases in your Movies folder.
Of course, if you don’t have a Front-Row-equipped Mac, you’re also missing the ability to use Apple’s remote control. Luckily, there are a few solutions that work with MediaCentral. Griffin Technology’s diminutive $40 AirClick USB provides an RF-based remote with five buttons that can even transmit through walls. Button configurations for many applications are built-in, but you’ll want to create a custom configuration for MediaCentral—instructions can be found here. Keyspan’s $60 infrared Express Remote uses a bulkier remote and USB-connected receiver, but is much more capable thanks to 17 buttons and software for configuring those buttons for any application. If you’ve got a Bluetooth-capable mobile phone, Jonas Salling’s $24 Salling Clicker lets you use that phone to control the multimedia apps on your Bluetooth-equipped Mac; even better, Thomas Bonk has provided a script, MediaCentral Remote, that’s designed specifically for using Salling Clicker with MediaCentral. Finally, if you have a Front Row-equipped Mac, but simply prefer to use MediaCentral, you can use your Apple Remote.
Despite the problems noted above, I’ve been using MediaCentral quite a bit recently. Combined with a decent remote, it turns my PowerBook into a mini entertainment system when I’m on the road. Those wishing their older Macs had Front Row should give it a try, flaws and all. It should only get better.
MediaCentral works with Mac OS X 10.4; it requires QuickTime 7.
UPDATE 3/13/06: Clarified issue with purchased music not playing via shared Library browsing.