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Each application in the suite has a distinct look and feel--understandable, given that the tools have such different functions, and forgivable since the user interfaces have such easy learning curves. However, many of the apps are designed distinctly with iTunes in mind and for good reason (more on this in the Features section).
"Random is the new order," or so Apple keeps telling us with the release of the iPod Shuffle. It's a great marketing concept, but when we're heading to the gym for an hour of pulse-pounding exercise, we'd rather not have Ella Fitzgerald mixed in with our Propellerheads. That's where Roxio The Boom Box's MusicMagic Mixer comes in. The program promises to build "intelligent" mixes based on the individual songs and artists you pick, and while the app initially takes many hours to pore over your music library, it does an admirable job of serving up shuffles for any occasion.
MusicMagic starts by fingerprinting and analyzing the actual sound waves of all the tunes in your library--a process that took more than 15 hours for our relatively modest 11GB collection. Luckily, you can run the analysis in the background without too much of a performance hit. Once that's finished, you open the MusicMagic interface (which shares iTunes' three-pane browse mode); select a song, an album, or an artist; and click New Mix. A new shuffle appears instantly, based on your "seed" selection. See some picks you don't like? Right-click any offending tracks, and select Less Like This to tweak the mix, or eliminate an artist from your shuffle altogether. All finished? Click Send To iTunes, and you're ready to jam. Mixes can be set to fit any time or disk-space limits, and you can shuffle mixes for smooth transitions or alternate between loud and soft songs. For the most part, we were pleased with MusicMagic's shuffles, and with a little tweaking, we managed to iron out the odd picks. Now if MusicMagic worked as an integrated iTunes plug-in, we'd really have something.
There's no shortage of utilities that will record the audio from any application on your Mac (the free WireTap is one of our favorites), but The Boom Box's Audio Hijack takes the hassle out of transferring your clips to iTunes. Once you've set the app to "hijack" a program such as DVD Player, Safari, QuickTime, RealPlayer, or Windows Media Player, just hit Record to make a clip. When you're finished recording, Audio Hijack encodes the track into MP3, AAC, WAV, or Apple Lossless formats and transfers the file to iTunes or your &ontid=&siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=search&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Freviews%2Esearch%2Ecom%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dapple+ipod%26nodeid%3D6490%26format%3Dcustomlayout%26channel%3D54%26cat%3D312%26mode%3Dproducts%26allfields%3D0%26k%3D97011450>iPod, or it runs the AppleScript of your choosing.
Audio Hijack comes with some enticing options, such as a timer that will start recording an application on a set schedule, provided your Mac is awake and Audio Hijack is running; ideally, a helper app could wake Audio Hijack when it's time to record, à la iCal. You can also specify a file or a URL to be opened for a given session or set Audio Hijack to break a recording into separate files or stop recoding after a designated amount of time or disk space. We especially like the equalizer settings that let you boost the sound quality of your recordings. Another thing: system sounds are not recorded.
CD Spin Doctor
Got a stack of vinyl or cassettes that you want in your iPod? Converting those old discs and tapes to MP3 is a daunting task, but CD Spin Doctor does a good job of easing the pain. While its simple, beginner-friendly tools are a little blunt compared to those of, say, the audiophile-oriented Bias SoundSoap, CD Spin Doctor makes it easy to reduce the hiss, pops, and scratches from your aging records, as well as detect separate tracks and enhance the sound quality of older recordings.
Once you've connected your tape deck or turntable to your Mac via the line-in port, CD Spin Doctor records your tunes to the high-quality AIFF format. When you're done recording, the app creates a waveform--a visual representation of the sound in the music file--and divides the file into tracks by searching for breaks in the music. You can then drag and drop the color-coded tracks to your liking, or you can rearrange the tracks or eliminate songs altogether. Even better, a series of sliders let you reduce clicks, crackles, and hiss (we got the best results from the de-hiss and de-click sliders), or you can sharpen the dull sound of older recordings by boosting the bass, increasing the "wideness" of the sound for a pseudo-stereo effect, or refining the high-end sound. When you're finished, CD Spin Doctor will encode your tunes into MP3, AAC, or Apple Lossless files and export them to iTunes. This application is especially useful for old mix tapes.
Podcast browsers are nothing new for Mac users, but iPodderX combines some of our favorite features into a slick package. The brushed-steel, three-pane interface lets you search for podcast feeds or browse by category; you get real-time results as you type, although we ran into plenty of spinning beach balls in the process. Find a podcast that looks interesting? You can preview the latest show (nice) or subscribe to the feed; then you can either download the podcasts manually or have iPodderX download some or all the shows at once. We also liked iPodderX's text-to-speech capabilities, which means it can turn RSS or Atom feeds into podcasts--a cool, if time-consuming feature, especially if your favorite RSS feed adds many articles each day.
iPodderX integrates nicely with iTunes, automatically exporting podcasts into iTunes playlists as either MP3s or bookmarkable AAC files. The app can check for new podcasts in the background, even when it's not running, while its clever SmartSpace feature keeps your hard drive clean by allocating up to 20GB of space for podcasts and deleting the oldest files when you go over the limit.
The least impressive app in The Boom Box, iSpeak It does a decent if clumsy job of turning text-based news and documents into spoken-word MP3, bookmarkable AAC, WAV, AIFF, or Apple Lossless audio files. You can set iSpeak It to automatically download news and weather blurbs from Google, as well as articles from RSS or Atom feeds, a feature it shares with iPodderX, although that app downloads and transfers RSS feeds much more elegantly. The app also converts text, HTML, and Word files, as well as PDFs with a free plug-in, although we wish it could grab Apple Mail and Entourage messages. iSpeak It's spare interface falls short compared to that of the other apps in The Boom Box; instead of a multipane interface, the various news and document items pop up in separate windows, cluttering the screen.