Front Row Happiness

My internal geek is happy. I finally found the solution I’ve been looking for, and it’s been right there all along — an overlooked piece of Apple software, Front Row. (Click on the icon to see what Apple has to say about it.)

When we first bought the Mini, I knew it came with FR, but didn’t really give a hoot. After all, FR is primarily billed as a way to run iTunes or watch Apple’s iTunes video, using a remote control. Big deal, right? We use Netflix for streaming movies and don’t want or need a lot more. Internet video (Kim and Aidan are enjoying ESPN3 which we get through ATT DSL service, since they watch Alabama football), and we watch some movie trailers or youTube videos now and then. None of that works with Front Row (or at least it won’t work without some tweaking).

But what we do have that I was looking for a better solution for viewing are personal videos — lots of them. Aidan takes fiddle lessons, and we record every song as a short video clip. I had been making VCDs of them, but this took many steps, lots of time, lots of disk space, and quite a few CDs and DVDs to store them on. I was running out of both time and disks and really wanted to use the computer to play them, as long as it’s connected to a TV. Makes sense, right?

It worked, but it was ugly and challenging to use QuickTime to view the video. We had to open individual files by clicking on them, and this brought up the biggest limitation of connecting the Mini to a TV as the monitor — the type on screen, when viewed from the distance of the couch (optimal for watching movies) is too small. We’ve worked around this for web browsing, but using the Finder to do much is a pain. Certainly, I didn’t want to click through the Finder to get to each movie, then expand it to full screen mode, and finally play each song.

So I was looking for a viewer like iTunes to help me organize my content, and I couldn’t find much of anything for a Mac that would work. That usually means one of two things — I want to do something few other people are interested in OR Apple has already invented it. I tried a few programs that might work: iTunes wouldn’t play our video format, so I would have had to convert every file (one step I was trying to avoid). QuickTime won’t browse a folder. iPhoto might have worked, but seemed counterintuitive to me, and I wasn’t sure about formats.

Then I happened to see Front Row and realized I might give it a try. As it turns out, it will play any movie (in a QuickTime format, I suppose) in your Movies folder, as well as playing online content from iTunes or content in your iTunes library. Better yet, it recognizes folders within the Movies folder, so I can organize movies by date or by groups of lessons, keeping the newest ones on top, but allowing us to go back and review older songs and find them quickly. If I want, I can put subfolders within each main folder to hold different versions (we tape slow versions, and some versions of the difficult fingerings, as well as a couple of different versions that his teacher plays on different days or with variations to the melody, but after awhile Aidan doesn’t need all these slower versions, since he’s learned the song).

The best features are that the interface is simple and intuitive. We can use an Apple Remote or the keyboard, and we just use arrow keys and enter to go from directory to directory or from song to song and choose what we want. It’s easy to get out of when we’re done. The text is big enough to read (white on a black background, so it’s very visible), since it’s designed to be used with a TV as the monitor. And finally, the movies play at full screen automatically.

Front Row would work well for any kind of personal video — home movies or whatever. I’ve seen people who use it to play their DVD libraries that they’ve ripped to the hard drive (something I don’t imagine we’ll ever do). I need to look into using it to play Netflix, but I don’t think that’s available yet. I have heard that Boxee does something similar, but haven’t tried it out yet. For now, I’m happy to play with Front Row for awhile and organize our personal video files for easy viewing.

Since Front Row is so simple to use, and it won’t take me long to organize the songs into folders, maybe I’ll have time to actually learn a few of the songs Aidan can play!

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