Apple’s brilliant, deceptively simple Front Row software has a bright future and raises questions

By SteveJack

I’ve been testing Apple’s Front Row software for over a week now. It’s a deceptively simple application. It works in its own environment, just like Mac OS X Tiger’s Dashboard. When launched, Front Row very nicely zooms your Mac away, while fading it out, and fades in Front Row’s main screen which consists of four choices: Photos, DVD, Videos, and Music in a “3-D” ring you through which you can cycle. Leaving Front Row slowly spins theses choices and your Mac fades up from the foreground. Very nice.

The brilliance of Front Row is its simplicity. Front Row is basically an application launcher and interface control replacement for existing Macintosh media applications. Choose “DVD” in Front Row and your Mac uses DVD Player in the background. “Photos” uses iPhoto. “Music” uses iTunes. “Videos” uses iTunes and QuickTime. Front Row is basically a large display control center for your Mac’s media, so you can use a remote from across the room to control your Mac and still be able to see the controls. You step through screens to access and control media very much like you do with Apple’s iPod.

Right now, Front Row’s Music section lets you control iTunes music and playlists, Photos lets you view slideshows from your iPhoto library, complete with transitions and music, Videos lets you watch and control home movies, music videos, movie trailers, and more, and DVD lets you watch and control whatever DVD you pop into your Mac’s DVD drive.

Because Front Row is so simple and relies on existing applications to do the heavy lifting, it’s not hard to imagine how quickly its capacities can grow. If Apple decided to offer a TV Tuner application and/or a personal video recorder (PVR) TiVo-like application, for example, it could easily be integrated into Front Row’s controls. All of those extra buttons that are on Microsoft Media Center remote controls would be software based and controlled on-screen with Apple’s simple 6-button Apple Remote.

Front Row holds a world of promise. It works very well already. I predict Front Row will soon boast even more features and spread to all Mac products. We already know it works on other Mac models. A key to Front Row’s growth will be a wireless Airport Express that’s capable of transmitting video and audio from the media on your Mac to screens throughout your house. Apple’s probably planning to offer such a device that also allows display of the Front Row interface on whichever screen you’re watching and maybe also a small receiver for the remote that you can place near each screen; better yet, they’d be combined into one unit. That way, you’d just have an Apple Remote in each room with a screen, press the Menu button, bring up your Mac’s Front Row interface on the screen and choose your media.

The next generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11n, will help usher in the pieces Apple need to make your Mac a true digital hub. Apple has much more work to do to make this all possible. Many, many questions remain, such as: will this setup be able to play multiple video streams simultaneously to different rooms? If your Mac can record media, can it do it while playing multiple streams to multiple screens? Will Apple allow you to record TV or do they want you to buy it from iTunes? Would Apple consider a flat monthly subscription rate for TV shows, like cable / satellite TV, so you can watch whatever programs whenever you want without having to buy them? If so, wouldn’t they be recordable and therefore subject to piracy? What role could iPod play in all this? I’m sure you can think of many more!

What I’m thinking of right now is a Mac with a large hard drive (and external drives) in one room that contains all of your media. Airport Video Express units would be near every screen upon which you control and play your Mac’s media. Front Row would display on each screen and an Apple Remote would be in each room with a screen. This seems to be the most efficient way to arrive at a true Mac digital hub. It beats an idea such as a more expensive Mac Front Row Tablet that you’d carry around to each room and use as the combo Apple Remote+Front Row display. It certainly beats buying an iMac G5 for each room with a screen in your house. What if Apple could do something like a Newton form factor that would be cheap enough to buy for each room? What if Apple simply made an iPod accessory that allowed you to use the iPod as the Front Row remote? See, there are some more questions already!

Front Row is an important piece in Apple’s future digital hub plans, but it raises many questions. What do you think Apple will or should do to complete the true digital hub?

SteveJack is a long-time Macintosh user, web designer, multimedia producer and a regular contributor to the MacDailyNews and iPodDailyNews Opinion sections.

Advertisement: The New iMac G5 – Built-in iSight camera and remote control with Front Row media experience. From $1299. Free shipping.

Related articles:
Apple’s Front Row hits torrent sites, video showing application running on Mac mini – October 25, 2005
Analyst: ‘media companies will call Apple to strike deals, Front Row is Media Center done right’ – October 12, 2005
NY Times’ Pogue: Apple’s iMac G5 with sleek, virus-free, spyware-free OS earns place in living room – October 20, 2005
Apple’s new iMac G5, iTunes 6, iPod video designed to bait Hollywood – October 13, 2005
Apple’s Front Row with Apple Remote and iMac G5: media center done right – October 12, 2005
Apple introduces new thinner iMac G5 with built-in iSight video camera, ‘Front Row’ media experience – October 12, 2005
Apple’s Front Row with Apple Remote and iMac G5: media center done right – October 12, 2005
Apple pushes for next-gen 600Mbps Wi-Fi standard as member of Enhanced Wireless Consortium – October 10, 2005

32 Comments

  1. I’m very impressed by the new front row features but I just bought a new imac about 6 months ago, so I’m not about to splash out on a new imac so soon. It would be great if Apple could somehow make this available to existing macs. OK, so we won’t have the remote control, but surely the software side of it could be incorporated into the next system update.
    I sure it would even be possible to make a remote receiver that plugs into a USB port similar to the way the PS2 works – I think it would sell.

  2. I think Front Row and Photobooth will be part of iLife `06. I have them on my TIBook 867mhz, and they work good. There are many other people use them on their Macs and it is proof that iLife `06 will be a great add on to our already great Apple arsenal.

  3. I feel that Apple should have the scroll wheel on the remote control rather than the buttons. As an engineer, I understand that is difficult to mimic the behavior of scroll wheel when used as a remote, but that definitely would be a plus.

    You can simply eliminiate the need to punch in the channel number, but can simply scroll to the channel that you want. Leave it there for a second, and it switches to the channel. That would remove the cluttering on the remote greatly.

    The could simply remove the display from the current line of iPod nano and use it as a remote control. It has 5 buttons and will work simply great!

  4. What Apple is doing is brilliant. It’s obvious to see what it has down the road. A true Mac-based media server in the home would just about kill any existing and future Windows Media Center. Front Row coupled with the 802.11n and the latest and greatest Mac hardware is a true killer app poised to revolutionize home entertainment.

  5. There’s been a lot of discussion about making Front Row available for purchase for use on other Macs. I’m guessing Apple’s not in a hurry to do this because at the moment, it’s an important point of difference between the new and older versions of the iMac. Why buy a new iMac if you can buy Front Row (and Photo Booth)?

  6. Apple needs to make iPhoto and iTunes more network centric, then I could see a Mac mini in every room of the house running Front Row. Apple NEEDS to make it easy to store photos and music in a central location, not on each computer. Sharing your tunes and photos is not the same as storing them in one location.

    What Apple needs now is an Xserve RAID like device for the home.

  7. “There’s been a lot of discussion about making Front Row available for purchase for use on other Macs. I’m guessing Apple’s not in a hurry to do this because at the moment, it’s an important point of difference between the new and older versions of the iMac. Why buy a new iMac if you can buy Front Row (and Photo Booth)?”

    Good point Gog – but perhaps as a Cem suggests, it’ll be part of iLife 06.
    I’d buy it!

  8. Despite all the hype, I really don’t see this going anyway fast.

    Unless you have a 30″ screen, a black box that pretends it’s a HDCP TV and outputs to a EyeTV 500 from a cable box; a easy high res output (not this 600 x400 garbage) for a projector, this is all a complete utter WASTE OF TIME.

    Sure the new MacTels will have the HDCP encrypted chip, and possibly a cable in connection, with a special DRM going to Apple’s monitors, (in essence a Mac will be a HDCP compliant HDTV) but right now nothing, and the little 17-20 inch screen is not worth watching across the room.

  9. In true Apple fasion, this brilliant product is just one small (albeit important) step toward another, larger goal. Just like the progression of the iLife product introductions over time, and their subsequent incremental improvements, this application startles new users with its brilliant simplicity and ease of use. Once users become accustomed to said simplicity and sleekness, they are left wondering what more could be done so wonderfully. Just when we run out of ideas of how things could be better, Steve-O pops in with one more thing…

    And the M$ world is left in the “Back Row,” drooling and saying, “We could do that.” In fact, they could, but they over-analyze and overload their products with too many “features,” trying to be all things to all people. They fail to appreciate simplicity and elegance. That is why Apple will continue to grow to multi-media and digital-hub stardom, and the goons in Redmond will work toward eventual obsolescence. They just don’t get it.

  10. Front Row is obviously a technology that will achieve its full potential once the following happen:

    There is a connection to the TV (i.e. Airport Express with video or a set top box)
    More content to buy or perhaps rent
    Faster broadband speeds (like WiMax)

    2006 should be very interesting

  11. Some of you guys kill me with your….

    “If it doesn’t have (insert super geeky thing that almost no uses) then it’s useless!”

    Apple will probably slap this app onto a MacMini with an instant-on Intel chip, make the RAM non-upgradeable, replace the recordable drives with a DVD play-only drive, add some composite outs to the DVI port and market this as the ultimate media device come January.

    I agree that streaming will come at the same time. And, I’m betting they’ll stick an iPod dock in it as well.

    The won’t market it as a “real” Mac (and maybe they will cripple it in some way so that it really isn’t), but instead as an Apple media solution.

    The price will come in at the same or lower than the current Mac Mini and they throw in IR and an Apple Remote.

    They *will not* include a PVR because that is how they will make the deals with content providers: “We’re not going to fuck you like MS did with media centers. Sign up with us and you can have folks buy your content through iHome.” Or whatever they call it.

    And it will sell…like…crack.

  12. As both Gog suggests and Kinghorn affirms I too think Front Row & Photo Booth will be part of iLife 06.

    With that I also think that version 2 or 3 of Front Row and Photo Booth will be a part of Leopard (OS 10.5) as standard.

    This would mean that iLife 06 is to introduce users and switchers to the concept of what these apps provide for a Mac based media hub. Or in other words set the market for this type of service as (I think) Phil Schiller said that Apple has to create this market for watching videos* via a computer and the video iPod is just the beginning – obviously!

    As for allowing functions like a PVR or TiVO, that is all well and good in the USA, however over here in the UK all the more popular channels are on satellite as part of Sky TV which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. He also ownes Fox TV over there.

    Sky TV is proprietry and encrypted even goes as far as making life very difficult for Elgato’s products. I was at an Expo for Mac users recently and I spoke with the rep from Elgato, only the 200 model comes close to what a Mac based PVR should be, but the picture quality is poor being the signal is composite instead of component. The choice of channels is limited to the few that are ‘free to air’**. The 200 does have S-VHS – but this too is poor quality, even the Elgato rep admitted that much.

    I am still not yet convinced that like with Elgato, Apple will figure out how to defeat that brick wall for allowing Mac users the ability to view the output from the Sky set top box on another separate device – a Mac in another room in the home/office.

    Maybe this is the same for services like DirecTV over there, any responses to that fact please?

    Honestly I would love to be able to watch a major sporting event or movie on my Mac even to record on my Mac and watch later or burn to a DVD – which raises all sorts of questions Steve Jack raises in the above article.

    At least then I can ditch a separate TV and DVD player for a computer to do all of that – what bliss! Still output to a home cinema surround sound system since this is another issue.

    *By videos I include DVD’s, TV Shows and bought for downloads of movies & shows. ** The free to air services here are the BBC channels, none of the Discovery or MTV (not missing much there), National Geographic and all the movie channels to include pay per view, kids stuff and all sports channels.

    MDN Word: ‘law’ as in this case the law concerning what is piracy and how it can be distinguished from legally bought sources will have to be addressed and changes maybe needed before we all can enjoy any kind of media on one device of our choice, be it Apple or any other.

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