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iTunes Remote

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If you’ve got an AirPort Express Base Station that you use to send music to a remote stereo or speaker system, the biggest drawback is the lack of a way to control playback. Earlier this week, I covered webRemote, which can control iTunes remotely via a Web browser—effectively providing music control from any wireless device (PDA, mobile phone, PSP, Sidekick, or laptop) that lets you surf the Web. But in that article I also mentioned that if you’ve got two Macs connected on a local network, wired or wireless, an even better solution is Shirt Pocket’s $20 netTunes 2.2 (   ). Although we gave netTunes a 2004 Eddy Award, we haven’t actually reviewed it, so I figured it was due some Mac Gems face time.

The problem with most of the “remote control” utilities for AirTunes/iTunes is that even though they give you control of the most common iTunes functions, they simply aren’t iTunes—you don’t get the familiar and intuitive iTunes interface. NetTunes overcomes this limitation by making the main Mac’s actual iTunes window visible on the remote Mac, via a technology much like VNC (Virtual Network Computing). When you click a button in the iTunes window on the remote Mac, you’re actually clicking that button on the main (“server”) Mac. This may sound a bit confusing, but once you get started, you’ll surely find it to be the easiest way to remotely control iTunes.

NetTunes is very easy to set up. You just copy the netTunes application onto your main Mac and any remote Macs from which you might want to control it. The first time you launch netTunes on each computer, it will ask if you want that computer to be a server (the computer actually playing the music) or a client (a computer controlling the server). If you choose server, a new netTunes pane will be added to System Preferences that lets you control the netTunes server:

netTunes preferences

For most people, the only item to worry about is the Start/Stop Server button. But there are also a few advanced settings: If you need to use a specific port for firewall reasons, you can set it here. (If you don’t, netTunes will automatically choose a port for you.) You can have the server’s screen go blank when idle; have the server disconnect clients and quit iTunes after 30 minutes of stopped playback; and choose whether or not you want the server to be allowed to sleep if no clients are connected. You can also view currently connected clients, and disconnect them if desired.

Once the netTunes server has been started, you launch netTunes on the remote Mac, choose “client” mode, and then connect to the server:

netTunes client

You can use the back/play/forward controls in the client window, but what you really want to do is select the server and click Show iTunes; the result is the server’s iTunes window displayed right on your remote Mac. You can control iTunes on the server just as if it were a local copy of iTunes. (Well, almost: You can’t access iTunes’s menus—only the main iTunes window.) You can access and edit playlists, control playback, even browse the Music Store; even though it appears as though you’re working on the remote Mac, everything’s actually happening on the “server.” (If your remote screen is smaller than your server’s screen, netTunes can reduce the size of the server’s iTunes window to fit or scale down the image on the remote computer.)

iTunes window on client

A nice bonus: NetTunes is also AppleScriptable and comes with actions for Salling Clicker and iChat Status.

So what isn’t great about netTunes? Its biggest drawback is that you can’t use the server Mac for non-iTunes tasks while someone else is controlling iTunes remotely; iTunes must be the frontmost application on the server. (Because of the way netTunes works, if you switch to another application on the server, that application will appear on the remote Mac instead of iTunes.) And because netTunes is transmitting the server’s actual screen to your remote Mac, there's sometimes a slight interface lag, especially on slower networks. (Although netTunes has a setting that lets you choose an acceptable balance between speed and display quality.) Finally, iTunes must already be running on the server in order to control it remotely. (Shirt Pocket has another product, the $7 launchTunes, that can launch iTunes remotely; you can purchase netTunes and launchTunes together for $23.)

Still, when I’m sitting in our family room enjoying the music streamed via AirTunes on our main Mac, netTunes on a laptop is the best “remote control” I’ve used.

NetTunes works with Panther and Tiger

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