Equinux's Mac media browser, Media Central, has been overhauled since version 1.2. It's virtually a whole new app with many new features - and one that's changed from being freeware to paid-for shareware in the process.
The amount of media sources it supports has increased, now adding Skype alongside its other options. But the question is, has it improved enough to make people use it instead of Front Row?
To recap, the idea behind Media Central is exactly the same as Apple's Front Row; an all-in-one interface for all your media and entertainment needs. Both browsers take over the whole screen and offer oversized type menu options that you can read from the sofa, and browse through using a remote.
You can start slideshows, play movies and music, and open up all the files within one window. The advantage of this all-under-one-roof approach is speed and convenience, meaning that you needn't use several applications consecutively. With both browsers, all media files on your computer (and some files online) are playable.
Media Central gained its earlier market share mostly by being freeware, plus older Macs don't have Front Row at all, so there was a natural place in the Mac community for the browser to fill and no initial cost. Unfortunately, while generally supportive, community mutterings suggested that the app had the feel of a beta release up until recently, with bugs that needed ironing out.
Telly on the Mac
TV integration, for analogue, digital and IPTV sources, is Media Central's main draw as Front Row still has no TV tuner. Naturally, to bolster this advantage, this is where Equinux seems to have made the lion's share of improvements to its TV and movie handling. iTunes videocasts, automatic widescreen display for compatible content and increases to the amount of devices that can be used, such as Terratec Cinergy T2, have been added too.
For movie playback you can now play any VIDEO_TS file on your system, which will please rippers, but also home moviemakers too. You can now view trailers for upcoming releases, not quite as many as Apple offers through Front Row, but very nearly, plus there is compatibility with YouTube and other online video services, which appear full screen.
The browser is also now a universal binary app, so it will work equally well on a PowerPC or Intel Mac. Skype integration is the latest additional media option, but you can't start Skype in Media Central, which is annoying; you need to have it already running in the background. It worked well for us when loaded, though.
Remote control use has been improved. Under Preferences you can now set Media Central to start up with a remote command, like Front Row, and you can eject DVDs and deactivate screensavers during playback among the other normal controls. Apple's own Remote and some other popular brands will work.
Some key bugs have been squashed, and some remain. The bug that caused a crash when exiting Radio has gone, and so has the one that caused hangs when switching audio streams. Many other tweaks have been made behind the scenes and it's certainly a smoother ride than we remembered.
However, some bugs have lingered on like ghosts in the system. For example, it has a great set of retro games, such as Asteroids, but when exiting Games the window resizes from full screen to small. Why?
Also, if you select tracks from iTunes by searching for Compilations, the tracks play back with a stutter; they don't do this when selected under Artist searches. And if you resize the Media Central window with a keyboard shortcut during startup, it occasionally hangs. There's still some way to go... So is it worth buying?
For its faults, Media Central is still a great tool for older Macs. Things have improved dramatically and the remaining bugs may be annoying, but they are tolerable given its uniqueness in the market. It will live on until Apple offers Front Row as a standalone piece of software and throws in a TV tuner, or until that day when your old Mac comes to the end of its life and you just have to upgrade. James Ellerbeck