iPhone ringtone feature live: one for you, one for me, another one for you...

Customized ringtones from iTunes on the iPhone, including a silent tone for "special" friends.

A while back I wrote about the iPhone's limited ringtone selection and the phone's inability to relegate an unwanted call to a silent ringtone. In other words, when that pesky boss or ex calls you don't want to know they ever called. The silent ringtone becomes an exercise in call avoidance, a technique for diverting them to voicemail without them ever knowing what you're up to. Now that iPhone problem is, well, no longer a problem.

Hand in hand with the ability to have no ringtone for a specific caller would be the desire to assign specific ringtones to specific friends. So, when Steve Jobs announced that ringtones with iTunes for the iPhone were coming, I was again stoked. While the last update of iTunes enabled you to see a little bell icon for ringtones in the iTunes store and desktop interface, it wasn't until this morning that I could purchase ringtones on iTunes and try them out. (This is why I ended up being late to work this morning--doh!)

The iPhone's ringtone feature is pretty straightforward: if a song can be used as a ringtone, it'll have a little bell icon lit up next to the track. I looked at my purchased music and sorted by the bell. Not that many songs appeared, but a good number did. In the iTunes store the little bell icon will be lit up too if the track can be used as a ringtone. Sadly, some of my favorites, like "Glamorous" by Fergie or "Because of You" by Ne Yo, are not available. (I suppose I can use a third-party fix that other bloggershave talked about to record and convert a song into a ringtone to be fed into iTunes, but hell, I'm too lazy sometimes.) Strangely, however, songs like "The Chairman's Waltz," from Memoirs of a Geisha, were available. How did these license deals get worked out?

Anyway, once you highlight a song you want to use as a ringtone, a new window appears--the complete song appears in that seismic-graph way. You then drag the 15-second highlight blue box to the portion of the song you want to use as your ringtone. I mistakenly thought that you could manipulate this selection after you buy it. Nope. So choose wisely or you have to drop another $.99 to get another 15 seconds of the song.

So as a start, I picked four ringtones for songs that I already had: "Sexyback" by Justin Timberlake (as picked for my friend Gideon, who truly is bringing sexy back); "Vogue" by Madonna (for my fabulous friend Max); "Seven Days in Sunny June" by Jamiroquai (for sunny, happy calls); and "Love on the Run" by the dance group Chicane (to be assigned).

After you select the portion of the song you want, you are prompted to make your final selection, and then all you have to do is double-click to purchase. The ringtone downloads and will now appear in the iTunes sync window (right under podcasts for me). So once your iPhone is plugged into iTunes, a new tab--"ringtones"--appears as well. Like any other podcast, TV show, or music list, you can pick and choose which ones get synced. Once the ringtones reside on the iPhone you can then assign them to a particular contact by editing the person's details. (A note: I had to reauthorize my computer after downloading the ringtones--not sure why, but nevertheless it only worked after this. This, of course, drove me crazy and made me later for work by yet another 10 minutes.)

Now, these ringtones will definitely test the iPhone's speakers. Before, I had observed that some standard ringtones were barely audible if, for example, you have your iPhone in a pocket or bag. I selected the beginning of "Vogue" (the finger-snapping part) for Max's ringtone. Works like a charm. Loud enough, but not too intrusive, and subtle--just like my friend Max. However, the portion of "Sexyback" I picked was jarring, shocking and would scare the hell out of me if it rang, especially given the iPhone's less-than-stellar speakers. It's almost akin to the standard iPhone "ALARM" ringtone. This is not at all like the person who is bringing sexy back. Oops. I still have a lot to play with. but the iPhone/iTunes ringtone feature does meet my expectations.

Overall, it's pretty neat to have customizable ringtones. But this is not a new idea. Other carriers and other phones have had similar features too. (I'm not sure if those other ringtone services are as customizable as the iTunes platform.) The difference here is that the interface is slick and easily integrated with the iPhone. Other phones and services I've had in the past did not make the process of downloading ringtones simple or fast. The iPhone/iTunes ringtone feature is both of those things. Sure, I wish there were more songs available, but at at least now there are some tracks that have 15 seconds of silence that can be used as a ringtone...excellent.