The computer is the respectable work of engineering you might expect: a tad trimmer than the last iMac, this one has a faster G5 processor, faster RAM, a souped-up graphics card and up to 500GB of internal hard disk storage. It has all of that plus a built-in iSight camera. That means easy access to iChat AV, or fun snapshots from the new, slightly gimmicky Photo Booth software. You pick an effect, like Fish Eye or the Warholian Pop Art, then pose for your portrait. You can e-mail the resulting image, or bring it into iPhoto or even turn it into your buddy icon with a click.
The main attractionand the reason for the remoteis called Front Row. By tapping the remote's "Menu" button, the computer's screen switches from the familiar OS X desktop to a black backdrop with four oversized but recognizable icons. I say recognizable because they look like the icons for iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes and the DVD Player, but they don't actually represent those applications at all. Instead, they launch different, simple-to-use applications covering four basic media types: video files (even ones you buy over iTunes), still images, song files and DVDs, respectively. The idea is that you can play music or look at pictures while sitting on a couch at the other side of the room, anywhere up to 30 feet away, in fact, as long as you're within sight of the iMac.
It's easy to use and for the most part enjoyable. I was dismayed that the software didn't bookmark TV shows, so that I could go back to the spot where I had previously left off. I was surprised that the music program listed bands starting with "The" under "T", since iTunes is (famously) smart enough to list them under the proper letterthat is, The Rolling Stones should appear under "R" and so on. When I brought these to Apple's attention, I was reminded that these are simple software issues, and was given permission to be optimistic that, in the near future, these might very well get fixed.
Right about now, fans of Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition are saying, "Big dealWindows PCs have shipped with remotes to manage all of the above, plus true television recording, for years." There's no escaping the fact that Apple, as usual, is following someone else. But even fans of the Media Center PC know that it hasn't taken off like wildfire, and there are plenty of reasons. The biggest, I feel, is that digital TV from cable or satellite providers makes the recording process a bit complicated, and when you throw in new high-definition cable and satellite channels, it gets downright impossible. There are solutions to these frustrations on the way, but for now they stand as frustrations. It's no surprise, then, that Apple steered way clear of that mess.
I don't want to make an excuse for Apple, however. While Front Row does turn your valuable collection of iTunes into a more easily accessed jukebox, it's a little weak on the video side. The DVD player is nice, but we could watch DVDs in full screen on iMacs before, we just couldn't pause the playback as quickly. I think Apple needs to offer easier access to more programming. I'm sure the folks in Cupertino are hard at work trying to make these deals happen, but they did give us a bit of a taste of what I'm talking about. Under the Videos icon, you can select Movie Trailers, and get access to high-resolution sneak previews that look and sound incredible, but are streamed from Apple's servers. If the company were to give us even just three or four times the TV programming that it currently offers with iTunes, and let us get at it with the remote like a movie trailer, they'll never hear the end of the cash register's cha-ching.