While iTunes 8 won't cause customers to flock into Apple retail stores like the new iPods probably will, it is arguably one of the most important releases we heard at Apple's "Let's Rock" event yesterday. As the epicenter of Apple's media ecosystem, iTunes is (mostly) in charge of everything that moves between your media collection, the iTunes Store, iPods, iPhones, and Apple TVs. We've had some time to spend with iTunes 8, so let's take a look at what's new and notable.
Apple's Genius enters your living room
Easily the most significant new feature is "Genius," an automated DJ that Apple added to iTunes. It can build custom, relational playlists based on the music in your library. Switch Genius on, and iTunes will take some time to scan your library and build its database. If you're a fan of the ill-fated Pandora service, Genius sounds like a very similar idea.
A social aspect to Genius allows it to anonymously send your list of music up into the iTunes Store cloud and compile it with everyone else's. Over time, this should increase Genius' accuracy when creating playlists of songs that match the particular mood or beat you're looking for.
When playing with Genius, we found it to certainly be fun, but fairly hit and miss in this early iteration. When creating a Genius Playlist from John Mayer's "Free Fallin'" live cover, for example, iTunes brought Blind Melon's "No Rain," Spin Doctors' "Two Princes," and Blues Travelers' "Run-Around," among other fairly upbeat songs that really don't have much in common with Mayer.
Another experiment with Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" brought mixed results, with Alice in Chains' "Would?" fitting the bill but other tracks like Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy" (no making fun, I keep it for nostalgic purposes) and Counting Crows' "Round Here" seeming a bit out of place, regardless of sharing the same decade in music.
A very positive Genius experiment came from Bonobo's "Silver," from its Animal Magic album. Genius did better by finding groovy, laid-back electronic tracks from Amon Tobin, RJD2, and Groove Armada. Only Aphex Twin's "Avril 14th" and Styrofoam's "Make It Mine" seemed slightly out of place, but they were still reasonable matches.
Naturally, due to Genius' use of the iTunes Store and the "six degrees of our music libraries" potential this feature offers, as well as the relative infancy of Apple's implementation of this technology, we'll wait to see if this playlist engine improves over time.
Another component of Genius is a new Genius Sidebar, which really just seems like a strong update to the miniStore, a slightly controversial feature that was updated to be more respectful of user privacy. The Genius Sidebar displays on the right side of iTunes and uses this new recommendation technology to suggest songs from the iTunes Store that are similar to the track currently playing. Unlike the miniStore, however, tracks can be previewed or even purchased right from the Genius Sidebar. Clicking the musical note next to any track plays its 30 second preview, and clicking the buy button does just what it should.
Like the Genius playlist generation feature, though, the accuracy and utility of the Genius Sidebar will likely benefit over time from a larger relational database of music. More interesting right now, however, is how Apple has seamlessly integrated the iTunes Store shopping experience right into the library browsing experience. The line between playing your own music and switching over to shopping for more music in the store has been faded by the new Genius Sidebar. For users who opt to store their purchasing password in iTunes to get the truly one-click shopping process, the Genius Sidebar could soon lead to a whole new class of "One-Click Shopper's Anonymous" meetings in a library conference room near you.
On the Grid
iTunes 8's next major feature update is a new Grid view that replaces the old album view. While the previous album view arguably wasted a lot of white space with its drab list of music albums and TV show icons on the left, track and episode lists to the right, Grid feels more like what happened after Cover Flow and Exposé shared a passionate night together.
The new Grid view works in all media types—music, movies, TV Shows, Podcasts—and represents each piece of media with is album cover or box art. Double-clicking a music album, TV show, or podcast reveals a list of its tracks and a very iPhone-OS-like toolbar at the top for album and track navigation. For Podcasts and TV Shows that utilize the played/not played paradigm, a blue badge adorns the album or TV season with a running count of new episodes to watch.
There are lots of wonderful little perks about the new Grid view. For one, the iPhone-ish toolbar contains filtering buttons for each media type, such as "Genres" for music and TV shows, and a "New" button for TV shows to show only seasons that have episodes you haven't watched yet. A slider on the far right of this toolbar allows for resizing icons on the fly, and a left/right navigation button appears when browsing an album or TV season for quickly switching to the next one in line.
The new Grid view is a very nice compromise between the glitz and not-always-functional glamor of Cover Flow and the boring, dated UI of the List view. As our libraries have expanded over the years and even iTunes itself can finally help track down cover art for music, we have been looking for a highly functional way to view our library that also shows off all this artwork we've collected. Grid view is it.
Maybe people will use visualizers again
The flashy new iTunes 8 visualizer simply called "iTunes Visualizer." We joked last week about whether music visualizers were still relevant when Kevin Rose published a rumor that a splashy new visualizer was coming, but we have to admit, this is pretty interesting to watch. If I ever swap out our Apple TV for a Mac mini, I could definitely see this adding some ambience to a party while playing on an HDTV in the living room.
Like Cover Flow before it, iTunes 8's new visualizer marks another independent developer's product being purchased by Apple to incorporate into iTunes. Previously, this new "iTunes Visualizer" was known as Magnetosphere from the barbarian group. Apple purchased the entire rights and IP to Magnetosphere, and now iTunes 8 users can enjoy it at the flip of cmd-T (or ctrl-T, if that's how you roll).
We have to admit, we were also surprised to see that the new iTunes Visualizer doesn't seem to be too much of a resource hog. While one of our machines is a Quad 2.66Ghz Mac Pro with 6GB of RAM that doesn't break a sweat in the middle of a desert, our 1.6Ghz MacBook Air's fans never came on after 15 minutes of playing music. Your mileage may of course vary on older machines, so let us know if your Mac has to work harder for this superfluous but entertaining new visualizer.
Plenty more things
One of iTunes' most frequent criticisms is that it has become a bloated beast with too many features in some areas, and not enough in others. Steve Jobs never spoke about performance improvements in iTunes 8, and while we don't have any decent metrics for judging as of yet, it does indeed feel a little snappier. Our library just recently crossed 350GB strewn across nearly 40GB of music, 227GB of TV shows, 71GB in movies, and another 10GB in podcasts, and most operations feel just a bit quicker, even in the graphics-intensive new Grid view. Operations like switching between media types and rendering all that artwork are also pretty responsive, and movies tend to begin playing faster (even when resuming from somewhere in the middle). I'm usually immune to the placebo effect, so let me know what you think here.
All of that aside, though, lots of polish and little features have been added or cleaned up, and most of the changes we've found so far are pretty useful on the whole. iTunes 8's preferences panels have been cleaned up quite a bit, and while some features have been juggled around (or, sadly, removed altogether), the separate panels feel cleaner and more conducive to finding a feature to toggle.
The "Burning" tab of the Advanced preferences pane, for example, has been completely removed, which may worry some users. Turns out this has simply been moved to a new dialog that appears when beginning a burn, and the settings stick between burns just like they used to in the preferences pane. While some users will undoubtedly fear this change, we see it as a good sign that Apple is listening to the bloat criticisms and removing or redesigning features that arguably don't need to be in the preferences area to begin with.
Another notable piece of polish is the new per-show customizability of podcasts. A new "Settings…" button (what's with the ellipses?) at the bottom of the podcasts area allows you to customize how often each podcast should be checked for new episodes, exactly which episodes to download, and which to keep. You can also opt to toggle the default settings for each podcast as well, offering a well-rounded mix of management features that users have been clamoring for.
A worthy update
iTunes 7 was released nearly two years ago, and users were getting restless for better features with which to browse and manage their libraries. While iTunes 8 didn't bring everything we would have liked to see, the major new Genius and Grid features, along with a healthy variety of not just polish but actual rethinking, makes this a solid update for Apple's media management software and store.Posted on