The sad state of Mac HTPC front-ends

miniYesterday I ran a little experiment. I wanted to see what functionality the popular Mac HTPC front-ends offered through the eyes of a first time user. Obviously this took a bit of imagination as I’ve used them all in some degree or another. What I found was a bit disappointing.

Basically starting from scratch I wanted to see how quickly and with as little tinkering as possible, what I could achieve with each platform.

Front Row:

I started off with Apple’s Front Row. Ok Front Row is pretty slick I’ll admit but its lack of support for Video_TS folders makes it a no-go for me. Say what you want about the technical legalities involved with ripping DVD’s but in my book I have the right to do what I want with the media I legally own.

Until someone comes up with a plausible workaround for Video_TS folder support in Front Row, I can’t really accept this as a HTPC front end. Let’s face it Front Row offers nothing you couldn’t get from walking over to the mini and inserting DVD’s one at a time.

However Front Row as I mentioned above, is relatively slick in other respects. I like the ‘x media is in y folder so lets associate with this front-end’ logic, but overall this just isn’t a viable solution in my book.

CenterStage:

Moving on to CenterStage You know I really want to like CS, I mean this should be the all in one solution we hoped for in a HTPC front-end. Sadly though I’m just not 100% convinced this is the way to go, especially for new users. I get the impression that no matter how much I tweak and maintain CS initially, I’m always going to have the feeling something isn’t quite right.

For starters I feel the GUI is bloated and while I can appreciate the work that went into it, I just don’t care for its appearance.

One feature I really miss with CenterStage versus other solutions is movie trailer support. Yeah it might sound like a trivial complaint but now that I’ve gotten used to being able to push a few buttons and see new fresh new content without having to buy or download anything, I miss it.

Lastly in keeping with my ‘through the eyes of a newbie’ experiment, I just don’t feel CS is quite there yet in terms of simplicity. Yeah it’s workable, but that doesn’t make it 100% intuitive.

Matinee and DistantDVD:

Ah lets not forget Matinee. While Matinee could hardly be considered a HTPC front (it’s just a Video_TS launcher) I can’t help but think with some further integration and tweaking that it could have been much much more than a DVD launcher.

In the same vein as Matinee the previously discussed DistantDVD looks promising as well. One thing in particular I like about DistantDVD is that it runs full-screen and has a dark colored theme, bright colorful HTPC front ends just aren’t my thing.

However DD doesn’t support my native resolution (yet) so further testing isn’t an option; I will keep my eye on this one though.

MediaCentral:

Lastly I tried out MediaCentral. Of all the HTPC front ends I’ve tried MediaCentral would seem to be the most promising. That is until you dig a little deeper and discover some of MC’s little hang-ups. For one while MC does support Video_TS files, it uses Spotlight to index them. My DVD drives are networked and even after creating alias’s to them in the movies folder, I couldn’t get MC to launch them properly.

For the odd DVD I could get to play off a networked drive the video was choppy and unwatchable. I do like MC’s movie trailer functionality it was pretty much exactly what I was after in that regard.

Another odd hang-up I found was MC’s Internet TV section, even after installing the required Real Media player, it informed me I needed to install it for viewing.

I will say though, that even with MediaCentral’s short-falls it’s worth keeping an eye on. It’s simplistic (dark themed) GUI combined with what it does right, gives me hope

In the end however I’m pretty much left where I started, I have several different options that contain certain functionalities I need but none of them offer everything I want in a single package.

The hunt continues..

B.Greenway




9 Responses to “The sad state of Mac HTPC front-ends”

  1. Cliff Says:

    I’m with you on all of these. And equally depressed by them all. Not because they all suck, but because they are all sooooo close. If I may add my own comments…..in the…. comments section….. here.

    CenterStage- Could be great, if the GUI wasn’t overdone and code WAY underdone. Their problem is they made this huge list of things they wanted to do, and they are gonna do them all for version 1.0, come hell or high water. SO, instead of starting small and fixing while adding features…..it’s a big, bloated, buggy mess.

    Front Row- Need to start iTunes and iPhoto in the background? You’d think if ANYONE could access these files without loading all that baggage…… BUT, it does play h.264 wonderfully.

    MediaCentral- Still kinda ugly (especially after using Front Row) and all those h.264 files that play great in Front Row skip all the time in MC. And I would LOVE the option of just turning off the options I don’t use, TV and DVD being the big ones. Basically, a little purdying up and some ironing out of the rough edges and this is a definite winner.

    And for anyone looking…. the ATI Remote Wonder Plus (ebay is a good place to look) is a much smaller RW, that works great with OSX. You can easily sit back and critique all these wonderful applications from the comfort of your sofa without ever needing to touch the computer.

    Who you callin’ lazy……

  2. Ayman Says:

    Hey guys, take a look at MacDVDOnDemand. It uses DVDPedia as a front end and through the use of a plugin, and daemon, will play VIDEO_TS. I would use NFS to mount network drives. Nothing else is as smooth. You can find MacDVDOnDemand on versiontracker.

  3. Ty Says:

    what about iTheatre?

  4. B.Greenway Says:

    From:
    http://www.itheaterproject.com/downloads.php

    v0.1.1 Release Notes:

    KNOWN ISSUES:
    -iTheater may not run under 10.3 because of an XML error in the widget module
    -DVD controller not implemented
    -Music playback still not working
    -Weather module cant specify location
    -Error in the rect class & associated objects
    -Photo viewer not implemented
    -Controls may still be buggy

    Stopped reading once I got that far. Not to mention the images of the GUI here:
    http://www.itheaterproject.com/media.php
    just didnt do much for me.

  5. Ty Says:

    Nor I. But, other’s are in beta, and, in a sad way, it is an option. I was just curious to see how it stacked. I’m not a member or supporter of the project,but I am curious across the board.

  6. Murph7355 Says:

    Just found this page – am looking at doing the same sort of stuff and have just bought a Mini.

    Agree fully with the critque above. A couple of the apps are very (frustratingly) close but not quite there (same thing goes with the Intel Mini – why can’t the damn thing detect S-Video plugged, CRT televisions properly!).

    If FrontRow:

    – would read files from wherever *I* want to put them
    – would playback VIDEO_TS and any other files the Mac can easily handle (and slide all these under “DVD” or “Movies – are both really required?)
    – let the Music section work *exactly* as per the iPod (shuffling’s a right old pain!)
    – integrate with EyeTV

    I’d be very happy. And I’m sure none of these things would be too tricky technically.

    As for the others:

    iTheatre’s too new right now.

    The opening screen of CentreStage is promising, then it goes off the rails with one key press.

    MediaCentral is probably the 2nd best option, but I’m finding it very buggy; Doesn’t handle shared music well on my network, only bringing in a small selection of songs, and still doesn’t give great control; I have a VIDEO_TS file that hangs all the time (only extracted the main feature) and try as I might EyeTV won’t work.

    Had a quick look at DistantDVD. Not sure on this one – don;t like it quitting after the DVD finishes, lack of flexibility on resolutions is a pain and it’s a bit clunky when starting to play. But it’s not bad, and being able to access functions via keystrokes is perfect (Matinee should do this, and run full screen).

    Guess we’ll have to keep waiting patiently. Believe Apple have recently employed someone from Elgato, so who knows. A bit of work and I reckon they could nail MS based HTPCs. Mind you, wouldn;t surprise me if they charge a fortune for the software or force you to buy a new Mac!

  7. Bill Hodgson Says:

    Can anyone provide a similar assessment of the Eye TV v2.0 front end? Will it play ripped DVDs? It seems to support storage anywhere on your network – can anyone confirm? Does it support AVIs?

    Interested in feedback on the combination of Eye TV and the Miglia TVMax unit as a combined HTPC with a Mini.

    Regards, Bill.

  8. Kevin Cannon Says:

    Hey,

    Thanks very much for the roundup. I’m really shocked there’s not a better front-end.

    Like Bill Hodgson, I’m very interested in getting a Mac Mini and TV Max unit, becuase I’ll be moving into an apartment where space is short very soon, so the idea of an all in one solution seems promising.

    I’ll have to keep an eye out, or else see if I can get Windows Media Centre or mythTV working on the MacMini.

    – Kevin

  9. B.Greenway Says:

    Kevin, check out my updates on distantDVD, thats what I’m using now and its offereing me much of what I needed out of a machtpc front end.

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