Mac mini needs a Front Row seat

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As I sat in the audience of Apple’s media event Wednesday, enjoying an incredible performance by Wynton Marsalis (who can make a trumpet do things I didn’t think possible) and his talented quartet, two thoughts kept going through my mind.

The first was, “Man, I love my job.”

But as someone who gets to play with computers and iPods for a living, I actually find myself saying that fairly frequently. The unique thought I had was, “OK, where’s the Mac mini, Media Center Edition?”

What prompted this speculative query was Steve Jobs’ announcement of Apple’s new Front Row software and six-button Apple Remote, both debuting on the new iMac G5. Although the Remote is also available as a separate product (to allow you to control your iPod via the new Universal iPod Dock ), the Front Row/Remote partnership turns the new iMac into a formidable “home media center”—a device for watching videos and DVDs, listening to music, and viewing photos.

In fact, Front Row is home media done right. (Or at least as right as it’s been done yet.) If you’ve ever used a computer running Windows XP Media Center Edition, you know that although it definitely makes a PC more appropriate for use in your home entertainment system and has a number of useful features—especially its DVR functionality—it’s still klunky and, well, not that fun to use. Front Row, on the other hand, is the iPodification of the concept: It may not have every feature you might dream up, but it has most of the ones you need and it provides them via an elegant and easy-to-use interface.

To use Front Row, you simply press the Menu button on the Remote; your computer screen switches smoothly to the Front Row screen, which displays iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and DVD icons. You use the left or right key to choose a mode and then press the Play key to enter that mode. Every mode works similarly, with an iPod-like menu system that lets you browse playlists of music, albums of photos, folders of movies, or a DVD’s menus, respectively. When you’re done, you exit Front Row and you’re back to Mac OS X. This is the best “home media” interface I’ve seen. Period. (And by “best,” I mean one that anyone in my family could sit down and use without reading a manual and without feeling overwhelmed by menus, buttons, and obscure settings and dialogs.)

What’s Front Row missing? TiVo-like features for watching and recording live TV. However, these would require additional hardware (a TV tuner) so I’m willing to overlook them for now. As popular as TiVo and similar DVR devices are, they’re still a long way from being as pervasive as DVD players and VCRs—far more people use their TVs for watching DVDs and have digital photos photos and music. I’ll feel differently in a few years, I’m sure, but for now, a device running Front Row would be a welcome addition to many homes.

So what’s the problem? The compelling Front Row/Remote combination is currently available only with the iMac G5. A perfect addition to a bedroom or office, but the available 17-inch and 20-inch screens aren’t big enough for most serious entertainment systems. And who wants to put an iMac G5 next to their TV?

But take a Mac mini, include the Front Row software; an IR sensor for the Remote; an optical audio output for connecting to your home theater system; and an S-Video output for connecting to your TV (in case your TV won’t take DVI), and you’ve got a compact, easy to use “home media center"—the first one I think people would buy en masse. Unlike Windows MCE, it would play the music and video downloaded from the iTunes Music Store—you know, the one with 84 percent of the market. And add a keyboard and mouse (such as Belkin’s MediaPilot ) and it also just so happens to be a full-blown computer running Mac OS X. Now that’s something I’d like to have in my family room. I’d buy one in a heartbeat; in fact, I’d probably buy two.

Don’t get me wrong: The new iMac with Front Row and Apple Remote is a cool computer—the first iMac I’ve actually considered buying myself. But hopefully it’s just a precursor: a way to introduce people to the idea of a good home media interface before Apple releases the true killer media product.

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