Farewell Front Row

A quick glance at our home page reveals that this Lion thing is a Big Deal. And when such Big Deals come along, they’re invariably followed by Big Complaints. In the case of Lion, these complaints have focused on the death of PowerPC applications, the lack of a media option for installing Lion, and a new “natural” scrolling default that, to many seasoned Mac users, feels completely unnatural.

And yet, there’s been nary a peep about the termination of one of the key features of Apple’s digital hub strategy: Front Row, the media-center-on-the-Mac application that was wildly popular until everyone seemed to forget that it was there. Today, install Lion, mash Command-Escape, and what you get is absolutely nothing.

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Orb Live update adds Hulu streaming

Instead of spending $3 on the latest episode of 30 Rock from the iTunes Store, why not spend $10 in the App Store and get unlimited access to the Hulu catalog as well as Comedy Central, live sports from ESPN, and others?

With the recent update to the Orb Live app from Orb Networks, users get full access to Hulu content—as well as ABC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN—from their iOS (or Android) devices with no extra subscription fees.

Using an EDGE, 3G, or Wi-Fi connection to your iOS device, Orb Live is the first app to stream free Hulu to mobile devices and display its content right next to your other videos. (Streaming Hulu content to an iOS device generally requires the Hulu Plus app and a subscription to the $8-a-month service, but as we’ve written about in the past, that doesn’t even give you access to the same depth of content as the computer-accessed version.) It’s easy to browse all of your favorite content to decide what to watch—no more switching between different apps to view find show when deciding between, say, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show or Hulu-hosted How I Met Your Mother. (The correct decision, of course, is to watch both.)

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Roku unveils Roku 2 line of video players

In non-Mac news, Roku—maker of video-streaming set-top boxes—announced on Wednesday that it was releasing a brand new line of its players: the Roku 2. The new devices sport a much smaller design than their predecessors, now measuring in around the size of the competing Apple TV.

There are three models to choose from: the $60 Roku 2 HD, the $80 Roku 2 XD, and the $100 Roku 2 XS. All provide video playback from a variety of sources, support Wi-Fi via 802.11b/g/n, have Bluetooth capabilities, and play high-definition video (where available) at 720p. The XD adds support for 1080p resolution, and the XS offers an ethernet port and a USB port.

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First Look: Fanhattan

In my family room sit several racks full of hundreds of DVD, case after case of evidence of the movie and TV show collection lovingly crafted over more than a decade. But I haven’t added a disc to my collection in the past couple years; Netflix saw to that. And now that Netflix and many other companies offer instant access to movies and TV shows, the whole Internet is my collection. But suppose I want to watch a movie right now—one that I don’t already own on DVD. How am I supposed to figure out which service (or services) on the Internet will let me watch that movie?

The answer requires just three syllables: Fanhattan. It’s a free iPad app that aims to help you find movies and TV shows from around the Internet—without needing to check each service’s catalog separately. Fanhattan can find movies from Netflix, Hulu/Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, ABC, Crackle, Blockbuster, Best Buy Cinema Now, Vudu, and the Playstation Network. What’s more, in addition to finding versions available for instal rental, purchase, or streaming, the app can even point you to places to purchase DVDs and Blu-ray discs from retailers like Amazon and Blockbuster, too.

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Amazon unveils Kindle Textbook Rental

Amazon on Monday announced Kindle Textbook Rental, which will enable students to save up to 80 percent off the retail prices of textbooks, by renting them as ebooks from the Kindle Store, instead of purchasing them outright. It’s like a library—only one that you pay for the privilege of borrowing from.

Amazon says that “tens of thousands of textbooks are available for the 2011 school year,” from textbook publishers like John Wiley & Sons, Elsevier, and Taylor & Francis. Students will need to choose a rental length—between 30 and 360 days—and pay only for the time they need a textbook. You can extend your rental in time periods as specific as a single day, or convert a rental to a purchase at a discounted rate. Students can continue to access any notes and highlights even after their rental period ends by visiting Amazon’s website.

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If Apple’s AirPlay and the Apple TV haven’t provided a broad enough hint, allow me to put it plainly: The family HDTV is the next great frontier of media connectivity and consumption. Developer after developer is trying to find ways to direct media from the various portable and set-top boxes you own to that TV. Among them is Awind, maker of the $199 McTivia, a device for wirelessly transmitting your Mac’s audio and video to a connected television.

Configuration and operation

McTivia is a receiver about the size of an ice-cream sandwich that you connect to your TV via an HDMI cable. You then install the McTivia software on your Mac and launch it (Awind lists the Mac models it recommends on the company’s website). You’ll be asked to choose a network for the McTivia hardware and software to connect to. Do this and the software configures the Mac so that it can stream its video and audio to the McTivia box and thus to your TV. McTivia offers 720p video, 44.1kHz audio, and supports up to eight computers (Mac and PCs) on your network.

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iRiver Story HD e-reader

Google is everywhere right now. The company has made a strong push with its Google Books project, but until now it hasn’t had a tie-in to a stand-alone e-reader. That changes with the iRiver Story HD, which goes on sale Sunday at Target’s stores and website for $140. The Story HD makes getting Google ebooks onto an E Ink-based reader reasonably easy; in my trials with the device, however, I found myself frustrated by the Story HD’s cheap design, poky performance, and Google Books interface.

The Story HD does a great job of distinguishing itself in display quality. As its HD moniker implies, the 6-inch display carries a 768-by-1024-pixel resolution, the result of an improved electronics backplane. That higher-res backplane in turn helps the E Ink technology—which already uses dozens of microcapsules per pixel to form letters and images on the screen—look better. IRiver is the first manufacturer to ship this technology in the United States; Hanvon currently uses it in China.

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