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Get smart--Smart Playlists, that is
iTunes 3.0 includes a clever, new organization feature, appropriately dubbed Smart Playlists. This tool lets you create a set of rules for generating random song groupings on the fly; for example, you can specify only rock songs that you've never heard before. To create playlist rules, go to the File menu and select New Smart Playlist or hold down the Option key and click the New Smart Playlist button. You'll see a pop-up window that lets you create rules for what should go into the list. Choose songs from a certain year, genre, or artist. You can even select music that you've played a specific number of times or never at all, for maximum exploration of your collection.
Smart Playlists, however, aren't all they should be, since they rely on tagging information (the song's title, artist, and related information contained in the same music file), and iTunes still won't let you add a complete range of tags. For example, there's no tag for tempo, as there is in Media Jukebox, the top Windows jukebox. However, iTunes features a new Composer tag that lets you enter the name of a song's composer, which is especially useful for classical music where the person playing the music is probably not the person who wrote it, as well as a tag that lets you rate songs, giving them from one to five stars. You can then tell your Smart Playlist generator to, for instance, play only five-star songs. But we wish that iTunes also offered nested playlists, which would let you, say, put all your jazz music under one umbrella category.
Audiobook fans will revel in iTunes' new Audible.com download support. Mac users could previously stream Audible.com content from the Web site, but they couldn't download the specially encoded files to listen to them over and over; nor could they download these files to a portable player. That's not a problem anymore, and in August, Apple plans to update its iPod to support Audible files, too. iTunes also features audio bookmarking for Audible files so that you can quickly and easily find your place in an hours-long digital book.
We also appreciate iTunes' new Sound Check feature, which evens out the volume among audio files (for example, with MP3s of varying quality) so that song transitions aren't jarring. We found Sound Check to be too neutralizing for classical music, but it did transform a range of rock downloads from file-sharing apps into a much more even-sounding collection. iTunes 3.0 also lets you combine tracks into one larger file so that songs will play without breaks between them. Unfortunately, you can combine songs in this way only if you rip them from a CD; you can't join songs that are already saved on your computer.
A few minor additions round out the iTunes 3.0 offerings. The Instant On feature lets you hear streaming radio stations right away, instead of waiting for a buffer to fill up. And visualizations now play faster--dizzyingly faster, in fact. The visualizer still doesn't let you control the patterns that you see, however, as does Windows Media Player.
The same old wish list
While iTunes added a variety of important features to version 3.0, it skipped the ones we most wanted. With better tagging, however, and nested playlists, iTunes could best any Windows jukebox. For now, it's still the best Mac option--after all, it's free.