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Apple iTunes 6 review: Apple iTunes 6

Apple iTunes 6

Troy Dreier and CNET staff
9 min read
Apple iTunes 6

Now at version 6, Apple's iTunes is a model of ease and functionality, and it's been pleasure to watch it grow over the years. While the interface has become subtly more intuitive and flexible, especially with version 5's interface tweaks and nested playlist ability, this free app has picked up impressive new features without compromising ease of use.

This version's improvements are mostly in the iTunes Music Store, the successful online store that users can reach only through iTunes. The iTunes Music Store now offers video for purchase in the form of TV shows, short films, and music videos. Focusing on TV instead of full-length movies and fixing the price at an affordable $1.99 per show will likely prove as groundbreaking as the store's 99-cent-per-track music downloads were. The store also gains an important community feature with a new ratings option, and it lets you send particular songs or playlists as gifts, instead of simply sending a gift certificate. Also, the new Just For You recommendation service, still in beta, offers shoppers a useful way to discover new music.


Apple iTunes 6

The Good

Free; rips CDs to AAC or MP3; advanced controls for creating smart or nested playlists; seamlessly connects to the iTunes Music Store, which now offers TV shows and music videos; purchased songs and videos can play on up to five computers, as well as on the Apple iPod; podcast features let people browse free titles and create subscriptions.

The Bad

No line-in recording; doesn't automatically fix ID3 tags or download album art; extremely limited CD-cover printing options; no controls for the visualizer; purchased video can't be burned to a viewable CD or DVD; online store lacks a subscription music service option.

The Bottom Line

Apple iTunes remains the easiest way to rip, organize, play, and buy digital music--and now video, as well.

As a music organizer and player, iTunes compares extremely well to its serious competition: Windows Media Player 10, Musicmatch, and JetAudio. It's far easier to use and offers nearly identical feature sets for basic music tasks. Plus, it and the iTunes Music Store have shown great innovation in adding audiobooks from Audible.com, podcasts, and now video. If you're using any portable player except the iPod, then iTunes probably isn't for you, since it autosyncs with only the iPod. But if you haven't bought a player yet, consider iTunes one more reason why the iPod is a solid choice.

Getting started with iTunes is a simple matter of downloading and installing the latest version; it's always free, so unlike Musicmatch, it will never badger you with pop-ups asking you to upgrade. Once the program is installed, you can start ripping your CDs and browsing the iTunes Music Store for digital downloads.

The interface is clean, friendly, and intuitive, even for beginners, though the Mac interface is a bit more polished than the Windows version. The left-hand Source column is a directory to the app's major areas, including your library of music tracks, podcasts, and now video. This column also allows access to the online streaming radio stations (non-Apple content organized into genres), the iTunes Music Store, and any playlists or smart lists you create. The larger area to the right shows your files or the Music Store. While in the Library view, you can easily add and arrange columns. Choose a song and select Get Info from the File menu to edit its ID3 tags.

Providing you have an online connection--broadband recommended--you can click the green Music Store icon on the left to access the iTunes Music Store, which is organized in much the same way as the player itself. The store's major areas are listed on the left (Browse, Power Search, Podcasts, Audiobooks, and so on), while content is highlighted in the middle. To quickly find a particular artist or song, use the search box in the upper right. Changes in version 5 help you find search results faster. After a search, you'll see a gray bar running across the top of the screen; with a click, you can narrow down the type of results you see, such as music, audiobooks, or podcasts. Also, preview 30-second song samples in the store, or watch 20-second previews of the video content. The store currently contains more than 2 million music tracks from all five major labels and more than 1,000 independents; 20,000 podcasts; 11,000 audiobooks; 2,000 music videos; and 75 TV show episodes--here's hoping that last one grows quickly.

The gray search bar, introduced in version 5, lets you quickly narrow down the results of your search. Click Music, Audiobooks, Podcasts, or Video to see results in only that area.

The iTunes Music Store hits a major milestone with the ability to purchase and download video, including recent TV shows, music videos, and Pixar animated shorts. All video purchases cost a reasonable $1.99 and download quickly, which should convince many people to choose the ease of iTunes over the wait of BitTorrent when they miss a show. Video content can be synced to a video-enabled iPod (5G or later) or watched on the computer. Apple's digital rights management (DRM) rules for video are similar to those for purchased music--it can be used on up to five computers--but video content can never be burned to a viewable CD or DVD. However, data backup is possible. iTunes video has 320x240-pixel resolution, so while you can watch it in full-screen mode, the picture won't be sharp. Downloads are H.264 video files, but iTunes supports all MPEG-4 video; you'll need to have QuickTime 7.0.3 or later installed to view the store's video content.

Purchase recent episodes from five different TV shows with iTunes 6.

At launch, the store carried only five television shows, all from ABC/Disney: Lost, Night Stalker, Desperate Housewives, That's So Raven, and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Episodes are available the day after broadcast. We're betting the number of shows will grow quickly when TV execs see that this is a useful revenue stream that doesn't encourage piracy. (Confidential to Fox: Please consider this, because we're always forgetting when Arrested Development is on.) Music videos used to be free on iTunes, although unorganized and not downloadable; now they're downloadable and well organized but cost $1.99 each. Personally, we preferred it when they were free.

The store gains an important community feature in this version with the introduction of a ratings system. Now, any user with an iTunes account can rate an album or comment on the usefulness of another user's rating, similar to the system Amazon.com has offered for many years. We're thrilled that Apple added this because previously iTunes' only community feature was the ho-hum iMix, which allows you to post a song mix and rate other people's mixes--boring! Napster still beats the iTunes store on community features, though, as it offers the ability to see what other users have in their playlists.

Use the new review system to tell other shoppers how much you love or hate a particular album.

Two other online features round out version 6's improvements: a gifting feature and a recommendation engine. You can now send a friend a particular song, album, playlist, video, or audiobook with the gifting service, instead of sending an impersonal gift certificate. If you really want a friend to hear a particular song, find the album within the iTunes Music Store and click the Gift This option from the top of the screen. You'll then get a nearly identical screen with a green background, from which you can select the song. Recipients get an e-mail notification and, in order to download the song, need to have an iTunes account--which is free but might be challenging to set up for less tech-savvy users.

Apple iTunes now lets you send someone a particular song or album as a gift, instead of an impersonal gift certificate.

The new recommendation engine is called Just For You and is still in beta. It's a useful way to discover new music since it bases recommendations on content you've already purchased. From its list, you can mark which ones you already have and which you don't like, to help it refine future suggestions. We usually liked what it suggested for us and were happy to explore the bands we hadn't heard of--but we were alarmed that Olivia Newton-John keeps coming up high in our list. C'mon, we bought only one of her songs.

The Just For Your recommendation engine (in beta) recommends music based on what you have either bought through iTunes Music Store or told iTunes you own.

The iTunes application can play MP3s, AACs, Apple Lossless, and Audible music files, as well as H.264 and MPEG-4 video files. It also lets Windows users convert unprotected WMA files ripped with other programs into unprotected AAC files so that iTunes (and the iPod, if you have one) can play them. The program offers an equally healthy set of options for ripping CDs; you can choose between MP3, AAC, and the Apple Lossless codec, which compresses files in half without losing any CD information. Additionally, Mac users can set iTunes to automatically synchronize Address Book contacts and iCal calendars with their iPod, while Windows users can sync calendar and contact info from Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express.

iTunes shines in the area of organization. You can create a playlist and manually add songs or create a self-updating smart list that lets you specify certain parameters. The Party Shuffle feature creates an instant playlist from your music library or from any playlist, and it's a useful way to play DJ as you can add songs on the fly by right-clicking. If the shuffle list doesn't have what you want to hear, you can reorder the songs and add more tunes from your library via drag and drop. Nested playlists, new in version 5, let you organize your collection any way you want; for example, you can create genre folders that hold individual artist folders.

While the feature set nearly matches that of other music organizers, Apple has chosen to omit some features that are standard elsewhere. To print a CD cover, don't look for a cover-printing command. Instead, create a playlist of the songs on the CD and choose Print from the File menu. You'll have the option of printing a plain text cover or a mosaic of album art, but you won't have the option of designing a cover yourself.

We'd still like to see a line-in recording feature that would allow users to capture external audio sources into AAC, MP3, or any other supported format. Also, while applications such as Musicmatch Jukebox have a built-in album art retrieval service, you have to find your own with iTunes if you haven't purchased your songs from the Music Store. Likewise, iTunes can't automatically correct song tags, as Yahoo Music Unlimited can. Radio streams are decent in iTunes, though they are not as advanced as the ones offered in Napster, Musicmatch, and Rhapsody. For example, you cannot skip to the next track or purchase a song from the radio interface. Personalized radio would be a nice next step for iTunes. And while WMA music stores such as Napster, Rhapsody, and Yahoo offer all-you-can-eat subscription and to-go services, iTunes doesn't include this increasingly popular option.

Years of reliable use have convinced us that iTunes is a solid performer. It's quick, too, but that mostly depends on your hardware. Ripping a 66-minute CD took us 24 minutes flat on our 933MHz PowerPC G4 test system with a 24X (read CD) drive. Syncing an iPod is far faster, with songs whizzing by at the rate of about 1 second per track. Be careful with the current iPods, though--the Shuffle, Nano and 5G iPod sync with only USB 2.0 cables. If you have an older computer that doesn't have a USB 2.0 port, you'll get far slower syncing speeds over a USB 1.1 port. If that's the case, you'll want to invest in a USB 2.0 PCI card.

Downloading purchases from the iTunes Music Store takes only about 45 seconds for a 6-minute song over a broadband connection. We're impressed that video downloads are quick, provided you have broadband. We bought a 17MB (3 minutes, 21 seconds) Pixar short and downloaded it in 1 minute, 15 seconds. The 209MB (43 minutes, 28 seconds) Night Stalker premiere took us 17 minutes, 20 seconds to download.

In terms of software stability, we've heard several reports of both Windows and Mac version of iTunes 5 and 6 as either crashing or performing oddly, though we haven't experienced any problems in our many hours with the program on both platforms.

If you're having trouble with iTunes, you'll find plenty of answers in the program's electronic help files and the support area of Apple's site. Don't miss the user forums, which are often more helpful than the official documents. If you've purchased another Apple product such as an iPod and its phone help is still valid, you can call for free iTunes-related support. If you're having trouble with a store purchase, though, getting help can be a little trickier. Apple's e-mail form is at the bottom of each topic page, and you can use it to send an e-mail to the company but only after viewing a help topic on the site. Apple promises a response within 72 hours, which is two days too slow for our tastes. In fact, one of our e-mails regarding corrupted AAC files that we purchased still hasn't been answered.

Apple iTunes 6

Score Breakdown

Setup 9Features 8Performance 8Support 7