Apple's Front Row Comes Closer to Couch-Driven Computing

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Now that the computer industry is nearing the end of its decades-long quest to ensure that nobody's nose is farther than three feet from a monitor, some companies are moving on to a different, more difficult goal: Letting you keep using the computer from across the room.

About three years ago, Microsoft took a stab at that goal with its Media Center Edition of Windows XP. This ambitious, creative release added a simplified, large-type interface that could be driven from the couch using a remote control, but it went nowhere in the market. It's done a little better recently, as manufacturers have begun leaving out Media Center's most glitch-prone feature, the ability to tune into and record TV broadcasts.

Now Apple is making its own attempt. Its Front Row software -- standard on the updated iMac G5 desktop it introduced last month-- offers a different, radically simpler form of couch-driven computing.

Where Media Center comes with a long list of features and options, Front Row does only four things: You can play music, you can look at your photos, cue up a DVD or watch video files stored on your hard drive or online. It doesn't lump in irrelevant commands (for example, Media Center's bizarre inclusion of photo-editing tools), it has no preferences screen for you to mull over, and its remote control consists of just six buttons.

That's what you'd expect of Apple's products. Where most of the computer industry trudges on under a banner of "more" -- more processor speed, more expansion ports, more stickers on the front of the computer -- Apple's mission statement amounts to "less." It is one of the few companies in the business that understands editing -- how the discipline imposed by having to remove yet another button, menu and toolbar can yield simpler, easier and more useful products.

The iPod may be the best example of that. In Front Row, Apple has given us an interface obviously modeled after its category-defining, competition-crushing portable media player. With that lineage, the results ought to be a breakthrough hit. But they're not -- at least, not yet.

Front Row certainly starts off right. Take that tiny remote (it even looks like a flattened iPod shuffle), press its "menu" button, and the image of your desktop pulls away in a slick, animated transition, replaced by four icons floating over a black background: Music, Videos, DVD, Photos.

Selecting each one (your choice is heralded with a sound effect, such as a camera shutter's click) brings up a simple, easily readable list of what's available to listen to or watch on your Mac. Under "Music," you see songs, playlists, Web-radio presets and downloaded podcasts organized in iTunes. "Photos" offers the albums and collections set up in iPhoto. "Videos" reveals any programs downloaded in iTunes, as well as movie trailers hosted on Apple's own site. And "DVD," obviously enough, presents whatever movie is in the iMac's CD/DVD drive, with basic commands ("play movie," "chapter list" and so on) presented in a plain, text-only list that's easier to read from across the room than many DVD menus.

The remote's buttons function like those on an iPod. Its central play/pause button sends you one level deeper in any screen, while the menu button takes you one level back up. The forward and back buttons scroll up and down lists of content -- and as you keep one pressed, you scroll faster and faster, just the way an iPod's click wheel whirs through song lists.

But Front Row leaves out functions that have been standard on iPods for years. It lacks the iPod's on-the-go playlist function to cue up a set of songs. It doesn't highlight podcasts you haven't yet heard. It doesn't preview the photos in an album as thumbnail images you can browse before selecting one or the other; instead, you can see your photos only as a slideshow.

The silliest shortfall is one of presentation, not function: Front Row, unlike the iPod, doesn't scroll titles that are too long to fit on the screen. It displays only their first 20 or so characters, leaving you to guess the rest. What does the photo album "Anthony and Joanne's . . . " document -- their wedding, their housewarming party or their garage sale? Which people star in "Segway Adventures of . . . "? Which band is featured in the compilation "Retrospective: The Best of . . . "?

Front Row's music component is missing two features of iTunes. When you tune in to an Internet radio station (so long as it provides an iTunes-compatible format, usually an MP3 stream), it can't display the title and artist of the current song, even though iTunes will. And it can't accompany playback of any song with the cool visualizations that iTunes generates; instead, the screen stays fixed on the title of the song, along with an image of its album cover if available.

Front Row could still get steady work as a jukebox or a photo-album viewer, but its video capabilities are weak in comparison. There just isn't that much content to watch unless you're prepared to go looking for it in peer-to-peer networks, and you don't need Front Row to play a DVD in full-screen mode. The movie trailers stuttered and spluttered in playback, even though Apple's QuickTime software was supposed to adapt itself to match my Internet connection's bandwidth.

The last issue with Front Row is that it runs on only one computer.

The iMac, available in $1,299 and $1,699 configurations, remains one of the best home computers around. This iteration adds an iSight webcam but removes the internal modem. (Adding one requires paying $49 for an external unit that will tie up one of the iMac's too-few USB ports).

In case the built-in webcam doesn't see much video-conferencing use, Apple also includes a little program called Photo Booth that uses the camera to take snapshots (the iMac's screen cleverly doubles as a flash, momentarily turning all-white to illuminate the subject). You can then apply a gallery of artistic effects in this giggle-fest of a program; for example, one makes your photo look drawn in pencil, while others give it the fun-house mirror treatment.

But for all the iMac's appeal, its screen -- either 17 or 20 inches wide-- is still too small to dominate a living room, the place for which Front Row is best suited.

While Apple works to fix the defects and fill the blanks in this software, it also needs to put Front Row on more of its computers -- and in particular the Mac mini. That machine is cheap and small enough to be a second computer, and it includes a digital video output that connects to many high-definition TVs. When you can show off your vacation photos on a 42-inch plasma screen, a program like Front Row will be a much easier sell.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

© 2005 The Washington Post Company