iTunes 4.5: Hits and Misses

If you were under a rock Wednesday, you missed Apple's announcement of iTunes 4.5. I myself was essentially under said rock, across the country for a week-long corporate training session. (More about the Macs I've found in interesting places in a future entry.)

In any event, I'm starting to wonder if I'm receiving secret psychic messages from Steve Jobs via my iPod. Apple's iTunes announcement came just five days after I suggested that the company integrate lossless audio compression in iTunes and the iPod. Kooky!

Two and a half months ago, I groused about missing iTunes features and was joined by an avalanche of response from Macworld readers like you. Clearly, people really care about iTunes and want to see new features added to it. Let's go to the tape.

The good news is that iTunes 4.5 does indeed introduce lossless compression to iTunes and the iPod. As I wrote last week, it's a great compromise between the lossy compression of MP3 and AAC and the gigantic file sizes (but pristine audio) of AIFF. In my weblog item, I suggested that Apple adopt the FLAC standard for lossless audio. That didn't happen Wednesday. Instead, in what is not a surprising move for Apple, the company has decided to invent its own format, Apple Lossless Encoder.

Is Apple spurning perfectly good existing technologies? Is this another example of "not-invented-here" syndrome? I'm worried that it is. But we don't know the whole picture: perhaps ALE was necessary because existing formats wouldn't work with the current iPod hardware; perhaps FLAC and its compatriots are actually enmeshed in legal or patent issues that make commercial support for them untenable; perhaps the company decided to wrap lossless compression in an Apple-invented format so that, one day, the iTunes Music Store can sell lossless music in the format's protected equivalent. I just don't know. But I hope Apple made the decision for some good reasons, because it's spurned standards for its own invention. Never a good sign.

( Update: Macworld's Jonathan Seff reports that, according to Apple, the big difference between ALC and FLAC is speed -- Apple says ALC is faster. Apple says ALC is not based on FLAC, but was created by Apple itself.)

Marginally on the plus side: Apple actually added, by sheer luck, the feature that prompted me to write my item in February:

I'm referring to those little arrows at the end of every artist and album on the Music Store. Click on the arrow next to an artist, and the Music Store takes you to the music from that artist. Click on an album name, and iTunes shows you every track from that album on the Music Store. That's a cool feature, and I've discovered that I want it when I'm in my own iTunes library as well.

That feature's in iTunes 4.5. Unfortunately, it comes in the form of a questionable interface decision, one made specifically to spur iTunes Music Store sales. In version 4.5, if you click on the arrows while in your personal music library, you're taken not to another part of your own Library but to the iTunes Music Store.

Now, I can see why Apple wants to push the Music Store. That's fine. This is a free program and Apple needs to make money. And, in a seriously good development, if you Option-click the arrows let you move within your own library!

The problem is, there's no preference to flip-flop those behaviors! A simple click, by default, will always take you to the Music Store. That's blocking user choice in the name of improved music sales. And it's a shame. A simple preference to toggle the behavior would be an easy solution.

( Update: turns out there's a hidden preference. Thanks to Sven-S. Ports for the info, via MacinTouch, Mac OS X Hints, and Schneb. Just enter

defaults write com.apple.iTunes invertStoreLinks -bool YES
into Terminal and the link behavior flip-flops.)

The new Party Shuffle feature looks like a blast, but I'm disappointed that you can't do a Party Shuffle from an attached iPod. (Doesn't Apple realize that some of us shuttle our libraries around on our iPods when we're away from home?) The feature that collects all tracks from compilations under a single "Compilations" artist is fantastic. And the ability to authorize 5 Macs rather than 3 is a real hidden gem of today's announcements. (As for the new 7-time limitation on playlist burning, it seems like a non-issue to me.) The new printing features look cool, too, although I am nowhere near a printer, so I can't test that one.

And I don't know what to think about iMix, except that it's nice to finally have some community features on the iTunes Music Store. Go ahead, try to find my playlists -- I dare ya!

In any event, when I get more of a chance to play with iTunes 4.5, I'll report back with more comments. But I want to hear from you in the meantime. Leave your impressions on iTunes 4.5 -- what's in there and what isn't, what's good and what's bad -- in the comments thread attached to this entry.

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