Front and center

I never expected to see the day when a remote control would be standard equipment with all new Macs. But after debuting with last year’s G5 iMac, that little white remote, along with Apple’s Front Row software, has been a feature of all the new Intel-based Macs introduced this year. And that says a lot about how the Mac is changing.

Lean forward, sit back

For all the ways that computer use has changed over the years, our dealings with them have remained essentially active . Sure, I occasionally watch DVDs on my PowerBook. But generally, if I’m using my Mac, I’m leaning forward—hands on the keyboard and eyes on the monitor—and actively doing something, whether it’s constructing the perfect iPhoto book or blasting enemies in Halo.

But the advent of Front Row changes that. Now the Mac can also be enjoyed more passively. When you press the Apple Remote’s Menu button, Front Row replaces your Mac desktop with a big, simple interface that lets you navigate videos, music, photos, and DVDs, using the remote’s directional buttons. Front Row brings together all the great digital content we’ve accumulated and lets us play it back from the comfort of a sofa.

Front Row is an excellent first step. But if the Mac is to become a true entertainment device, Front Row has a lot of growing to do.

Front Row’s failings

Excited as I was by Front Row’s debut last year, I’ve also been one of its harshest critics. The first version of it had plenty of rough edges, and although Apple has sanded off some of them, too many remain. For example, though Front Row’s Music menu lets you shuffle your entire music library, iPod-style, there’s no way to shuffle songs within a playlist or an album.

The first version of Front Row also refused to honor many of your iPhoto slide-show settings. The latest version of Front Row fixes this problem—but only when you’re viewing slide shows on the Mac where they live. If you’re trying to stream them over a network and view them on another Mac, the bug persists. And there’s no other good way to browse your photo collection with Front Row—it’s slide shows or nothing.

Video playback can also be difficult. Front Row is inconsistent about bookmarking videos, so if you stop a video midstream and come back to it later, you may find yourself having to fast-forward back to where you were. Playing back movie trailers from Apple’s Web site can be unreliable. The list goes on.

Changing seats

I really, really want to love Front Row. But it needs a lot of work to live up to its potential.

After Apple fixes the program’s smaller bugs, its first major task is a simple one: Copy the iPod. The iPod’s interface is very good, and it has become very familiar. Apple should replicate it in Front Row’s Music menu.

Second, Apple should integrate the iTunes store into Front Row. I’d love to be able to sit on my couch and use my remote to browse through songs and albums, play 30-second previews, and even purchase music. And I don’t just want to play videos I’ve already downloaded—I want to search for new videos, preview them, and buy them, too.

The third step is more complicated—and more interesting. I think the program should have a plug-in system that non-Apple software and hardware developers could hook into. For example, one of the complaints I hear most frequently about Front Row is that you can’t use it in conjunction with a TV tuner and your Mac to record TV shows. I think Apple was right not to build that functionality into Front Row. But if Front Row supported plug-ins, companies such as Elgato (the makers of the EyeTV video-recording hardware and software) could integrate their products into it. Then if you wanted to record TV shows on your Mac, you could—but if you didn’t, that feature would never get in your way.

A Mac is a Mac

It’s important to keep all of this in perspective. The Mac is still a Mac, and we’re going to keep using it for all the computer-y tasks we’ve used it for until now. A remote will never replace the keyboard and mouse, and become our primary Mac input device.

But it’s still exciting to know that when I’m done with work, my Mac doesn’t stop being useful. It just turns into something else: a DVD player, a music player, a digital photo browser, or whatever other crazy thing Apple thinks up next.

[ Is Front Row exciting or boring? Share your thoughts in our forums, or e-mail me directly. And don’t miss my new Weblog. ]

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