Review: Apple iTunes 9
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Pros: Home Sharing lets computers on the same network share songs; improved iPod and iPhone syncing; Genius Mixes give users a new way to experience their music.
Cons: Home Sharing limited to five computers; all Home Sharing computers need to be logged in with the same iTunes Store ID; iTunes LP and iTunes Extras deliver little for the price.
Apple has a curious record when it comes to wireless connectivity. Take the iPod touch and the iPhone: with all their fantastic features, where is Wi-Fi networking? Why can't they wirelessly exchange information, such as songs or pictures, with other iPod touches or iPhones? Any why can't you wirelessly sync your data when you enter your home network area?
But for Apple desktop apps, it's another story. iPhoto users have long been able to import photos from other computers on the same network. iTunes users have been able to play music from other iTunes applications on the same network.
While iTunes 9 has a lot to recommend it, the new Home Sharing feature takes the prize. iTunes users can now not only play music stored on other computers, but import it, as well.
Once you've networked your computers, you'll see linked computers in the left-column in iTunes. Click on one of them to see that computer's library. You can then browse through the songs as though they were stored locally and import songs you want simply by dragging them to your own song menu, at the top of the left-hand column. It's simple to import one song or several and, in our testing, importing was amazingly quick, much faster than one song per second.
The only hitch we experienced was with iTunes DRM content that had been purchased with a different account. Those songs wouldn't transfer. We didn't get a warning message; they simply didn't transfer.
One handy feature about Home Sharing is the automatic setting. You can set it so that purchases made on one computer are automatically synced with another. That's a really handy use of Wi-Fi networkingwhen you can set something and not have to worry about it.
Nice one, Genius
If that were the only thing to recommend iTunes 9 it would be a must-download (hey, it's free), but there's more. Consider the new Genius Mixes feature. iTunes has long been good about teaching us to enjoy our music collections in new ways. The iPod Shuffle showed us that random shuffling could be fun; the existing Genius feature is able to make amazingly good song mixes based off of just one track.
The new Genius Mixes feature continues that. Once you enable it, it creates up to 12 mixes automatically based on the genres in your collection. You don't tell it what types of mixes to make, it does it on its own. If you have a lot of jazz, you'll get several jazz mixes. This writer has a lot of alternative, so six of the 12 mixes were alternative tracks. When you play one, you don't see a list of what's coming next, as with standard Genius playlists, so there's some mystery to it. You'll likely re-discover songs you didn't know you had.
Genius Mixes layout.
For iTunes and iPhone owners, the improved iTunes syncing will be tremendously welcome. It might take several uses before you notice all the changes.
For iPod touch and iPhone owners, there's now a visual way of controlling your apps. Connect your device and go to the Applications tab. You'll get a list of all your apps on the left and a visual image of each of your iPhone's screens on the right. The visual is interactive, so you can rearrange, delete, and add apps right there on your desktop. We found this a huge improvement over the old system, which simply let you decide what apps to sync.
We also love the new options for music syncing. You can now select exactly which artists or which genres to sync. Before, you could only select a playlist to sync, so you had to create playlists for different artists or genres if you wanted fine-grained control. The new options make it much easier for those of us who can't fit our entire collections on our devices. We can now tick off just what we want loaded. If you have the new Genius Mixes feature enabled, you can sync the mixes you want. There's no way to select albums for syncing, which we would welcome.
iTunes LP and iTunes Extras
While iTunes LP is for music and iTunes Extras is for movies, they both have the same goal: to create an interactive visual experience in iTunes so that it's not just a list of media files.
When you buy an iTunes LP from the iTunes Store you get not just the music, but videos, photos, animations, or whatever the artist and the music label decided to provide. It's tied together in an animated menu that's something like a DVD menu. iTunes Extras does the same thing for movies, providing DVD extras in an iTunes experience. Both charge a premium and both leave us cold. We'd rather have just the music at a low price than pay more to have a few videos thrown in. And the idea of having an interactive experience within iTunes is unnecessary.
It's good to see that Apple isn't resting with iTunes and the iTunes Store, even though it's earned the right to coast a little. It's providing useful features that we hadn't asked for, but suddenly can't do without. While we'd like to see more wireless connectivity features, the assortment of improvements in iTunes 9 is enough for now.
Troy Dreier is a regular contributor to Computer Shopper, Intranet Journal, GearLog, and Laptop Magazine. He also writes a weekly consumer technology column which is published in the Jersey Journal newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @TDreier.