The latest version of Apple's iTunes software (version 7.7) expands the offerings for iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone users. The popular Windows and Mac jukebox application has come a long way since version 6. Its integrated iTunes Store includes feature-length movies, TV shows, games, a free University lecture podcast section titled iTunesU, a selection of unrestricted (DRM-free) music downloads called iTunes Plus, and a newly added App Store offering third-party applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch. iTunes 7.7 has taken on an ambitious amount of features since the days of iTunes 6, but the essence of iTunes remains: it is an intuitive and (mostly) all-inclusive refuelling point for iPods 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 7's new features. For some background on the preexisting interface and feature set, check out the review of iTunes 6.
iTunes 7's interface
There are several ways to view and arrange your computer's media library in iTunes 7, 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. First new option: a simple list grouped with large album art, and a second option dubbed Cover Flow. 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 a graphic and vital stats of your iPod or iPhone and allows you to 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 Windows Media Player offer similar integrated management options; however, the use of a nested window rather than a new 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 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. We've noticed that iTunes has improved its ability to automatically retrieve album art compared with the spotty results we experienced in an earlier version of iTunes 7, but you'll still have some gaps in cover art that you'll have to hunt down manually.
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 7, the app automatically analyses your tracks for gapless playback. It's not actually seamlessly bridging gaps as I'd thought; rather, it is figuring it out based on format and bit rate, the best method for ungapping songs. 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 7.7 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.
What began as the iTunes Music store has blossomed into a multimedia juggernaut in iTunes 7.7. Beyond its extensive selection of music and podcasts, Apple's iTunes store offers 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.
New features in iTunes 7.7
The new features in iTunes 7.7 are almost entirely made for iPhone and iPod Touch users. In fact, iPhone 3G owners must update to version 7.7 of iTunes as a minimum requirement.
The most notable feature introduced in iTunes 7.7 is the addition of an iTunes App store, which offers a selection of more than 500 applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch, made by third-party software developers. iTunes applications run the gamut from instant-messaging clients and voice recorders, to video games and virtual pianos.
The sole Apple-developed application included in the launch of the iTunes App store is arguably one of the strongest of the bunch (and it's free). Apple's Remote application turns your iPod Touch or iPhone into a remote control for your iTunes music library or Apple TV, allowing you to browse, play, pause, and skip content from anywhere in your home.
Version 7.7 of iTunes also introduces a new Parental Ratings Preference for games purchased through the iTunes Store. Game purchases can be restricted to age ranges of 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+.