Hands on with iTunes 9

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Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from PCWorld.com.

Apple introduced iTunes 9 at its "It's Only Rock and Roll, But We Like It" media event Wednesday. iTunes 9 has a number of new features, such as iTunes LP (which tries to bring full-blown album art, liner notes, etc—to the digital world), Home Sharing (you can now sync your music across computers in your household), and the redesigned iTunes Store. While these new features make iTunes an even stronger media playback app, you may be a little disappointed if you were hoping for a major revamp.

Home Sharing and syncing

With Home Sharing, iTunes 9 finally gives you a way to automatically sync music between computers in your home. Once you enable Home Sharing on your computer, you'll be able to access the iTunes library on any other Mac or Windows PC on your network with Home Sharing enabled. From here, you can play music from other computers, and import music from those computers as well, so you can have the same music on every computer in your house.

One important note: all computers will have to be on the same network, and activated with the same iTunes account. This means that you can't share music between your iTunes account and your significant other's, for example, unless you also share an iTunes account. And you can't share music between your home PC and your work PC. Still, Home Sharing is a welcome addition and beats manually copying music files onto each of your computers.

A New Look

iTunes 9 sports an updated interface, but the changes are more than skin deep. The window chrome itself has a polished-metal-and-glossy-plastic look. It isn't a huge difference, but iTunes 8 users will notice the change. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of this tweak, but you might like it. Windows Vista and Windows 7 users will notice that the iTunes main window finally has a drop shadow.

The updated iTunes Store.
Beyond these cosmetic tweaks, Apple completely redesigned the iTunes Store, and it's a big improvement. The new look is cleaner and more attractive, and easier to navigate, thanks to the addition of a navigation bar across the top that gives you easy access to the various parts of the iTunes Store. Album pages have also been redesigned; gone is the split-pane view of old (album details and user reviews on top, songs below)--instead, the songs are shown in-line on the page, and are moved to a more prominent location on the page. As you mouse over songs in a list, a preview button appears. Click this to get a 30-second preview of that song.

The iTunes Store preview feature.
The rest of the interface has some other minor changes. While iTunes 9 is an improvement overall, it does take a step back in some areas. By default, when you view your library or a playlist in grid view, you no longer get the toolbar that lets you change sort options on the fly (you can turn on this toolbar via the View menu). And various controls, such as the buttons for the drop-down genre menus in the iTunes Store, only appear when you mouse over them, making them less obvious than they should be.

Genius Mixes

What do you get when you take iTunes' Genius playlists and merge them with Pandora? You get Genius Mixes. How does a Genius Mix differ from a Genius Playlist, you ask? With a Genius Playlist, you select a song and click the Genius button (symbolized by an atom icon), and iTunes will create a playlist of 25-100 songs that are similar to the one you originally picked. A Genius Mix, on the other hand, is more like a Genius-powered radio station. It'll pull together any and all songs of a similar nature in your iTunes library, and play them in random order. Genius will collect song information from your iTunes library and compare it with what other iTunes users listen to, to group similar artists and songs together.

Genius Mixes did a pretty good job of bringing together similar artists and songs in my collection, but it also seemed to leave out a fair amount of my music. My music is largely a mix of alternative rock with some electronic mixed in. Genius created several alternative mixes, each combining different groups of artists, but it didn't create a single electronic playlist. My guess is that I don't have enough of this particular genre for Genius to make anything of it. It doesn't help that there's such a slight difference between my Genius Mixes, style-wise, that it defeats the purpose to some extent, but it should work better if you listen to a wide array of music.

Also, you can't see what songs iTunes uses in a Genius mix. It'll only show you icons displaying album covers of some of the albums included in a mix, but you can't see exactly what tracks are included, so you can't pick what song you want to listen to.

Genius on iPhone

The iPhone OS 3.1 update brings additional Genius features to the iPhone. Genius can now recommend apps based on what you've already got.

Genius Mixes have made their way to the iPhone as well. Genius Mixes appear to be carried over from your computer when you sync your iPhone, as the ones on my phone are identical to what I have in iTunes, and didn't show up on my iPhone until I re-synced it. And like Genius Mixes in iTunes, you can't see what tracks are in each mix. Boo.

App Sanity!

With iTunes 9 and iPhone OS 3.1, you now have more control over how your apps are organized on your iPhone or iPod Touch. iTunes already let you pick and choose which apps you would like to sync with your iPhone, but iTunes 9 makes doing so more user-friendly and more discoverable with its newly-reorganized Applications tab. And iTunes 9 now lets you rearrange how your apps are arranged on your phone.

All said, I can't think of a reason to not upgrade to iTunes 9 and iPhone OS 3.1 (unless your phone is jailbroken, in which case you might want to hold off for now). iTunes does need something of an overhaul, though. The sidebar, for example, is starting to get very crowded, as more features get tacked on. Maybe in iTunes 10 we'll see Apple simplify and streamline iTunes.

Look for Macworld's full review of iTunes 9 later this week.

[Updated 9/9 11:30 p.m. to clarify app syncing information.]

This story, "Hands on with iTunes 9" was originally published by PCWorld.

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