Eight feature requests for iTunes 11

As the summer heat arrives, I’m already thinking about the fall, when the cycle of nature returns us to more comfortable temperatures. It’s also the time when Apple tends to release new version of iTunes—generally when Apple unveils new iPods, and iTunes gets updated with a handful of new features, as well as for compatibility with the new devices. iTunes 10 saw the light on September 1, 2010; iTunes 9 was unveiled on September 9, 2009; and iTunes 8 a year earlier to the day.

This year, the fall will see the release of iOS 5, and iCloud, and a new version of iTunes (currently called 10.5 in developer releases, but perhaps iTunes 11 when it rolls out publicly). It will finally offer some Wi-Fi syncing with iOS devices, but here are some small tweaks I’d like to see in a future version of iTunes. (You may want to look back at a similar article I wrote last year, where I looked at big features—none of which, alas, has seen the light of day.)

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Harry Potter books to go digital

Author J. K. Rowling Thursday unveiled the Pottermore.com website that will be used to sell electronic versions her seven Harry Potter books, and to allow fans to network among themselves and with Rowling.

The announcement was made during a ceremony in London Thursday morning. Rowling also explains the plan in a brief YouTube video released Thursday.

Rowling said the Harry Potter ebooks will be available in multiple languages and will be readable on any electronic reading device.

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How to find and play high-resolution audio on the Mac

Everybody is familiar with high-definition video these days, which packs more visual information (more pixels) into the shows you see on TV and on Blu-ray discs. But you may not know much about high-resolution audio, which offers music in formats with clarity and fidelity that can be superior to that of CDs. I took a look at the current offerings, and how you can play these high-resolution files on a Mac. Here’s what you need to know.

What is high-resolution audio?

For starters, let’s look at what makes a file “high-resolution.” When you buy music online, it’s usually compressed. iTunes sells music as 256-kbps AAC files, and Amazon offers MP3 files at around the same bit rate. If you compare these bit rates with the music on audio CDs, which is 1411 kbps, you can see there’s a big difference. Nevertheless, many people can’t hear the difference between CDs and most compressed files, though this can depend on a lot of factors.

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Barnes & Noble: ebooks outselling physical books three to one

Barnes & Noble on Tuesday said it sold three times as many digital books through its website compared to physical books during the fourth fiscal quarter.

The growth in ebook sales comes as the company reported a rise in digital sales through its website and a decline in sales through its physical bookstores during the fourth quarter. In February, B&N said it was selling two times more ebooks than physical books. Physical books still generate more sales volume, however.

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Kobo eReader Touch Edition

It’s rare to find an inexpensive product that also introduces innovation into its category. And yet that’s exactly what Kobo Books’ Kobo eReader Touch Edition does. The company’s third-generation e-reader, this model is the smallest and lightest 6-inch E Ink e-reader currently available. At $130 (as of June 13, 2011), it’s also the cheapest e-reader with a touchscreen, besting Barnes and Noble’s touchscreen Nook by $10. The Kobo eReader Touch Edition lacks the finesse of the Nook and the Amazon Kindle Wi-Fi, but it still has much to offer value-conscious book lovers.

The eReader Touch Edition feels remarkably small and lightweight in the hand. At just 7.05 ounces (0.44 pounds), the eReader Touch is 0.33 ounces lighter than the second-generation Nook ( )—just enough to make a difference. Better still, it weighs 1.45 ounces lighter than the third-generation Kindle ( ), a noticeable difference.

It’s compact, too—the eReader Touch Edition is the same height as the Nook, but it measures a half-inch narrower, and a smidgen (0.07) of an inch less deep. Not bad places to shave off a bit of a bulk: I found that the slimmer profiles—and the resulting narrow bezel, which measures about a half-inch—made the eReader Touch Edition very natural to hold. It’s the easiest e-reader to hold in one hand, and flipping pages by tapping on the touchscreen was somewhat simpler for me just because my fingers didn’t need to travel as far across the bezel to tap (or swipe) to the next page.

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Griffin's cable-free Beacon turns your iPhone into a universal remote

If you’ve ever spent a Saturday watching male figure skating because you couldn’t find the remote, you may welcome the news from Griffin that its Beacon Universal Remote Control for iOS (first demoed at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show) is now available at an Apple Store near you. Griffin's device aims to exploit the fact that while your various remotes always seem to go missing, your iPhone's usually right in your pocket.

Beacon itself is an $80 hardware device. Your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch communicates with it via Bluetooth, and Beacon in turn communicates with your entertainment center by sending signals to pretty much any IR device in sight. You use Beacon in tandem with the free Dijit iOS app, which employs what Griffin calls “a library of constantly updated device codes to simplify setup for your TV, set-top box, sound system, media players, and more.” Beacon can control common devices like televisions and DVD players, but also more advanced equipment like a TiVo DVR, Microsoft’s Xbox, or an Apple TV.

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How to build your own AirPlay audio system

I’m a big fan of Apple’s AirPlay technology, which lets you stream audio (and video) from iTunes on your Mac, or from supported apps on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, to AirPlay-enabled devices around your house. In fact, when streaming from iTunes—or from other Mac apps using Airfoil ( )—you can send audio to multiple devices at the same time, and even control playback from any iOS device using Apple's Remote app, making it easy to build a whole-home audio system at a fraction of the cost of similar setups.

Unfortunately, even though AirPlay debuted back in November 2010, few audio systems with integrated AirPlay support have actually been released. (We recently reviewed the first, B&W’s Zeppelin Air [ ].) Which means that if you want to take advantage of AirPlay to stream your music around your house, it may be easier to put together your own system.

Here’s a look at what you need to do, either using an existing audio system or by building a new one from scratch.

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