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What Apple Could Learn from Microsoft: Front Row Versus Windows Media Center

While the iMac G5’s multimedia software interface – Front Row – is new to the Mac platform. Windows users have had similar tools – in Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition – for a few years now. Is it possible that as Front Row matures it can learn a thing or two from Windows?

feel the music

For music, Front Row gives you a large text-based interface with few options. You can shuffle the playing order of songs and search by multiple criteria. You can’t create playlists, but you can access playlists you’ve already created in iTunes. And you can’t browse Internet radio stations, but you can access stations you’ve bookmarked in iTunes.

Media Center gives you those same navigation and playback tools, then goes even further. It displays album art and also provides a search engine that will display results when you enter characters on the remote. Some Media Center PCs have live radio tuners, but the software will also let you access Internet radio stations.

You cannot browse or purchase new songs through Front Row; for this you need to use iTunes. Media Center displays a prominent “Buy Music” button once you start playing, but clicking it brings up an albums page and a “Not designed for Media Center” message. In other words, it works no better than Front Row.

DVDs on the menu

Since the iMac G5’s remote only has six buttons, the fast-forward and rewind buttons have to double as chapter-advance buttons. And you can only adjust the volume after you start playing. DVD playback is fairly simple, but you’ll find that the wrong buttons are often pressed.

The remote that comes with Media Center PCs has dedicated buttons for almost every DVD function, so it’s easy to look at the remote and choose exactly what you want to do. The interface is quite fast, so you will always have confirmation that button presses have been registered.

Direct to video

Front Row gives you easy access to movie files and video podcasts stored on your iMac, as well as movie trailers stored on Apple’s servers. You can also play TV shows, but you have to use iTunes to find and buy them. Everything plays in a full-screen window, which makes 320-240 pixel TV shows quite blurry.

Media Center lets you play videos of all kinds on your PC and burn them to CD or DVD with just a few clicks. But it also gives you access to tons of online content, including movies from CinemaNow (www.cinemanow.com), pre-recorded TV shows from Akimbo.com, and news shows from Reuters and others. services. A huge irritation with Media Center is that clicking certain buttons calls up ads for paid content.

But when it comes to TV, Media Center’s biggest advantage over Apple’s offerings is that you can connect a Media Center PC to a TV, often via high-quality component connections. Media Center plays, pauses and records TV programs; if the PC has a TV tuner card with two tuners, it simultaneously records two programs and plays a third.

You can add an external TV tuner and digital video recorder, such as Elgato Systems’ EyeTV, to the iMac G5, but Front Row will have nothing to do with it.

Currently, you can watch live high-definition (HD) broadcasts only with Media Center, and only if the PC’s TV supports HD. Microsoft recently announced that Media Center PCs with CableCard support will appear by Christmas; these systems should be able to play, pause and record HDTV programs, without the need for a cable box.

A Media Center PC particularly outperforms the iMac in one area: it can’t act as a server, distributing content (including time-shifted TV) to other devices throughout the house. These devices include Media Center Extenders and the new Xbox 360, which has built-in wireless networking.

Play catch-up

When it comes to controlling a multimedia computer, OS X is nowhere near Windows XP Media Center Edition. But Media Center has been around for over three years; comparing the nascent Front Row to this one is about as fair as comparing a bike to a BMW. And Apple’s success with digital audio players – which weren’t new when it started selling them – shows that the company can break into a product category and outshine the competition by offering better features and more. of style.

Clearly, Mac users won’t be buying Media Center-equipped PCs anytime soon (and the same goes for Windows users and iMacs). But if Front Row picks up some of the extra features Media Center has acquired over the years, those users may soon have reason to be very, very happy.

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