While the iMac G5's software interface for multimedia – Front Row – is new to the Mac platform. Windows users have had similar tools – in Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition – for a couple of years now. Is it possible that, as Front Row matures, it could learn a thing or two from Windows?
Feel the music
For music, Front Row gives you a large, text only interface with few options. You can shuffle the playback order of songs and search by some criteria. You can not create playlists, but you can access playlists you've already created in iTunes. And you can not browse internet radio stations, but you can access stations you've bookmarked in iTunes.
Media Center gives you those same navigational and playback tools, and then goes a couple of steps further. It shows album art and also provides a search engine that will show results as you enter characters on the remote control. Some Media Center PCs have over-the-air radio tuners, but the software will also let you access internet radio stations.
You can not browse or buy new songs through Front Row; for that, you must use iTunes. Media Center displays a prominent 'Buy Music' button once you start playback, but clicking on it calls up a page of albums and a 'Not designed for Media Center' message. In other words, it does not work any better than Front Row.
DVDs on the menu
Because the iMac G5's remote has only six buttons, the fast-forward and fast-rewind buttons must do double duty as chapter advancing buttons. And you can not adjust the volume until after you begin playback. DVD playback is pretty simple, but you will find out that the wrong buttons are often pressed.
The remote control provided with Media Center PCs has dedicated buttons for almost every DVD function, so it is easy to look at the remote and pick exactly what you want to do. The interface is quite snappy, so you'll always get confirmation that button presses has registered.
Straight to video
Front Row gives you easy access to movie files and video podcasts stored on your iMac, and to movie trailers stored on Apple's servers. You can play back TV shows, too, but you have to use iTunes to find and purchase them. Everything plays in full-screen window, which makes the 320 240 pixel TV shows look pretty fuzzy.
Media Center lets you play back videos of all sorts on your PC, and lets you burn them to CD or DVD with a couple of clicks. But it also gives you access to tons of online content, including movies from CinemaNow (www.cinemanow.com), pre-recorded television shows from Akimbo.com, and news broadcasts from Reuters and other services. One huge irritation with Media Center is that clicking on some buttons calls up ads for paid content.
But when it comes to television, Media Center's biggest advantage over Apple's offerings is that you can connect a Media Center PC to a TV, often through high quality component connections. Media Center plays, pauses, and records television programs; If the PC has a TV-tuner card with two tuners, it simultaneously record two programs and play back 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 not have anything to do with it.
Currently, you can view over-the-air High Definition (HD) broadcasts only with Media Center, and then only if the PC's TV and supports HD. Microsoft recently informed that Media Center PCs with CableCard support will appear by Christmas; those systems should be able to play, pause, and record HDTV programs, without the need for a set-top cable box.
A Media Center PC specifically outdoes the iMac in one area: it can not act as a server, distributing content (including time-shifted television) to other devices throughout the house. Those devices include Media Center Extenders and the new Xbox 360, which has built-in wireless networking.
When it comes to controlling a multimedia computer, OS X is not anywhere near Windows XP Media Center Edition. But Media Center has been around for more than three years; comparing the fledgling Front Row to it is about as fair as comparing a bicycle to a BMW. And Apple's success with digital audio players – which were not new when it was selling them – shows that the company can enter a product category and outdo the competition by offering better features and more style.
Simply, Mac users are not going to be buying Media Center-equipped PCs anytime soon (and the same is true for Windows users and iMacs). But if Front Row picks up some of the extra features that Media Center has acquitted over the years, those users may soon have reason to be very, very happy.