Front Row Alternatives
Although Front Row is the Apple home media center solution, it is not the only option for Mac users. The commercial MediaCentral offers a package that provides a much broader feature set with a similar interface. MediaCentral also has the advantage of being able to install on a wide variety of Mac models without needing to modify any system files. In addition to MediaCentral, there are two open source projects to provide free alternative media center solutions for the Mac. Although both of them are still in development and only available as alpha releases, they do show some promise.
Equinux’s MediaCentral is a commercial application that retails for $29.95. It includes many of the features of Front Row (the ability to browse your iTunes and iPhoto libraries, play DVDs, and play video files stored on your computer) in a full-screen interface that can be navigated from the keyboard, Apple’s remote, or a series of third-party remotes. MediaCentral goes further by offering you full-screen access to Internet-based TV feeds and online video sources such as Google Video and YouTube, can function as a digital TV if an appropriate antenna is connected to your Mac, includes a handful of ’80s-inspired video games, and provides access to Internet-based picture feeds from Flickr and similar sources. The latest release also includes integration with Skype for making computer-based phone calls and Internet chat.
My experience using MediaCentral has been somewhat hit or miss. The interface is very similar to Front Row and navigation as a whole is easy to use. However, the software still doesn’t seem as fully mature as Front Row. Both startup time and the time it takes for certain features to activate are slow. Also attempting to use some features (in particular, viewing large photo albums often causes the application to crash).
That said, there are a number of nice features included that will make it a great competitor for any Front Row user a couple of versions down the road. Things such as the ability to simply copy the Video TS folder from a DVD to a hard drive and have access to the complete contents of the DVD, significantly improved customization options, and the ability to view Internet video content without leaving the media center interface make MediaCentral particularly attractive.
MediaCentral does provide a demo download that you can use to determine whether it meets your needs. The demo is full-featured, but will run for only five minutes at a time.
CenterStage is one of two open source projects to develop a free Mac media center application. Despite being listed as an alpha release, the interface is very polished, and many of its functions work surprisingly well. Its feature set includes the access to your iTunes and iPhoto libraries, the ability to play video files stored on your computer, and access to Internet radio stations. It can be managed using an Apple remote, keyboard, or mouse; and like MediaCentral it can be customized. It also includes a separate application that enables you to organize your digital content independent of Apple’s iLife suite.
Although CenterStage shows a lot of promise, it is still a work in progress. I wasn’t able to get the photo viewing and Internet radio options to work at all, and selecting and playing video is best done using a mouse rather than a remote or keyboard. However, as a whole it does show a lot of promise. Being an open source project, anyone is welcome to download a free copy of CenterStage and although it might not be an ideal solution, if you are slightly adventurous, it is worth trying.
Like CenterStage, iTheater is an open source project. It is even less further along in development than CenterStage, but it also shows some promise. Its interface is the least Front Row–like of all three media center applications, but it also has the lowest system requirements and can pretty much run on any Mac that can run Mac OS X. It provides access to iTunes and iPhoto libraries, video stored on your computer, and DVDs. It also includes a weather snapshot feature. The interface is clean and easy to navigate, but cannot be managed by an Apple remote. The current release lacks the capability to choose an iPhoto album (your entire iPhoto library is displayed in random order) and does not organize iTunes content in an effective way. Video playback from item in your Movies folder is impressive however. Although iTheater’s development still has a way to go, its lighter resource footprint and the fact that it can run on a very wide range of Macs might eventually lead it to a fair degree of use and success. Again, like CenterStage, you can download the current release from the project’s website.