Leopard review part 8: Front Row

In my ongoing Leopard review I’m currently looking at the Apple applications that are bundled with Mac OS X – at least, the apps that I personally use on a regular basis.

I was going to write about just Mail, iCal and Preview, but then I remembered there’s another app that I use that has had major changes in Leopard: Front Row. We actually use Front Row fairly extensively; we don’t have a TV (shock horror!), so we watch DVDs and a lot of video podcasts on the living room iMac, as well as listen to music on it (streamed from the iTunes on my Mac).

Front Row in Mac OS X Leopard

So is the new Front Row a step forward like Preview, or is it one step forward, two steps back, like Mail? Let’s see.

The good

On the plus side, the daft swirly effect when you launch/exit Front Row is replaced by a simple fade, which makes for a smoother transition to Front Row and back. The new Front Row interface on the whole is slicker – much like the Apple TV interface, in fact.

The fonts are a lot smaller than Tiger’s Front Row, so if you plan to watch movies on your MacBook from across the room, you might be squinting a bit. On the other hand, this means that you can see more of song/movie titles while you’re browsing. Even better: When browsing, the titles for both audio and video media now scroll horizontally if they’re too long to display in one go. This feature is wonderful, as I’m no longer having to play “guess the podcast” with long podcast titles, for example.

Viewing theatrical trailers is generally a nicer experience in Leopard’s Front Row. You now get some blurb about each movie as you’re browsing it (replete with the occasional HTML character code – oops!), and you can also see the download progress of a trailer as it loads – a feature sorely missing in Tiger. However, in Tiger you browsed movies by poster artwork – a nice, intuitive way to find movies. Now you just get a list of titles, and you can only view the poster for the currently selected movie.

Browsing theatrical trailers in Leopard’s Front Row

Another nicety is that Front Row can now play a VIDEO_TS folder from a ripped DVD – handy if you like to have your movies on your hard drive. In Tiger you had to resort to a hack to get this working.

The bad

Unlike Tiger’s Front Row, music playback in Leopard’s Front Row is decoupled from music playback in iTunes. This means that if you’re playing music in iTunes and enter Front Row, the music stops. Conversely, when you exit Front Row, the music you were playing in Front Row stops. I find this quite jarring and confusing.

An obvious downgrade between Tiger and Leopard is that album art no longer displays when playing shared music that sits on another Mac:

No album art for shared music in Leopard’s Front Row

Not quite sure what Apple’s playing at here; there’s no way this can be called an improvement. Hopefully shared album art will see a return in future releases. Also, the album art (or lack thereof) swings between the left and right side every 30 seconds. Not sure why we need this feature exactly, Apple! Personally I find it rather distracting.

The way Front Row handles shared media in general has changed significantly in Leopard. Previously you’d pick a media type – say, Music – then you could choose from local music or shared music. Now, you first have to select a source using the Sources menu – for example, your own Mac or another Mac – then back out and choose the Music option. The current source is “locked in” until you go back and change it. This makes flipping between media on your own Mac and another Mac really tedious. For example, all our music is on my Mac, and all the podcasts are on my wife’s, so I’m always having to fiddle about with the Sources menu.

I suppose this feature could be useful if you happen to have all your media on a single Mac that’s elsewhere on your network (we don’t).

Choosing a source with Leopard’s Front Row

I also preferred the movie preview thumbnails in Tiger. Tiger’s Front Row would show you a thumbnail of the actual, animated movie; Leopard’s Front Row just shows a still frame. Not as cool, and it’s not as easy to identify a movie either. I assume the animation was removed for performance reasons, but it was much better than the boring still frame.

Also, while the transition in and out of Front Row might be smoother in Leopard, woe betide you if you have an external Time Machine backup drive. The Mac insists on spinning it up each time I leave Front Row, causing an additional 5-second delay with a black screen. Yawn. (Mind you, these spin-up freezes seem to happen with other apps too, so it’s probably not Front Row’s fault as such.)

Finally, an annoying bug in Tiger’s Front Row remains in Leopard. If you try to change the brightness of the display with F14/F15 while in Front Row – a fairly common task when watching movies! – the stupid thing backs out to the Desktop. You then have to relaunch Front Row and find the movie again to continue watching it. Dumb.


Leopard’s Front Row is generally slicker than Tiger’s, and Apple have managed to address a few of the usability and functionality issues of the old Front Row. However, the disconnect between Front Row and iTunes music, combined with the inexplicable removal of shared album art, leaves me wondering whether I’ve upgraded or downgraded here. Overall I’d say Leopard’s Front Row is no better or worse than Tiger’s – just different.

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9 Responses to “Leopard review part 8: Front Row”

  1. MOAT Says:

    I too am frustrated by the lack of shared artwork, buy I think they had the right idea with the feature upgrades. Hopefully there’ll be a more significant improvement with the next upgrade.

  2. Simon Says:

    I believe the artwork might “swing between the left and right side every 30 seconds” as you say in an effort to stop screen burn with non LCD eg Plasma and CRT screens. Or maybe a designer was just bored?

  3. Matt Says:

    @Simon: I think so too. I wish there was a way to turn it off for us LCD owners though!

  4. MaryAnn Peck Says:

    I’ve been trying to find a tutorial for Front Row and can’t….any help? Been using a Mac for many years and just can’t find out how to use this app.


  5. Matt Says:

    @MaryAnn – I’m not aware of any Front Row tutorials but if you’re stuck with it at all, feel free to ask questions here!

  6. Zak Says:

    I’m using Leopard and have just started using Front Row. My issue is that when listening to music from my iTunes library the darn thing quits after a while. I think the while is whatever my screensaver time it set to activate.

    I tried setting a “hot corner” to disable the screen saver. That didn’t work. Is there any other way to keep Front Row from going to sleep with the screen saver? I don’t want to disable the screen saver altogether for a variety of reasons.

    TIA – Zak

  7. Matt Says:

    Hi Zak,

    That sounds strange – I don’t have that issue with Front Row and a screen saver. Have you tried turning off the screen saver completely as a test, just to see if Front Row then works OK? (Sys Prefs > Desktop & Screen Saver > Screen Saver > Start screen saver > Never)

  8. Jay Cawley Says:

    Since there is no Front Row tutorial, how does one change the music that is played when one does a slide show in Front Row. I get tired of the same old default music that Apple has chosen.

  9. Matt Says:

    Jay, I believe you set the music in iPhoto, then Front Row picks it up. Select a slideshow in iPhoto then click the Music icon in the bottom toolbar, and select something other than “Sample Music”.