Microsoft Media Center Vs Apple FrontRow

34 Comments

For past few days there is a big debate has exploded over on Apple Matters, about Media Center and Front Row. Thomas Hawk who is an unabashed Windows Media Center Fanboy takes Mac-faithful to task and writes, “Yes, they created a product for the legions of Apple fanboys to blindly buy, but the smart consumer is better capable of doing a comparison than Jobs might give them credit for.?” Today Charlie Owen, one of the members of Windows XP Media Center development team has joined the debate on his blog, and writes..

Steve Jobs comparing the Apple remote control with the Media Center remote control was nothing but sheer marketing brilliance. It’s totally not about which remote control is better. Not at all. By making this comparison, Steve Jobs gave the illusion the two products were on equal footing EXCEPT for the remote.

As the debate continues, I would like to chime in with a few things….

What Steve Jobs has done, and what Microsoft has not done. I have a HP Media Center at home, and I have spent countless weekends trying to make the beast work with the Comcast set-top box. The biggest problem is the smallest feature really – the damn IR Blaster – refuses to play nice. It fails every single time. I have done my darnest, but nothing. That my friends is the critical point – that ease of use is what Microsoft did not think about. I like the Media Center interface – its pretty much the best UI Microsoft has been able to come-up with despite their blue-and-green restrictions. (I thought that it would kill TiVo, but boy was I wrong. TiVo did it themselves!)

I have left the box in the A/V system, hooked it up to a Olevia 32 inch LCD TV via DVI interface and I use it to check out cool stuff available via the Media Center services. I am using all its features except the PVR. There were same IR issues with TiVo as well. This part of the set-up was painless and a no brainer. I think this is where Microsoft lost the plot, and did too much with the platform, which was truly made for early-early adopters. They should have seeded the market with a simpler product. They could have convinced a lot of people to start using their platform, because it was a virgin market they could have simply owned. Microsoft in my opinion, overreached.

front rowApple’s iPod success shows that its not being the first, or being the one with the greatest number of features that translates into market share. Instead it is helping millions of consumers ease into the digital lifestyle that is the key. Front Row is exactly that: It is simple, and eases you into this whole convergence thing. I am pretty sure they will add more features in coming months to this software. It is actually a very clever move on Apple’s part. It is clearly a placeholder, and a move that shows, they are throwing their hat in the ring. They are betting that in next 12-to-24 months the downloadable video market is going to gain strength, and they want people to think about the FrontRow as an option as well. By the time Broadband-over-Video market takes off (my guess is towards end of 2006), Apple will have a more complete offering.

MCESo what should Microsoft do? Two things. First release a Media Center XP Lite. Free. Basically help turn most of the newer PCs into simple devices for aggregating photos, watching DVDs, streaming music and playing back downloadable videos. They have the PC market share to make this happen. I think as Video over Broadband (or TV-over-IP) takes off, Media Center XP should shine, as it has support of many of the newer services like MTV Overdrive and BrightCove. Secondly, they should buy Akimbo. Use Akimbo’s content relationships and thus enhancing the value of their platform. If Microsoft sticks to “less is more” principle, then they could go toe-to-toe with Apple in this market.

PS: If you have a Media Center related plug-in/service, do let me know. I would love to review it!

34 Comments

annonymous_man

Personally I prefer Apple Macs with OS X and the Front Row interface described in the above article over Microsoft’s Windows Media Center also discussed in the article. That or switching to Linux MCE would interest more than going with Microsoft. For 1) I don’t like Microsoft controlling my digital media and don’t like the idea of getting content locked down by Microsoft DRM restrictions — it is a fact if you put Windows Media Center as your TV setup one must be prepared to hand Microsoft the remote literally.

Windows MCE may appear to have more features than Front Row (that’s why their remotes are so crammed with buttons to fit all the features) but that leads to more user confusion possibly — the Apple Remote while restricted to 6 buttons is user friendly enough for me and quite understandable and easy to use. happ

Windows MCE remotes can be complicating with so many buttons — Apple Remote is cleaner, smaller and better navigation wise in my opinion.

Also now if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch and want to have a better remote control experience for Front Row there are plenty of apps out there to make that happen — remote control apps that aren’t just limited to Front Row but add compatibilty for a number of apps including Front Row.

I use Apple’s Remote app which is completely FREE to download and use from the iPhone App Store with my 2nd generation iPod Touch I updated from iPhone OS 2.2.1 to iPhone OS 3.1.2 recently (had to pay the $9.95 fee to update to iPhone OS 3.0 then installed 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 for free.

Now the update fee has of course for iPod Touch users gone down to $4.95 but that was after I paid for the upgrade.

As for iPhone users iPhone OS major firmware updates have always been free. I also have Rowmote Pro which works with iTunes, Mozilla Songbird, Boxee, XBMC, QuickTime, VLC, and a number of other apps

Rowmote Pro is $4.99 and is a great app that adds the interface style e of the Apple Remote to an iPhone/iPod Touch and works over Wifi. Apple Remote in contrast was only designed to be able to work with Front Row.

Ralph

4 years later Media Center in Windows 7 rocks with it’s Clear qam support and full PVR functions with 2 week program guide. Front Row is a joke compared to MCE. Apple will never allow TV recording when their minions will blindly pay for it.

Webterractive

I have both Windows Vista Home Premium and OS X 10.4 Tiger, and I find that Front Row seems to look incomplete with only a few options, thats why there is an “Apple TV”. Windows Media Center seems to have more options and choices. But as performance is concerned, Apple’s Front Row is 10X better then Windows Media Center. It is much more responsive and no annoying lagging.

Harry

I’m a Mac fan but I have to say I was pretty dissapointed with the release of Apple TV. I was, however, blown away with the Xbox media center (an unsupported hack of the Xbox). With this one mod box, you can play games (of course), show slideshows, listen to music, internet radio, check personalized RSS feeds (displayed as a ticker that scrolls along the bottom of the screen) and of course, play DVDs, as well as ANY kind of video media — DVix, AVI, QuickTime, Windows Media, you name it.

The thing that all of these media centers don’t do is get rid of all those remotes. Everything is redundant, right? I mean why do you need a surround sound decoder on your VCR or HD DVD player if you already have that capacity from your TV? And why bother feeding a preamped audio signal into your receiver if all you need are powered speakers? Why bother buying a TiVo if your Apple TV has a 180 GIG hard drive?

My ideal set up would be a menu-driven system with one remote — like Apple’s remote only non-IR please — and something like a mac mini that could play, rip and/or record DVDs, HD DVDs and any other kind of video including off-the-air digital HD TV. This device should be able to send surround sound signals to powered speakers (like a Bose system) when needed. And, of course, you should be able to play games with a couple of wireless game controllers. No external receiver, DVD player, VTR, VPR, or TV tuner. Anybody else on board?

manpan

I got Apple’s 2nd generation Mac Mini with Intel Core Duo processor originally preinstalled with Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.7 but updated to 10.4.10 now (I know some users have been having problems with this update but it seems just fine for me), I have bought some TV shows and a few movies on iTunes Store, games for iPod and some music. I actually bought my iPod from Amazon.com and a single music CD from Amazon but most of my music I ended up buying to transfer to iPod later on was from iTunes. I think Amazon’s plans to expand its music business into music downloads to compete with iTunes and offer DRM free music should be interesting.

A friend of mine went the Windows Media Center route and got an HP Pavillion notebook computer with WIndows XP Media Center Edition 2005 preinstalled that is also Windows Vista ready. I don’t blame my friend wanting more features but think I made the better choice as more features will be added to Front Row over time and is more simple to manage and navigate content than Media Center. The Mac Mini is a cheap yet reliable, and efficient desktop computer at the low-end of the market for people that want a Mac desktop but don’t want the high-end iMacs or Mac Pro computers and don’t want a notebook from Apple either. Mac Mini is best for people like me who already have our own peripherals to plug into the computer.

Mac Mini is also good for multimedia as I said — its even better than Apple TV which is a stripped down Mac Mini designed for HDTVs as it supports more video codecs and functions as a device that can play media and/or enable computing.

Apple TV works better as a media extender than a computer — the computer features are unavailable unless you tried hacking the system.

I use my Mac Mini with my video iPod and plan to upgrade to OS X Leopard 10.5 Family Pack. I only use a Windows PC to play hard core games (I need ability to customize hardware myself to improve game performance, graphics etc something unavailable on Macs), record TV with my TV Tuner capture card (find capture cards are better than USB TV Tuners have tried both with Windows and PC TV Tuner capture cards have better quality than USB TV Tuners (tried an AverMedia USB based TV Tuner but replaced it with a better ATI TV Wonder VE that works with VirtualDub on WIndows and use Huffyuv video codec for encoding video during capture process), I expect a Mac based TV Tuner (since they’re all USB) will function like my old AverMedia based tuner and give lower quality capture.

I reccommend the following read: http://www.roughlydrafted.com/RD/RDM.Tech.Q1.07/841EDBB5-1245-42AD-A733-B9B29957347B.html “Windows XP Media Center Edition vs. Apple TV” this compares Microsoft products to Apple media solutions and discusses WebTV becoming MSN TV how it was a great product but Microsoft ruined it, the emergence of XBox game systems from Microsoft and the arrival of WIndows Media Center compare that to cable TV company DVRs and those of TiVO plus Apple TV review. It says Microsoft doesn’t like competition because its a poor competitor. Even when they make a successful product if consumers buy a Microsoft product like Media Center they expand into nw markets and crush competitors. MS has an unfair advantage they monopolize the market completely not allowing competition.

That is why I try to stay away from Microsoft products. Have never used MSN TV even when it was Web TV but would have considered using it in future if still Web TV, never used XBox and never used Media Center. If Microsoft makes a good product I still look for better products because this is Microsoft the evil empire from Redmond Washington. To make matters worse when people buy Microsoft products and then complain about limitations its their fault for buying them in the first place and if you go to buy an alternative product but Microsoft already killed the alternatives your forced to go with Microsoft.

Microsoft it can be argued also is not that good at making hardware products anyways. Their better in software but even their software is not best in the world take the consumer adoption of iTunes over Windows Media Player or iPods over WIndows Media based devices, success of Mozilla Firefox which helped restart the browser wars after Microsoft killed Netscape by bundling Internet Explorer with WIndows forced Microsoft to finally innovate IE. Their was no new features or nothing special about IE 5 after all compared to IE 6. Microsoft was forced if they wanted to keep market share to release IE 7 as an innovative browser. WHen Microsoft is forced to innovate they do but otherwise they don’t. IE 6 had nothing innovayive about it compared to IE 5.

Same could be said about Windows 98 compared to WIndows 95 was just WIndows 95 with Internet Explorer bundled. No new major features in the OS itself besides the bundling of IE application.

So I try to stay away from buying Microsoft products even when they are good to help underdogs out and Apple in some cases is still an underdog with its Mac computer business although it is growing its OS market share is less than Windows. Sometimes going for the underdog is not entirely neccessary but supporting companies less monopolistic than Microsoft are.

I support Apple to strike a blow at Microsoft. Sure Microsoft supports Apple’s Mac business — Apple’s success is both good and bad news for Microsoft but in the bad news perspective I support Apple to oppose the will of Microsoft.

Mac Mini is a much better media center computer than any with Microsoft’s OS offerings preinstalled. My next Mac will probably be an iMac and maybe Apple TV and iPhone eventually.

Julie Jacobson

Msoft will get there eventually with MCE, but they made a big mistake of shipping it on top of traditional Windows and giving all access to Windows features, which causes confusion, and invites users to completely screw up the system.

I wrote in an August blog that the trick is to enter the living room with a a single-purpose machine that works really well, then pile on the additional apps slowly, methodically.

Tivo and Apple provide good lessons for this approach, although it took Tivo way too long to implement.

See:

TiVo Lesson for Living Room: One Function at a Time
“Now that TiVo has released a developers’ kit, new apps are pouring in. It could be a lesson for makers of all-purpose machines. Maybe start with a great single-purpose device, then grow from there?”
http://blog.ce-pro.com/news/2800.html

Michael

There’s an alternative to both Apple and Microsoft when mediacentres are concerned. Take a closer look at Welton Way.

shane blyth

Front row is not a media centre like media centre.. why do people always try to compare stuff like this when it is just a front end for the existing apps to make it easier..
Media centre is to replace your TV
Front row and imac is a computer not a TV replacement
It is different and fits in a different market.
All the media centre guys jump up and down but the guy on the street may buy an apple and front row not to replace their tv set but for ease of access to there songs and the like
It’s like the bed i saw advertised.. It has an inbuilt sounds sytem with an ipod dock and remote. now is this a “media centre too ” Lets now buash the bed idea becuase it doesn’t have Tivo or a screen or something.
Front row is different to Windows media centre. It suits some people like me a lot better It means i can show off my photos and change itunes with a nice simple remote and it doesnt have to live where my TV does. If i wanted a media centre TV i would buy it but it doesnt suit my needs..

Bob Mason

Recently on the Brightcove blog (http://blog.brightcove.com/) I posted my thgoughts on the possible relationship between the iPod & FrontRow vs Media Center.

If a varient of FrontRow could be run from the iPod that could provide a very simple and compelling solution for most consumers. Get rid of the difficulties of the home network, by using the more reliable human-powered network.

Download to PC, sync to iPod, watch on TV.

http://blog.brightcove.com/blog/2005/10/ipod_frontrow_v.html

Anders

About the only place Microsoft under-reached was HDTV support. I thought MCE was an awesome product released far too early. Lack of HDTV made it uninteresting against the likes of TiVo but then MS had downloadable movies (none of which were interesting though) so I turned my MCE box into a Linux box running MythTV which supports HDTV and haven’t looked back. However I do use my TiVo for non-HDTV content.

No question Front Row is the better way to hit the mass market though. AAPL is still a buy IMHO.

Narendra

Om,

Spot on. I also went out and got one of those HP Media Center boxes and could never get the DVR to work. Worse yet, the MCE OS is still too buggy and frequently locks up. Even using it as only a DVD player was unreliable.

I have left the unit as part of my AV setup, but no longer load the MCE app. I use a utility called radmin to control the unit remotely to run itunes and when my comcast dvr misses a recording I use the HP to play a bittorrented file on the tv and that works like a charm.

As for all that disk space, it holds tons of music files and also use it as a NAS device for backups from other computers on the LAN.

Elvis Ripley

I wonder if he really thinks that the remote is the only difference and doesn’t understand that a simpler remote comes from a simpler user experience?

BenN

Can I just say that comparing the remote controls is a ridiculous idea. First of all it leaves FrontRow with a scrolling problem where users with large music collections can not go directly to a track as easily as they could in MCE.
Second, FrontRow doesn’t have any TV functionality. If it did, there’d be at least another 10 buttons for each channel number, before they do what Microsoft did and add shortcut buttons for things like the Guide and Recorded TV.
My point is that the programs aren’t on equal footings to begin with, so the remotes really can’t be compared.

Ian

I am biased (being the host of a Media Center Podcast) but for me and most of the people the listen / guest on the show the two most usefull parts of Windows Media Center are the PVR functions (the part that sells it to my wife) and the developer platform. There are loads of 3rd party apps being developed for Media Center both comerical and free.
From Weather apps,RSS readers, Email (a hotmail apps is coming soo) to voice control apps.
All developed using the Media Center SDK, where is Apples SDK.
I wrote an RSS reader by just downloading the SDK and looking at some of the sample code on blogs etc
Oh and services like Orb, I can watch my record TV, listen to my music etc from any internet connected device

Renrav

Apple almost always takes easy approach and eases you into their stuff. The PC world just doesn’t get this. Kill them with tons of features and what usually happens. You find out is just nothing but hard to understand.

So a lot of people that use PC’s seem to have the perception that not only does the Mac cost a lot, it hardly gives you anything.

Except that people that use Macs realize how powerful Apples things are because they are so simple and easy to use. They do what you need to get done with them.

I expect Apple to completely blow MS away on the digital front because MS as usual, will try to do too much as you have stated that they already have done. But of course, your wise suggestion of giving away a Lite version just ain’t in their DNA. And especially now that they have a product stuffed full of “features”.

Griffon

I believe the remote is blue tooth (read that somewhere not 100% it’s accurate).

Yeah IR blaster sucks, serial cables or fire wire are better but that invites it’s own set of problems. Clearly why their is agree to almost anything attitude to get cable card and direct write support for vista.

That being said, what does that have to do with Apple? Their solution to that problem is not to have it, Apple will work flawlessly with your cable box by not working with it at all… When you have zero TV function it awfully easy to have a stream lined remote, duh. Heck I count a good 12 buttons at least that are not needed. I find Apples posturing on that to be pretty ridiculous, but I guess in a way that sort of pandering to folks who are likely to be confused and make assumptions about what front row actually can do is a type of brillance…
Sort of like a how really good con man can short change you and leave you thinking you got to much from him.

Tom Keating

>> First release a Media Center XP Lite. Free. Basically help turn most of the newer PCs into simple devices for aggregating photos, watching DVDs, streaming music and playing back downloadable videos.

Forget a “lite” version, Windows Vista will have a full version of Media Center Edition with obvious improvements over MCE 2005.

I briefly mentioned this here: http://blog.tmcnet.com/blog/tom-keating/technology-and-science/interesting-windows-vista-features.asp

I too have MCE 2005 at home. Many poeple have similar IR blaster issues and usually the culprit is the cable box not the blaster. Try manually setting the IR blaster to the Slow setting, that usually solves 90% of the issues.

>>I am using all its features except the PVR

Really? The PVR is the best part. I can’t live without my Windows PVR functionality. Good luck solved the IR blaster issue. Maybe time to upgrade to a HDTV set-top box anyway? ;) That might solve your issue if the slow setting doesn’t help.

mark

The remote is infrared, which is a bit disappointing. It’s understandable if the iMac is in a dorm room or a bedroom, but it doesn’t seem to fit SJ’s stated philosophy that people want to watch on a large screen. Now if it was to appear in a Mac mini but we’ll probably have to wait for the Intel Mac mini in May-June. It could also appear in a new Airport Express, which would take commands via IR and convert it to WiFi for sending to the remote Mac. Maybe we’ll get that at MWSF.

Om is right. Apple understands the MAINSTREAM consumer by starting simply and adding to it, thus creating a more trouble-free and thus enjoyable experience. Microsoft overwhelms the user with features/options, most of which only work sort-of-right after fiddling for a few hours. But for the technogeek early adopter, Apple’s method is limiting, and can seem arrogant, since they decide what it is that you can do.

LG

One thing I’m not entirely clear on yet, is the Apple Remote Infrared, Bluetooth, or something else? If it’s any kind of RF, that’d be great, because it frees you from having your machine physically located in the same room as the TV. Linkage anyone?
LG

R Boylin

Apple’s move also has other options, namely wii-fi 80211.n. Although I believe Jobs will introduce the first Intel product covering this area better than the iMac in January, 80211.n will allow streaming of content to multiple devices from a “server”. This alone doesn’t address issues discussed in the article; but you will see another step in Apple’s direction soof with a Yonah processor IMHO.

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