10th Sep 2009 | 13:17
Say goodbye to app annoyance and hello to home sharing
iTunes 9: Overview
We have mixed feelings about iTunes: it can be slow - especially if you're using external drives, which it forgets about far too often for our liking - and it's desperately due a redesign.
Hurrah, then, for iTunes 9: it's got a new look, it's got some new features, and in the form of iTunes LP - 21st Century sleeve notes - and iTunes Extras - DVD extras without the DVD - it's got new things to flog you. So is it any good?
iTunes 9 certainly looks better. The glassy status area looks more glassy, the grey metal looks shinier and the playback buttons look more buttony.
There's also a new Column Browser, which makes scrolling through large libraries much, much faster, and a new Genius Mixes feature that attempts to create music mixes you'll like. It looks good and works well, although turning it on isn't obvious: you need to go into the Store menu and then click on Update Genius.
COLUMN BROWSER:iTunes has never been particularly great at navigating large libraries, so the new Column Browser is a very welcome time saver
It's also got a strange interface: while it creates a playlist based on grouping particular kinds of music together, so for example it'll lump Elbow, Doves and Supergrass into one mix and stick Lady Gaga, Pet Shop Boys, Girls Aloud and Robyn into another, it doesn't let you see what's in the playlist.
If you want the playlists on your iPod or iPhone you'll need to switch them on, too: you'll find them in the Music tab under Playlists.
There's another not-very-well-advertised new feature: HE encoding. If you go to iTunes > Preferences > Import Settings and select AAC as your import format of choice, you'll see a checkbox for "Use High Efficiency Encoding (HE)". HE-AAC is for very low bitrate audio, which means it won't be useful to the average iTunes user.
The Windows version has had a bit of interface polish too, but we still think it looks a bit strange. If you're running Windows 7 you can skip and stop tracks from the taskbar thumbnail preview, and there's a basic Jump List that enables you to launch the iTunes Store or iTunes itself.
GENIUS? Perhaps not, but the new Mixes - which attempt to group similar kinds of music together - are very clever. Pity you can't see what's in the Mixes playlists
iTunes 9: Device management and sharing
The biggest interface improvements - if you don't include the iTunes Store, which has been given a well overdue overhaul and which adds wishlists and the ability to bore people on social networks - come in device management.
There's a new and utterly wonderful applications screen that you can use to tame your iPhone/iPod's app collection - although sadly there's still no way to delete the Stocks application, a personal hate of ours - and it also tells you how big each app is, which is useful if you're trying to make the most of your available storage space.
Being able to reorganise your iPhone/iPod's icon layout from iTunes is a superb feature that for many people will make upgrading to iTunes 9 a no-brainer.
ORGANISED:At last, an easier way to organise your iPhone/iPod apps. The file sizes make it easy to see whether specific apps are storage hogs
That's not all that's changed in iTunes' device management. Synchronisation options are vastly improved: for music you can choose to sync not just playlists, but specific artists and/or genres of music.
In a nice touch there's also an "Automatically Fill Free Space With Songs" option, which brings a bit of serendipity to song skipping, and if you're syncing iPhoto images you can sync specific places or faces.
SYNC:iTunes 9 gives you much more control over synchronisation, so for example you can now mix playlists, genres and specific artists
You've been able to share playlists in iTunes for ages over your network, but the new Home Sharing feature takes things up a notch: it enables you to share some or all of your library with up to five computers on your home network and copy files - including purchases - from one machine to another.
SHARING:Home Sharing makes it simple to share everything with up to five PCs or Macs - although you'll need to use the same iTunes account for all five
We tried it between a Mac and a Windows 7 machine and it worked happily, but it's worth noting that you can't share across iTunes Store accounts - so if you've got one account and your significant other has another, you can't share your stuff with them and vice-versa.
iTunes 9: Verdict
The improved device management is by far our favourite feature, taking the pain out of organising and removing apps.
Coupled with improved sync options and the ability to automatically stuff empty space with songs that means iTunes 9 makes it much easier to sort out your iPod or iPhone than before.
Home sharing is a big improvement over iTunes' previous approach to library sharing, and the new column browser speeds up navigation of big libraries.
Genius mixes are nice, but why can't we see what's in them and edit their contents?
We're not overly keen on the ability to tweet or update Facebook from the iTunes store, and we're not convinced iTunes LP is a particularly good idea: the iPod killed the album years ago, so it seems a bit late to try and resurrect it with some fancy pictures.
Last but not least, it seems churlish to add an application management screen but not give users the ability to delete unwanted standard applications, such as Stocks.
iTunes 9 feels snappier, the column browser is a much-needed improvement and the Home Sharing feature works very well, although on our Mac at least iTunes 9 doesn't seem any less crash-prone than its predecessor.
Nevertheless, the vastly improved device management makes this a worthwhile upgrade.