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.
In addition to the plain-vanilla listing of your tracks and movies, you get two additional views. The new option is Grid view, which offers up clean, identically-sized square images of your album art. When you change the setting from Album art to Artist, iTunes chooses one cover to represent all the albums by one artist. Double-click on it to reveal the artist's albums arranged in a column on the left, with your songs appearing in the standard spreadsheet-style layout in the center. The Cover Flow view displays a big window (that can be resized) for a virtual shelf of album art or movie covers, which reflect elegantly against the black background. You can scroll through and watch the graphics whiz by, or you can point and click one. Content associated with an album or a movie cover spills down below. As a new song plays, the appropriate cover will flip into place. Owners of slower systems will notice processor lags, though the gee-whiz visual appeal of this feature offers an extra dimension to the listening experience.
Integrated device management
Your iPod and iPhone settings are all managed within the iTunes interface. The main landing page displays both a graphic and vital stats of your iPod or iPhone, and lets you check off universal settings, such as "Only sync checked items." Additionally, you can Update or Restore your iPod or iPhone from this Summary page. Content is managed by clicking tabs for specific content types such as Music, Movies, TV Shows, and Contacts. Finally, at the bottom of this window is a color-coded capacity meter that visually breaks down Audio, Video, Photo, Other, and Free Space. Competing applications such as MediaMonkey and Windows Media Player offer similar integrated management options; however, the use of a nested window rather than a new one or a drop-down one helps.
This is a Source pane option that appears when you purchase content. Basically, it lists your selections along with a progress meter, and it's very useful if you want to reorder the queue to get the song or movie you want quicker. You can also pause a single download or pause all downloads, and it's a great way to keep track of interrupted downloads.
Automatic album art retrieval
With Apple's emphasis on album artwork in both iTunes and the devices served by iTunes (iPhone, iPod, Apple TV), it can be jolting to come across a blank space representing an album with missing cover art. Apple makes it easy to automatically add artwork to you music collection by matching your music with album art from its iTunes Store catalog. The Get Album Artwork feature (found under the Advanced menu), can take several minutes to process your music library. Even with improvements made back in iTunes 7, iTunes 8 still struggles occasionally with automatic album art retrieval and could require manual intervention.
Many music fanatics, especially those who like dance music, can use iTunes to enjoy their music without annoying gaps. When you first install and run iTunes 8, the application automatically analyzes your tracks for gapless playback. It's not actually seamlessly bridging gaps; instead, it is figuring it out the best method for ungapping songs based on format and bit rate. If you turn Cross Fade off, all tracks will be played gaplessly. If not, you'll have to multiselect all tracks in a gapless album, Get Info, then indicate that you want the selection to be part of a gapless album. So far, gapless playback works very well on both iTunes and the iPod. Nothing is more annoying than encountering gaps in "seamless" mixes.
Apple TV and iPhone integration
To further bolster its position as a touchstone in your digital life, iTunes 8 integrates both Apple TV and iPhone. If you own an Apple TV, you can stream iTunes library content from computers around your home. The iPhone is not only integrated into iTunes, it's partially dependent on it. Key iPhone features such as syncing contacts and calendars, data backup, and music and video transfers all happen within iTunes, unless users pay for extended services such as Microsoft Exchange or MobileMe. iPhone users also have the option of creating personal ringtones for their phone using songs purchased from the iTunes Store. An iPhone/iPod Touch app called also lets you use the touch-screen device as a remote control for iTunes, and works over a Wi-Fi network.
What began as the iTunes' Music store has blossomed into a multimedia juggernaut. Beyond its extensive selection of music and podcasts, Apple's iTunes store offers movies, TV shows, university lectures, iPod games, and third-party applications developed for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Compared with the iTunes Store's humbler music-only beginnings, the current store is more difficult to navigate than in the past. Those who make it past iTunes' dizzying storefront are rewarded with attractive product-specific pages offering previews, summaries, customer reviews, and recommendations.
As of iTunes Version 7.6, you have the ability to rent some video content offered on the iTunes store, which can be viewed directly on your computer or transferred to some supported devices, such as the iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV, iPod Classic, or iPod Nano. Once a rented movie has been downloaded from the iTunes store, you have 30 days to begin watching the movie and 24 hours to complete it once playback has begun. Videos downloaded from the iTunes store have a general resolution of 640x480 (H.264), although some movies are letterboxed to appear as wide screen and a handful of high-definition television shows are now available.