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iTunes 8

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iTunes icon The new iPod models announced today obviously require an update to my music player. And for a change Apple used the opportunity to bump iTunes’ version number all the way up to 8 and to ship a few more significant changes inside the update. Yet - as with most other iTunes updates of the past years, those changes don’t seem particularly well thought out or implemented.

First Impressions

To begin with I had to chuckle at the Read Me file on the iTunes disk image (presented in Apple’s notoriously bad style as an application with a document icon because that seems to be their ‘solution’ for giving people localised file names). The text in the file blathered about iTunes being the best application to enjoy your media and put them on your iPod, iPhone or -TV. Last time I checked it also happened to be the only way to do that, which makes that distinction rather pointless.

It appears that iTunes 8 requires MacOS X.4 to run. Things are starting to be more ‘modern’, I suppose. Backwards compatbility - even to themselves - has never been a strength of Apple but I do wonder whether this could be better if Apple’s iPod imperium weren’t so tightly hooked up with iTunes.

Grid

View mode button iTunes’ display modes have bee shuffled around a bit. There is an ‘all new’ grid mode now which displays cover art in a grid. Just as Exposé is more useful than the Exposé rip-off Microsoft shipped with Vista, this looks much more useful than Cover Flow to me. The latter is pretty but it’s just not particularly good at displaying the cover art in a useful way.

While the idea seems all right, we’ll have to see how good the implementation is. As things with many images go, particularly performance is something one wonders about. The performance characteristics of iPhoto suck and iTunes shouldn’t try to copy them. In a first run, RAM consumption was obscene iTunes 8, your 300MB music player. Subsequently the numbers didn’t go as high, but they still seemed non-trivial.

Assuming that Moore’s Law or something will solve the performance problems over time, the actual implementation can be wondered about. To me it looks messy. There’s a new scroll bar style, there are mode switching ‘tabs’ at the top of the grid view the interaction of which with the search field feels odd. Those ‘tabs’ have yet a different colour, and there’s a size slider at the top (which actually makes sense space-wise, but is inconsistent with Apple’s other apps and their usual consistency-trumps-spacesaving motto as seen in X.5 iCal).

New control colour in iTunes 8

So far I found the ‘Album’ tab in this view mode mostly useless, mainly because having several non-album songs by the same artist creates a separate entry for each of them in the list rather than using a single ‘Unknown Album’ entry. That just litters things considerably.

Two different songs from 'Untitled' albums getting identical graphical identifications in grid mode.

The ‘Artist’ tab seems to be the most useful one as it consolidates all albums by the same artist, thus reducing clutter while still giving a visual clue thanks to cover art. Until you reach the bottom of the list, that is. There you’ll find loads of separate items without ‘Artist’ information. But at least that’s fairly easy to ignore at the end of the list.

The ‘Genre’ tab seems mostly useless. Not only does it feature hideously generic and non-localised default images for the few ‘official’ genres, as a person who tends to use broad genres (just as the ‘official’ genres iTunes and IMDB ‘support’ are rather broad - and idiosyncratic) I also doubt it will actually help browsing my music.

Genres in iTunes 8's Grid view

The final tab is for the ‘Composer’. I still have to figure out what to make of it. On the one hand, this may be a good first step of iTunes towards acknowledging the existence of ‘Classical’ music and helping organise that. On the other hand - the resulting list wasn’t too useful for me. Particularly because some of my pop music contains composer information as well (for cover versions, for non-self composed stuff and because it appeared fashionable to just duplicate the artist information to the composer field at some stage). Now one actually needs to think about how that field is filled.

As the grid view and the composer list apparently can’t be combined with the classical genre and album browser at the top to make the GUI even more inconsistent ‘interesting’, one cannot browse composers for music filed as ‘Classical’ only without creating a dedicated smart playlist for the purpose, I find this a bit underwhelming.

And my underwhelmedness continues when no that iTunes 8’s ‘Artist’ and ‘Composer’ fields still consists of a single value only. And thus one ends up having an Artist ‘Arcade Fire and David Bowie’ when one really wants the songs in question filed with ‘Arcade Fire’ and ‘David Bowie’. The same is even more necessary for ‘Composer’ information in pop music. As often several people are given as the ‘Composer’ the list would be both less cluttered with distinct entries and occurrences of the same person in different composer teams merged together. Currently, this isn’t too useful.

Example of iTunes 8 Composers in Grid view

List with Cover Art

To keep things a little clean, iTunes didn’t introduce the new grid view as a fourth view mode. Instead the previous Cover Art List mode was merged with the normal list mode. This is a neat simplification. But it seems a little half-assed as well. Not only because a new control is introduced to make this work. But also because I find its behaviour a bit unpredictable. Say you have a nice album listing for an artist like this one:

List of White Stripes albums

Here you have a numbered list of songs. Hiding the cover art by clicking the arrow pointing to the left in the table header also hides the numbers, which can be a bit irritating as Apple decided to turn off the track number column by default when you enter a song list from grid mode.

… and once you’re in that situation try changing the sort order of the list. You’ll find that the clickable area of the ‘Show Cover Art’ button reaches further to the right than you may expect.

A final thing that downright disappoints me about the Cover Art List is that the hiding and unhiding of the cover art column isn’t smoothly animated. I totally expected that.

Info window

iTunes batch editing info window got a facelift in this update as well. As the settings one could make for songs increased over time, the multi-item info window only picked up a few of those. Now all options can be set from the new and tabbed info window. That should make a few scripts superfluous.

Batch editing song info window

Genius

Genius playlist With Apple’s tendency to label anything capable of unassisted breathing ‘Genius’, iTunes now comes with a Genius as well. It clutters the application with another ugly sidebar and the application’s sidebar with another item (I guess I’ll save us some time and not ridicule the silly sidebar subdivisions which make the ‘Genius’ item appear as a playlist even though it seems to be part of the ‘STORE’)

I didn’t try the actual ‘Genius’ stuff out as I doubt it will be interesting and I’ll let others fill Apple’s databases first. My guess is it simply sends all my library information to Apple, runs some statistics and then returns information about music which I can buy with Apple. No idea what’s ‘Genius’ about that but apparently Mr Jobs is thrilled by it. Even Apple’s ‘More Info’ page on the topic is suspiciously void of information and full of ‘great’ statements. Why don’t they clearly state what they are doing and transferring.

Genius users: How good is it? Does it anything that’s actually interesting? How does it compare to amazon’s or last.fm’s recommendations?

Uh, and probably the Geniuses were so busy selling music that they didn’t have time to fully localise their own sidebar…

partially localised Genius sidebar

Other

I am sure there are many more things to observe and comment. The ones I noticed were those which - just like in previous iTunes updates - look like ad-hoc UI changes that could have done with more care.

September 10, 2008, 3:29

Tagged as itunes.

Comments

Comment by Dave2: User icon

Today after turning “Genius” on, I spent $37 filling in my library with the suggestions. I guess you could say it works nicely.

September 10, 2008, 5:46

Comment by Julian: User icon

You can also select any song and hit the genius button in the lower right corner and iTunes will create a playlist based on that song for you. Doesn’t really work for classical music, but okay-ish for more mainstream stuff.

September 10, 2008, 10:07

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Dave2:
You know how difficult I am. I don’t necessarily consider spending more money better. I am sure at least at first they’ll find music you don’t have yet (gee, it’s a sales service, so surely they’ll focus on that).

But the general question will be whether this is more tiring and predictable (like amazon’s recommendations) or at least moderately interesting, though potentially repetitive (like last.fm).

Besides, I find the whole idea of ‘LOOK HERE GENIUS!’ which is nothing but a bit of whipped up statistics to peddle songs a bit creepy. Lacks the ‘human touch’. And seems different from discovering things myself.

@Julian:
I suppose that’s true. The Genius button seems to be frequently (and unnecessarily) present in my iTunes but it is inactive as I didn’t activate the feature.

Interesting how Apple are happy to do inconsistent UI with vanishing items but make sure that features for their own profit which I don’t want to use (.mac, Genius) are consistently visible whether it helps me or not.

September 10, 2008, 10:49

Comment by Louije: User icon

Like dave2 said, the Genius button (not the Genius sidebar) recommends things from your library, not from the Store. Which can be convenient for finding old stuff, or for de-randomizing your playlists.

Have you noticed that if you right click the “tab bar” in Grid view when Album is selected, you have sorting and grouping options (not unlike the ones seen in XP or Vista media browsers)? It is of no use for Classical music (since you can’t display by Composer then group by Album), but I like the ability to display by album, group by artist and sort by year. Which is the way it should be.

That settings and menu items get less numerous is a good thing, that Preferences dialog was a shame.

It seems clear that the ones who designed this version wanted to reproduce some of the “real-life” experience of listening to music. Previously, album names were just meta information on individual tracks, now they appear like real “atoms” in the interface. You now can play records, instead of some tracks in a list (I know you could get that with the Explore panes) — music stops with the album and does not continue according to alphabetical order.

Lastly, that the “Show/Hide Links to Store” pref disappeared is downright shameful (the arrows are useful though if you have them point to your own library — invertStoreLinks hidden pref).

September 10, 2008, 14:18

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Louije: The ‘Genius’ button is inactive if you don’t have the ‘Genius’ feature turned on. Meaning that it just litters my iTunes window for nothing.

As an opponent of the ‘wrong mouse button’, I’d rather use the View menu to set up the view settings… but I guess it does the same job. Let’s hope future versions of iTunes improve the display options for ‘Classical’ music. The infrastructure seems to be there, now they just need someone whose musical tastes go beyond John Mayer.

I really don’t consider the vanishing of the link option that big a deal as – unlike in its initial incarnations – the arrows are only displayed for the currently selected track rather than for all tracks. That said, I have been using the ‘invertStoreLinks’ setting from day one, so I always thought of the arrows as a useful addition rather than Apple’s greed turned into GUI.

September 10, 2008, 17:05

Comment by Pierre: User icon

To overcome the problem of having one ‘album’ for each ‘non-album’ song, I selected all the songs without album, and named their album ‘various’, so now you have one album for each album, and only one album for all the songs without album. I hope my comment is clear…

September 14, 2008, 15:24

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Pierre:
Yup, it’s clear. I contemplated doing that myself, but I ended up thinking that adding inappropriate metadata to the files would be a bad ‘solution’.

Besides, I was too lazy.

September 14, 2008, 15:52

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