The Practical Mac

iTunes 3 Hands on Review

A 'Best of the Practical Mac' Column

- 2002.08.20 - Tip Jar

Forget the cool dual-processor G4s and the 17" iMac. The most exciting new announcement from Cupertino in the last month was iTunes 3.

All right, it may not have the curb appeal of the latest hardware releases, but this new product is available at no charge. That's right - absolutely free!

iTunes is one of my most often used applications. I enjoy music, and I own a lot of CDs and even more of something called albums (also known as LPs or records). For anyone who does not know what I am talking about, just imagine them as CDs, except about three times the diameter, holding the same amount of music, but not generally able to be played in an automobile - and definitely not amenable to being left on the dashboard in the sun.

With a few exceptions, I don't generally enjoy listening to a CD straight through. I like to mix and match and burn my own CDs. iTunes allows me to do this easily.

The latest version of iTunes adds some welcome features to what was already a mature application. The most revolutionary new feature of iTunes 3 [Apple's words] is the ability to generate dynamic Smart Playlists.

iTunes 3 keeps track of your preferences and listening habits. Instead of having to create playlists manually by clicking and dragging individual songs, you simply indicate what kind of music you want to hear. iTunes 3 lets you set the parameters, indicating various attributes such as My Rating (the application lets you assign one to five stars to your favorites), Genre, Composer, Artist, Play Count (something Apple calls an "audiodometer" keeps track of how many times you listen to each song), Last Played (a time and date stamp indicating the last time you listened to a particular song is attached), etc.

iTunes

iTunes then automatically finds the type of songs you've asked for and creates a personalized playlist - Smart Playlists can even dynamically update as you add more music to your collection.

One of the standard Smart Playlists is Top 25 Most Played. This is populated as soon as you have played a few songs and is dynamically updated as you continue to use iTunes. This is an especially handy feature.

If your significant other begins to exhibit a change of personality and becomes docile and zombie-like, you can sneak onto their Mac, check their iTunes top 25, and see if the problem can be traced to an overdose of Barry Manilow or Seals and Crofts.

iTunes

One change made to your system (with your permission, of course) is to rearrange the way music is stored on your Mac. All music is moved to Home>Music>iTunes>iTunes Music, with a separate folder for each artist. In each artist's folder is a separate subfolder for each album, with songs from the album inside this folder. This is the logical way to store your music and a change that is probably overdue.

It is not without its glitches, however. If you use LimeWire or any other peer-to-peer file sharing program to share your music, you will have to change the file location in that program's Preferences after the music is moved. This will probably have a limited impact, since I am certain that any music sharing our readers do is limited to music which is in the public domain and does not include any copyrighted pieces.

Music is organized with a strict adherence to the file names and MP3 tags. This can cause unexpected results if you have not been meticulous in entering this information.

For example, most of the songs from my Stevie Nicks Trouble in Shangri La CD were entered without a hyphen in "Shangri La." However, when I entered the hit single "Everyday," I entered the album title as Trouble in Shangri-La, with the hyphen. iTunes thought these were two different CDs.

This is a minor irritation, but it would be nice to see a future release have some "smart" importing features that would minimize this problem.

playlist

Another new feature is support for spoken word content from audible.com in both iTunes and iPod. Audible boasts over 18,000 audio books and audio programs such as NPR's Fresh Air and a daily audio digest of The New York Times. You can now listen to all 61 hours of Tolstoy's War and Peace on your iPod!

Audible.com support requires the iPod software 1.2 update and only works on iPods which interface with a Mac. The Apple website does not indicate whether support for Windows iPods will be forthcoming. Since the iPod relies on MusicMatch Jukebox Plus to sync with Windows PCs, audible.com support would probably have to come from MusicMatch rather than Apple.

iTunes

Although not new, the ability to listen to a variety of Internet radio stations is a very cool feature of iTunes. Internet Liza Richardsonradio truly has something for everyone. Check out the simulcast of KCRW, and you might hear "Switcher" DJ Liza Richardson.

The greatest new feature of iTunes has to be "Sound Check." Simply by clicking in the box beside this function, iTunes will check every single MP3 to make sure they all play at the same volume.

This is a tremendous time saver when making CDs. I have thrown away more than one CD because after turning up the volume to hear the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine," I was nearly blown through the roof when the Go-Go's "Unforgiven" played.

In fact, Beyond Records would be wise to use this nifty little feature. Even on the original God Bless the Go-Go's CD, "Unforgiven" is significantly louder than the other cuts, especially the one immediately following, "Apology."

Effects

Verdict: iTunes 3 is well worth the download. It is one of the most versatile music programs (MP3 and otherwise) available, and best of all, it's free! LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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