capsule review

iTunes 9

At a Glance
  • Apple iTunes 9

    Macworld Rating

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More Genius in more places

iTunes 8 debuted Genius playlists, which can create a playlist based on a “seed” track. To work this magic, iTunes anonymously uploads information about all the music in your library and compares that info to other people with similar music libraries. When you create a Genius playlist, that data is used to choose a list of 25 to 100 songs in your library that other people with similar music tastes also have. In other words, iTunes creates a playlist it thinks you’ll like if you like the seed track.

iTunes 9 uses that same data—data on over 54 billion songs, according to Apple—to create Genius Mixes. Instead of requiring you to pick a seed song to create a playlist, the Genius mix feature goes through your library and chooses tracks that “go great together.”

A Genius Mix's "cover"

Unlike Genius playlists, your Genius mixes are created automatically and contain as many tracks as you have that fit the mix. When you select the Genius Mixes item in the iTunes sidebar, the main area of the iTunes window displays your mixes. Each mix is displayed as a composite album cover; mouse over a cover to view, at the bottom of the window, the name of the mix and a sampling of artists it contains (“Based on Coldplay, Travis, Keane, & others,” for example). With my library of 14,000 or so music tracks, iTunes created the maximum 12 Genius mixes—with smaller libraries, you end up with fewer—with names such as Rock Mix, Electronic Mix, Alternative Mix, and Alternative Mix 2. Click on a mix to being playback.

In my brief testing, the feature was generally good at grouping similar types of tracks, and made for enjoyable playlists, although the mixes were clearly biased in favor of the types of music—rock, pop, hip-hop, classic rock, and new wave—that dominate my music collection. My library contains quite a bit of jazz, classical, and folk, yet because these genres are in the minority, iTunes didn’t create a single mix for them.

On the other hand, Genius mixes are like a black box: there's no way to view the tracks in a mix, to edit the mix, or even to delete a mix you don't like.

I also experienced one other glitch that was initially a show-stopper. In order to use the Genius Mixes feature, iTunes needs to update your library’s Genius information. This should happen the first time you launch iTunes 9. (If you canceled this process the first time you ran iTunes 9, just choose Store -> Update Genius.) But for me, this process never ended—the progress bar at the top of the iTunes window never finished, and the Genius Mixes item never appeared in the sidebar. I’ve seen a good number of reports from other users around the Web experiencing the same issue.

As today’s Bugs and Fixes column explains, the problem appears to be caused by particular apple.com entries in your Mac’s cookies.plist file. To fix the problem, I had to quit iTunes, open the Security screen of Safari preferences, click on Show Cookies, and delete all iTunes-related apple.com cookies. After relaunching iTunes, my Genius information was updated relatively quickly and the Genius Mixes item appeared soon after.

There’s also one more place where iTunes 9’s Genius feature appears: Once you’ve upgraded your iPhone or iPod touch to iPhone OS 3.1, the App Store app displays a new Genius screen that recommends new apps based on apps already installed on your device.

The iTunes Store gets a facelift…again

Finally, as with each recent upgrade to iTunes, Apple has redesigned the iTunes Store and added some new features and purchasing options. The new design is a bit less cluttered and offers more options for jumping directly to particular content. For example, mouse over the Music item in the navigation bar and a small arrow appears; click on the arrow to view a menu for jumping directly to a particular music section—videos, iTunes Essentials, pre-orders or any music genre. Each section page provides side-scrolling groups of album thumbnails that I found a bit easier to browse than the previous design.

Album pages also get a new look that does away with a separate track-list pane at the bottom, instead placing the track list in the body of the page. This new appearance is more attractive and wastes less space, but it isn’t without drawbacks: You don’t see the track-preview button until you mouse over a track name, and you can no longer use the arrow keys or back/forward buttons to skip through previews of an album’s tracks. (And you still can’t click on a single button to preview all tracks on an album, something you’ve been able to on many other music services for years.)

For those with smaller screens, there’s a useful new setting, in iTunes preferences, to hide the source list and use the entire window when browsing the store, and those with large screens will appreciate that the store grows to efficiently fit the iTunes window no matter how large it gets. People who use Twitter and Facebook can post a message about a particular item by clicking on the arrow next to the item’s Buy button and choosing Share On Twitter or Facebook, respectively. And one of my favorite new features is that a track preview no longer stops playing if you navigate away from the page containing the track.

Although the new design may make it easier to find media, in the two days since iTunes 9 debuted, navigating the store was at times an exercise in frustration. Sometimes pages didn’t load at all, and when they did, the transition often took a minute or more. For now I’ll chalk this up to heavy traffic, but I don’t recall the same issues when iTunes 8 debuted.

Apple has also done away with the shopping cart; the only way to buy content in iTunes 9 is One-Click purchasing. If you were one of the many people who used the shopping cart as a sort of “wish list,” not to worry—iTunes 9 now includes a dedicated wish list feature. Click on the arrow next to a Buy button and choose Add To Wish List, and that item is added to your list for later consideration or purchasing. You can access your wish list from the Quick Links section on the iTunes Store home page (where it conveniently notes how many items are on the list), or at the bottom of any other page in the store. One limitation, however, is that not all items can be added to your wish list; for example, I noticed I couldn’t add some iTunes Passes.

Finally, there are two new types of content you can purchase from the iTunes Store: iTunes LPs and iTunes Extras. iTunes LPs are the music industry’s latest attempt to get people to purchase albums instead of individual tracks. Each iTunes LP includes the album’s full track list, along with full-screen extras—designed with input from the actual artists—such as music videos, video interviews, liner notes, discographies, and lyrics. They’re a fun option for hardcore fans, even though in many ways they remind me of the music-focused CD-ROMs of the ’90s (though with better quality multimedia).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many iTunes LPs available right now—just 11 albums (five of those pre-orders) and one “comic book and single”—and you pay a premium for them: The iTunes LP version of Dave Matthews Band’s latest, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, is $20, and The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty is $14 (compared to $10 for the standard version). And the tracks themselves are the same 256kbps AAC files you get with the standard versions; for many music lovers, it would be easier to justify the premium if iTunes LP also included higher-quality files.

iTunes Extras for Wall-E

iTunes Extras are similar to the special features—deleted scenes, interviews, and the like—you get with many DVDs, and are now included with select (currently 14) movies from the iTunes Store. The absence of these features has kept many movie buffs from purchasing movies from the iTunes Store. I purchased Wall-E and enjoyed these extras, which play in the iTunes window and include “live” tours of set pieces and places, storybooks, making-of clips, videos inspired by the movie, robot schematics, set fly-throughs, deleted scenes, and a useful chapter menu. Unlike iTunes LPs, there’s no big price premium here: movies with iTunes Extras appear to be the same price as the movie alone sold for previously. For example, Wall-E is $15, and The Bourne Ultimatum is $10. Note that these Extras won’t play on your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV.

There doesn't appear to be a way to upgrade to the iTunes LP version of an album or the iTunes Extras version of a movie if you've purchased the standard versions of those albums or movies in the past.

Macworld’s buying advice

iTunes 9 isn’t without drawbacks. In addition to the Genius-update issue I and some other users have experienced, performance is occasionally an issue. Besides the specific examples I already noted, I found iTunes 9 would at times stall when checking Home Sharing libraries for new content, and I experienced several iTunes crashes over the past few days of use.

Still, even given those concerns, I suspect most users will want to install iTunes 9 soon—especially since it’s a free download. Besides being a mandatory upgrade if you need to use any of the new features of the iTunes Store and your iPhone or iPod touch, the latest version of iTunes is a worthy upgrade for new users, those with massive media libraries, and those who want to more-easily share their media between family members. Indeed, Apple’s goal with iTunes 9 seems to have been to make it easier for new users to bring in media and start enjoying it, while providing some of the most-requested features for existing users. And in most respects, iTunes 9 succeeds.

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At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Major improvements to iPhone-app organization
    • Genius Mixes feature provides automatically generated playlists
    • Significantly improved media management and syncing features
    • Home Sharing feature lets you easily copy media between iTunes libraries

    Cons

    • No way to edit Genius mixes, or even view their contents
    • Occasional crashes
    • Growing feature list and responsibilities add to interface clutter
    • Home Sharing's auto-transfer feature limited to iTunes-purchased media
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