capsule review

Surfing Music

Disclaimer: Today’s Mac Gems column is for the gadget lovers out there—those who get excited by finding new uses for existing toys.

Ever since Apple released its AirPort Express Base Station and AirTunes—which together let you stream music from a computer running iTunes to any speakers or stereo within range of your wireless network—people have been asking for a better way to control that music.

Although there are remote controls that plug into the AirPort Express’ USB port, these remotes don’t provide a display, so they’re useful mainly for skipping backwards or forwards within the current playlist—giving you what is, in many ways, little more than a glorified iPod shuffle.

But if you’ve got the wireless network to use AirTunes, chances are good that you’ve also got a wireless laptop—either hosting iTunes itself, or in addition to the computer doing so—or some other wireless device. You can actually use these devices as your “iTunes remote.” For example, if you’ve got a second Mac, the best solution, by far, is Shirt Pocket’s $20 netTunes, which puts the iTunes window of the Mac playing the music right on your local screen, giving you just as much control as if you were sitting in front of the Mac running iTunes. (We liked netTunes so much we gave it a 2004 Eddy Award.) Another option—slower, but also giving you full control—is to use Mac OS X’s built-in support for VNC to control iTunes (and anything else on the “streaming” Mac) over your network, from pretty much any computer, Mac, Windows, or *nix.

But there’s also another option—one that doesn’t give you an actual iTunes interface but that does provide a bit more flexibility in terms of what you can use as your “remote.” I’m talking about DeadEnd Software’s $10 webRemote (   ), which lets you control iTunes from any Web browser—on your local network or even from another location on the Internet.

To use webRemote, you first set a few preferences: You can restrict access by creating user logins; if you don’t, anyone with your Mac’s IP address and the webRemote port number will be able to control iTunes. You can also choose a “skin,” which determines how webRemote’s Web interface looks (although there are currently only two skins available), and whether or not the webRemote actively checks for changes in Playlists. (There’s also a “JukeBox” mode, which is supposed to let you create song queues on-the-fly, but according to the developer, there are currently issues with this feature.)

webRemote preferences

To control iTunes remotely, you then point any Web browser to your Mac’s IP address and webRemote’s port number; for example, on my internal network, I simply type 10.0.1.2:2100 . You’ll then see the webRemote interface:

webRemote in Safari

On the left are all your playlists; click one (or the Library item at the top of the list) and the right-hand frame will display all the tracks in that playlist/Library. Click a song title and iTunes will begin playing it. You also get playback controls (play, pause, skip forward, skip back, volume up, volume down), and the current track information is displayed along the top of the webRemote display.

Now, it’s true that this is a rather primitive interface compared to iTunes’ own, so you may be wondering why you would choose webRemote over the excellent netTunes, which actually gives you the iTunes interface. The reason can be found in a phrase I wrote above: lets you control iTunes from any Web browser . This means that any wireless device with a Web browser, such as a Palm, an iPAQ, a mobile phone, a Sidekick, or, of course, a laptop, can be used to control iTunes remotely. If you can surf the Web on it, you can control iTunes with it. In fact, webRemote has turned our Sony PlayStation Portable—which, thanks to a recent software update, now has a Web browser—into a handy iTunes remote!

PSP running webRemote

This PSP-cum-iTunes-remote has become the latest rage in our home, since we no longer have to lug a laptop into the family room when we want to be able to control what we listen to on our main stereo.

On the other hand, webRemote has a few basic flaws that I hope to see addressed in future versions. For one, I wish you could rate songs and choose the display/sort order of tracks in a playlist. And you can’t currently tell which playlists are standard and which are Smart. Finally, although the software’s documentation claims that you can access music from shared Libraries and connected iPods, I had trouble getting this feature to work.

But even with these flaws, the geek-toy-loving side of me has been having a lot of fun with webRemote. And it gives my PSP something to do when it’s not playing games or movies (which is most of the time).

webRemote works with both Tiger and Panther.

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