The latest version of Apple's iTunes software (Version 188.8.131.52) expands the offerings for iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone users. The popular Windows and Mac jukebox application remains on top of the heap, but it's not the only game in town for organizing and playing multimedia content on your computer.
The iTunes Store remains the highest-profile media store online, though, and iTunes software is the only way to access it. The Store includes feature-length movies, TV shows, games, a free University lecture podcast section titled iTunesU, a smattering of unrestricted (DRM-free) and more expensive music downloads called iTunes Plus, and the App Store offering third-party applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
The big new feature for iTunes 8 is Genius, which offers up playlist and iTunes Store recommendations based on user ratings. Despite the new feature and a few design tweaks, the essence of iTunes remains: it is an intuitive and (mostly) all-inclusive refueling point for iPods and iPhones as well as a media platform that aims to be part of your living room.
In this review, we'll take a closer look at iTunes 8's new features. For some background on the preexisting interface and feature set, check out the review of iTunes 7.
New features in iTunes 8
The new features in iTunes 8 are geared more toward iTunes Store account holders than anybody else, but Apple probably figures that includes the majority of iTunes users.
The most notable feature introduced in iTunes 8 are the Genius features: the Sidebar and the Playlist. Both require an iTunes Store account to function. The Genius Playlist sends your song-listening and song-rating data to Apple, supposedly anonymously, and Apple, in turn, converts the data into track recommendations. When you're using the Genius playlist, start off by playing any song from your collection. Genius will build a playlist of tracks you have, based on what you and other listeners like. Although some tracks suggested seemed incongruous, since the playlist is created from music you own, there's less of a chance for completely off-the-wall offerings.
The Genius sidebar offers album and artist recommendations from the iTunes Store using the same algorithms. We found these suggestions not only to be much more random, but it also suggested we buy albums that were already in our collection. It makes the offerings sound good, with headings such as "Top Songs You're Missing" and "Top Albums," but largely this feature was unimpressive because of its inaccuracies.
The Grid view makes for an interesting midway point between the plain and standard text-only layout, and the graphics-intensive Cover Flow. Double-click on an album in Grid view to bring up the tracks it contains, or hit the mouse-over Play button to start playing songs from it. It's nice that the view works under Artists, Genre, and Composer, and has a slider to resize the album art. Go too large and it'll pixelate, though.
The new visualizer mode, magnetosphere, was originally developed as an iTunes plug-in. It has a much stronger "flying-through-space" vibe. The old visualizer is still available, now called "classic," for those of you who want to space out, old school. There's also support for HD television shows.
We've also noticed that links from tracks to the iTunes Store are now a permanent feature in iTunes 8, and can't be toggled out of sight.
iTunes 8's interface
There are several ways to view and arrange your computer's media library in iTunes 8, but one interface element remains constant: the source panel. Located on the far left side of iTunes, the vertical baby-blue strip known as the source panel includes separated sections for Library (Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, Audiobooks, Applications, Radio, Ringtones), Store, Devices (your iPods or iPhones), Shared Libraries, and Playlists. Selecting a source reveals all of its content in iTunes' main viewing pane, which offers an exhaustive amount of ways to sort and view content.