The case for Front Row: Should Apple make another media center app for the Mac?

It's been three years since Apple killed Front Row. Maybe it's time to bring it back.

When Apple introduced OS X Lion in 2011, they got rid of a software app that had been included with the Mac ever since the fall of 2005, when OS X Tiger was still cutting-edge: Front Row, Apple media center software that made it simple to control your Mac in the living room. I'd like to see it come back. Here's why.

What is Front Row?

Thirteen years ago, at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Steve Jobs articulated a new vision for the Macintosh: as the "digital hub for the digital lifestyle." He saw the Mac as the central device for controlling disparate products like digital music players, camcorders, digital still cameras, PDAs and other devices. This was seven months before Apple would even introduce the iPod, which would, of course, rewrite Apple's fortunes entirely.

That digital hub concept was still going strong several years later when Apple introduced Front Row, a free software application that enabled the Macintosh to operate as a media center. A clean, easy to use interface made it possible to navigate your Mac's library of movies, music and other digital content, all with the press of a couple of buttons on your Mac's keyboard.

Apple revised the software over time with a cleaner interface and improved functionality, but eventually Front Row took a back seat to Apple TV as the preferred way to share iTunes media content, and in 2011 Apple discontinued Front Row with the release of OS X Lion.

Front Row's discontinuation was a bit ironic, since just a year earlier Apple had begun selling its Mac mini with HDMI as standard issue, making the unit a perfect small-sized media center server for the living room.

Why bring Front Row back?

More Macs than ever before include HDMI cables to connect to flat-panel HDTVs. Not just Mac minis, but Retina MacBook Pros and even the mighty Mac Pro can manage HDTV connections natively; iMacs and other MacBooks can hook up trivially using a Thunderbolt to HDMI adapter.

With the ready availability of Macs that can connect, and cheaper-than-ever HDTVs, it's a bit nuts for Apple to leave the Mac out of the Home Theater PC (HTPC) equation.

But setting up a Mac as a media center is more than just plugging it in to a TV. You also have to have a seamless and easy way of accessing the content on the Mac, and that's the domain of media center software.

Since Front Row is no longer available, Mac owners interested in using their computer as a media center have a few third-party options. There's the open-source app XBMC, for example, or Plex, a commercial app that was once based on the XBMC core, and MediaCentral from Equinux.

All of these have their place, but installation and setup isn't trivial. Unlike Front Row, which just worked. As Steve Jobs once said, "Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple."

Apple TV isn't all that

Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast all have their place at the home theater table, but none of them have quite the same flexibility as a Mac equipped with media center abilities. They're only as good as the apps they work with, or the apps that are built in.

Apple TV is a good case in point. While you can stream Amazon Prime video content from an iOS device to an Apple TV using AirPlay, there's no native Amazon Prime app for the Apple TV. That limitation is gone with a Mac acting as a media center.

Meanwhile a Mac equipped as a media center allows you to access any streaming content from the Internet that will run on your Mac, rather than only the streaming content that is available through one of the apps that runs on the Apple TV.

What's more, you're not streaming content over your Wi-Fi network or, if you're using iTunes in the Cloud, over the Internet. The latter case can make a big difference if you're on a metered Internet service, as many of us are.

And if the mood strikes you to play games, you can't do that on a streaming media box, while it's trivial with a Mac (add Steam's "Big Picture" feature and you're cruising).

What do you think?

It just seems nuts to me that you'd have what is arguably an almost perfect media center or home theater PC - the Mac mini - and you'd offer no software to enable that functionality.

Then again, maybe I'm totally off base. Has Apple answered all your needs with the Apple TV? Do you have an HTPC running Windows in your living room instead? Let me know what you think.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 31 comments. Add yours.

rodger-bb says:

I am with you. I use a i7 Mac Mini in my home Theater and would love to have some software from Apple to allow me to control it with the Apple remote.

JohnDavid_1 says:

Agreed Peter. I'd like to bypass the iTunes only restrictions for a more convenient and encompassing method of getting to all my different content that is available on my Mac. Hopefully, Apple will introduce something like Front Row in the near future.

crazygonzo says:

I still don't understand why it was removed and why they couldn't bother to release a new version.

kevinbhayes says:

Agreed. I'd like front row to control everything. It'd be the only thing connected to my TV. It could control:
- Cable TV through HDMI passthrough and IR blaster (we don't have CableCard here). Apple provided program guide and DVR
- DVD/Blu-ray (I know, bag of hurt, but so what, Apple has a bajillion dollars, it can get a Blu-ray license)
- anything in iTunes/iCloud/Photostream, iTMS, etc.
- AirPlay

Basically I never want to use the TV's interface, I want an Apple product to be the UI and controller for everything I do on my TV.

I doubt I'll ever see it but that would be the perfect media centre for me.

theamateur88 says:

Is there any word on when XBMC will be formatted to Mavericks?

Solamar says:

I'm using XBMC now for my Mac Mini and it's using Mavericks.. I have Plex as well.. still up in the air between the 2.. I like Plex much better for streaming when I'm away from home, and it's transcoding is much better.. but, XBMC is more flexible with add-ons.. if I could merge the 2, I'd be in 7th heaven.. lol

stephen007 says:

I only *just* upgraded to a new machine with Mavericks. The reason I was holding off was Rosetta support along with support for Front Row.

Doc Pixel says:

Hate to tell ya... but Rosetta is never coming back, mainly because Apple doesn't own the technology and the company that does (IBM via Transitive) doesn't want to license it any longer. Or so that's what a little birdy told me back when it was dropped.

I have clients still suffering because they need to keep some systems running on SL (Server VM for the most part) for the Adobe-killed software FreeHand and editable access to files that don't translate well into Illustrator. Adobe also made it so that you can no longer open FH files at all with recent versions.

On topic: I've been calling for an elegant and easy HTPC and family-friendly iTunes server solution for years now. It's even more urgent these days, since so many people/families have multiple Apple devices of one kind or another. Ideal would be an Apple TV sized device... with at least ONE USB3 port... 2 being better.... plus an iOS Admin-App. Plan B could be reconfiguring the Time Capsule as an All-In-One solution. Just my 2 cents.

Rene Ritchie says:

I originally wanted Apple to merge Dashboard and Frontrow and have an iOS-style overlay that would just come down for more mainstream uses. (Throw Launchpad in there now.)

Now I think whatever UI comes with Apple TV should also come with the Mac as that layer. A display is a display. Give me a great content experience no matter whether it's a TV, computer, or mobile.

Becjr says:

I really like the idea of Launch Pad added into a media app. Heck, I'd like to see Apple TV handle it's channel browser via a Launch Pad interface.

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David Hroncheck says:

Perfect! A desktop hot corner that replaces Dashboard with an updated FrontRow or AppleTV UX.

iCarious says:

Agreed. Mac should have ability to act as an Apple TV (on steroids) with more customizable channels, and the ability to receive via airplay. AppleTv can remain single purpose cheaper alternative, and Apple can afford to let Mac be the all purpose machine it could be.

Becjr says:

I like the idea of this and you've made some compelling arguments to support Apple bringing Front Row back, all new and improved. Having said that, Apple needs to also over haul the Apple TV experience and make the use of "Front Row" & Apple TV the same, or at least as different as using an iPhone is to using an iPad.

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Vintuitive says:

No one is forcing you to upgrade to Lion. I still use Snow Leopard for this and many other reasons. My Mac is in the lounge room and is the heart of my media centre. Lion seems to strip out many more good features than it added. So I simply stayed on Snow Leopard. Problem solved. :-)

David Hroncheck says:

The only things I miss while using iTunes on a MacMini as a media server are bi-directional AirPlay and AppleTV apps. I use a 3rd-party solution (AirServer) for the former but the latter is a problem, even for services like Netflix which I'd rather not use through a browser and Silverlight plug-in. I wouldn't want FrontRow unless it includes everything iTunes does as a media server, namely multiple AirPlay broadcasting.

Those two issues aside, I'm very happy with my Mini not merely as a media server, but to use any room with an AppleTV as an alternative screen for everything else I can do on a Mac.

Ram Kanda says:

Front Row's name hints at its demise. You are sitting too close to a computer for it to get the 10 foot treatment. The front row at the movies is generally the worst seat in the place.

If you're sitting at the keyboard then just clicking files to have VLC, iTunes, or the internet play them is quicker and easier. At a distance, a mac is overkill. The solution here is to improve the AppleTV.

In using the 10ft interface for the Mac, Apple was making the same mistake that Surface made in putting a tablet interface on a desktop. It's a sub optimal experience and should not be regarded by anyone as Apple's answer to either distance's problems.

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Viseir says:

I miss having that good old red chair icon to kill a few minutes or see what new movies are coming out. I don't mind not having it on Mac as much now that I've got my Apple TV and that has the trailers app.

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masaoota says:

Really liked Front Row. Room set up was such that I could sit on couch and interact with iMac from a distance. Like having a TV in my study. Can understand why the killed it.

Iocane Powder says:

Why not have the Apple TV UI available as a Mac app, but also have Apple TV access the rest of my Mac's media content capabilities? Just combine the two through a unified media UI via the Apple TV model.

Perhaps the omission of an Amazon app for Apple TV is by design, and having Front Row functionality obviates that bit of control that Apple can exert over the competition. Ultimately Apple controls ATV content by excluding a browser. If you can get to your browser then in some ways you defeat ATV.

I would actually be more excited by ATV if it did have a browser. I could see Amazon movies and free Hulu content, but also have the stock ATV offerings. But then that creates an issue for companies like Netflix where they end up with two UIs (browser & app) on the same device and are suddenly competing with Amazon and others that are currently not on the bill. What is the point of the app if the browser is there? What is the point of a deal with ATV if ATV is just a browser? I guess this is all part of Apple trying to be the internet version of Comcast and Directv.

Why can't I just have everything I want in one place with no hassle?

heddhunter says:

Computers are expensive. Do you really want to have a Mac Mini (base price $600) hooked up to your TV just to watch videos when a $99 AppleTV will do the same job with less hassle? I have an Apple TV, and a Raspberry Pi running OpenELEC. Total cost <$200. Power draw: minimal (the Pi is powered off an old iPhone USB charger). I could probably get by with just one of them but I like to tinker.

DavGreg says:

Reply- Yes.
Local storage beats streaming any day of the week. CONcast has now slapped a 300GB cap on data per month. Stream a bunch of HD to your Apple TV and you can easily hit the cap and give the Cable Cartel even more of your hard earned dollars.

2 hours of Apple 720HD video runs about 4GB- 1080 runs much higher. Stream a movie a day and you will blow through over 1/3rd of your monthly data cap.

Yes, I'll take local storage any day of the week.

David Hroncheck says:

You'll always be able to hack something up that costs less, but $600 is well worth not having to hack. With my Mini serving up media for my entire home (AppleTVs and AirPlay speakers), I also get full desktop benefits including notifications on my main screen, without limitations. No matter what a new gen AppleTV brings, I'm keeping my Mini. I'm wishing for a FrontRow-type app that'll keep me from using Safari to access Netflix, Vimeo, Hulu, etc. which complicate consumption and force me to use Flash, Silverlight and other crud.

Nemesisprimed says:

While I enjoyed Front Row at the time, I'd rather those resources be placed into development of the Apple TV ui.

asuperstarr says:

Not necessary for me! Keep it the way it is. Thanks!

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Brad Thornborrow says:

I have a Mac Mini as a Media server. Been looking for a Front Row replacement for years that would integrate with the Apple world better than Plex. As for the cost of having a Mac just to hook up to your TV, I pose the same question. I have a Mac as a media server on the basement TV, and an Apple TV in the Living Room. Why should I also buy an Apple TV for the basement, just because Apple has no similar functionality on the Mac. I love the idea suggested by someone else in having a simple APP that replicated the Front Row functionality. I would buy that in a second...

Fisherro says:

I liked Front Row the few times I got to use it. Just about the time I needed to use it regularly, it disappeared.

DavGreg says:

I have a Mac Pro w 24" LED Cinema and Focal Speaker set on my desk in my bedroom that I used to be able to use with Front Row AND Eye TV for a really complete media center.

Eye TV (elGato) is a DVR for the Mac that allowed me to watch/record/timeshift cable until CONcast decided to encrypt every channel but the over the air stuff. Front Row allowed me access to all my podcasts, iTunes purchases and my personal DVD collection I have ripped to my hard drive. Thanks to the paranoia/greed in Hollywood, I now have to use a TiVo like mere mortals. Thanks to Apple I had to give up Front Row in order to stay current on the OS. Thanks to elGato not supporting Cable Cards in the US I have to direct the output of my TiVo into my EyeTV HD- nowhere near as effective or elegant a solution.

ebernet says:

Apple will never do this. The Apple TV fills that role now. You can always send the output of your Mac over AirPlay to the AppleTV if you want to use all the other streaming apps, but it is simply not within their interest. Additionally, given the price of even the cheapest Mac vs. one of those units, dedicating a Mac with comparatively ridiculous more amounts of power to be a TV hub seems wasteful.

As CPU power has increased, and great tools for transcoding at fast speeds, tagging, and transferring to iTunes proliferate, getting media that was created in a different format to the AppleTV is trivial, and encoding your DVDs to iTunes is pretty seamless as well. There are even iOS apps with Mac hosting software that can stream 5.1 content in MKV format to the AppleTV, while changing the container format on the fly.

All that media on your Mac is streamable directly from your AppleTV at 5.1 and HD. Nothing you mentioned (streaming from Amazon Prime, other sites not supported on AppleTV, etc) would be solved by FrontRow — You'd still need to connect your Mac to the TV. And for all but games you could just do it over AirPlay (latency is an issue when playing games).

Bottom line is I don't see what FrontRow would offer that is not already on your AppleTV, and for everything else you either have a direct connection or stream it over AirPlay. All you gain with FrontRow is a free HDMI port on your TV.

LozBlanko says:

I use XBMC on the Mac Mini and I can honestly say it is a pig to set up. Sooooo many options. It's really only for true cinema system geeks but once working, it is awesome. The trouble for me with Apple making a system is that I'd still need XBMC as well because of their DRM / Apple only video content. This is the next thing that needs to change. DRM just doesn't work and users don't want it.

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nessViewer says:

You are not off base - Front Row was the easiest solution to remote control media. We were very unhappy that Apple decided to discontinue this great application and to prefer iCloud and AppleTV.

We distribute nessMediaCenter as a suitable replacement for Front Row:
• easy to use with a clean look and feel
• direct access to movie / picture folder and volumes
• support of iPhoto albums and iTunes media including DRM (AppStore movies and TV shows)
• comfortable selection of DVDs, EyeTV movies, PDF documents, pictures and videos in all common formats
• controllable by Apple remote control, "NV Remote" app for iPhone and iPod touch, touchpad, (Magic) mouse or keyboard

nessMediaCenter is a commercial application and costs 9.50 Euro. More informations can be found at http://www.nessmediacenter.com.