August 21, 2006

Open source Mac media center alternatives

Author: Nathan Willis

Apple introduced Front Row, its integrated music, video, and slideshow media center, in October 2005 to positive reviews. But not everyone was content with Apple's offering; after all, Front Row runs only on certain models of Mac hardware, and its features -- though slick -- are not expandable. These days, two open source projects are out to compete in the Mac media center arena. iTheater and CenterStage add hardware compatibility, additional features, and source code.

iTheater

iTheater, launched in January 2006, is the younger of the two projects. It is currently at version 0.1.2a, but in spite of its low version number, it already has all of its core features implemented. This version supports DVD playback from disc, video file playback, music browsing and playback, photo slideshows, and weather reports. iTheater is available as a universal binary, and requires a G3 or newer processor and OS X 10.3 or later.

iTheater piggybacks on OS X's built-in "iLife" applications for its media playback. The music module uses iTunes, the photo module uses iPhoto, and the video module uses QuickTime. This makes the application itself smaller, of course, and the developers claim that by linking to external libraries, they can produce a leaner and meaner media player than Apple's full-blown apps.

On the downside, at present iTheater only looks inside the user's iTunes and iPhoto libraries and Videos folder for content. Since I rarely use iPhoto, I would appreciate some additional source folder options. Secondly, the photo viewer launches a slide show of every image in the iPhoto collection, with no options for selecting or excluding images, and no option for browsing the collection, as is possible with music and videos.

In fact, lack of configuration options is the only serious problem with iTheater. As of now, for instance, the weather module pulls down forecast information for Beverly Hills (the default location) only. This is labeled a proof-of-concept implementation only; location setting is supposed to arrive in the next public release.

The navigation menus are simple to use, laid out in a TiVo-like single column main menu navigable with the keyboard arrow keys. The video manager allows you to browse through the folders in your OS X Videos folder (a folder created by default for every user), and the music manager offers even more flexibility, sorting on artist, album, and genre.

The iTheater Feature Guide advertises some bells and whistles evidently on the roadmap but not yet implemented, including more browsing options for photos and album artwork for music playback. Still, what iTheater does it does reliably. I tested a number of different audio and video media files without incident, and have yet to see the application crash.

CenterStage

CenterStage resembles Front Row. Large, colorful icons represent each module, and scrolling between them moves the current one to the foreground against a shadowy background.

Lawsuit potential notwithstanding, this is actually an improvement that came with the latest 0.6 release. The previous version's default skin, by sheer coincidence, used the exact same shade of lime green for its user interface as iTheater did for its own. But that it not solely an aesthetic gripe; it illuminates a genuine concern for end users; CenterStage has been in development since January 2005, and has undergone several interface and feature changes.

The current release supports video and music playback and photo browsing, and has initial support for FM radio and television recording with Griffin RadioShark and EyeTV hardware. CenterStage is a universal binary, and requires a G4 or newer processor and OS X 10.4.5.

The feature set is ambitious; TV and radio recording is much more complex than file-oriented media support. Like iTheater, CenterStage relies on Apple's own system libraries for media playback. To fill the void left by Apple's lack of an iLife video organizer, the developers have created a separate standalone app called BackStage. With BackStage, you add and remove movie folders that you want to be accessible from within CenterStage.

Regrettably, the grander scope of this project makes it far less stable. The latest release of CenterStage does not support DVD playback, and the shipped version of BackStage seems to be broken. You can revert to the 0.5 release, though, to get it working; the preferred download contains both CenterStage and BackStage, but both are available separately, and you can find older releases through the project's SourceForge.net page.

As far as usability is concerned, CenterStage's interface is often harder to grasp than iTheater's. Which screen elements are active is not always clear, and the layout changes from one column to two to two columns with a play-rewind-fastforward button bar at the top of the screen. The music manager is the most polished of the main elements, and its album and track selection is fast and easy to get the hang of. I hope that, given the skinability of the application as a whole, a more usable look and feel will emerge.

The bottom line

Based on the current state of the released binaries, iTheater is the better alternative to Front Row. CenterStage may have added support for RadioShark and EyeTV hardware, but that does not affect most of us, who just want to play back local media and have it work, today. Sure, we could always sneak around Apple's restrictions and install Front Row on an unsupported Mac, but I prefer to stick with the open source clients -- since they are free, they will inevitably cross-pollinate and acquire the best features from each other, and their media support is just as solid as Front Row's.

In fact, one of the great things about both projects is that, because they rely on Apple's QuickTime framework for media support, any codec for which there is a QuickTime plugin is automatically supported. That includes proprietary modules like DivX and Apple's MPEG2, but also the free codecs like Vorbis and FLAC from Xiph.org.

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