Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 10

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During Apple’s annual fall iPod event yesterday, the company unveiled iTunes 10, a significant update to iTunes that arrives only a year after version 9.

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iTunes 10 makes some very significant changes to the look and feel of iTunes, introducing everything from a completely new icon to an updated interface and iTunes Store enhancements. Despite the sweeping cosmetic tweaks to the application, the major new feature is Apple’s new Ping social network, integrated into the iTunes Store and the Store section of iTunes’ left-hand column. Other changes include support for TV show rentals, updates for the new iPod models introduced yesterday, under-the-hood performance enhancements, and a re-branding of Apple’s AirTunes technology as AirPlay.

 

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As usual, the release notes only tell part of the story, and a number of other changes are buried within iTunes 10. Here’s an in-depth look at the changes iTunes 10 actually delivers.

Downloading and Installing the Update

You can update iTunes either by downloading the new version directly from Apple’s web site at http://www.itunes.com or simply choose the “Check for Updates” option in your existing version of iTunes. Mac users should also see iTunes 10 appear as part of the normal Software Update process.

The iTunes 10 download comes in at approximately 87MB for Mac users and 75MB for the Windows version, which is actually smaller than iTunes 9 and 9.2 were upon their respective releases. Quicktime 7.6.6 is required for Windows users but is bundled with the Windows iTunes 10 installer. iTunes 10 is compatible with Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista and Windows 7, however users of the 64-bit versions of Windows Vista or Windows 7 will also need to download the iTunes 64-bit installer separately.

Initial Startup

As with prior major updates, iTunes 10 will take a few minutes to convert your existing iTunes library database the first time you start it up. A typical iTunes user can expect this to take no more than 1-2 minutes; users with larger iTunes libraries may require 10-15 minutes. The process does seem to run considerably faster than in prior major iTunes version updates, with our largest iTunes library taking just under 20 minutes to process.

 

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Unlike previous major updates, there appears to be no additional background processing that continues afterwards. Once the initial update process completes, iTunes 10 should be ready for use.

As always, however, the key point to remember is that you will not be able to revert back to iTunes 9 after installing the update. iTunes does make a copy of your previous iTunes library prior to the conversion, but we’d strongly recommend doing so yourself if you’re concerned about the possibility of downgrading.

New Look and Feel

Although it retains the same basic layout as in prior versions, iTunes 10 introduces some of the most significant UI design changes that we have seen in years. The most significant of these that you’ll notice right away is the new “monochrome” look for icons in the source list. Gone are the colorful icons for your library categories and playlists found in previous versions—now everything is rendered as a simple greyscale icon, including the icons for your Devices. We’re not fond of this change, as it makes the application constantly look like it’s running in the background, dimmed.

 

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The monochromatic icon design is carried over into other areas such as iTunes’ Preferences. Note that an option can also be found in here on the General tab to disable the source list icons entirely.

 

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iTunes’ main window has also undergone a number of other smaller design changes. In the Mac version, the “iTunes” window title is now completely gone, and the window control buttons have been moved to a vertical orientation in the top-left corner of the iTunes window. The volume slider has also been enlarged and uses a more metallic look, complete with a swirled metal nub.

 

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The bottom of the iTunes window also decreases in height and replaces the obvious buttons that were previously found there with simple icons.

 

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A new icon in the bottom-right corner is now used to represent the AirPlay feature and replaces the drop-down menu previously shown in this position. We’ll discuss the AirPlay settings in a bit more detail later.

 

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Also notably absent from the bottom-right corner is the “Burn Disc” button previously used to burn a playlist to CD or backup DVD. The option for burning a disc can still be found on the File menu, and has been moved up to the main level rather than below the Library sub-menu where it was moved in iTunes 9. This option can also be found by right-clicking a playlist in the source listing.

Categories in the iTunes 10 sidebar have also lost the old expansion triangles that appeared to the left of each. This is instead replaced with a “Hide” or “Show” button that appears when hovering the mouse over the category heading.

 

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The tabs found in the Grid view and on your device sync settings have also been significantly redesigned, replaced with a slimmer button bar more akin to the bookmarks found in Safari.

 

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iTunes’ main list view has also undergone a slight redesign. Column divider lines have been removed and the alternate-row shading that was barely discernible in prior versions of iTunes now has an increased contrast. Arrows for linking to the iTunes Store now appear immediately to the right of selected items, rather than than being right-justified within the column.

 

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The list checkboxes are now displayed in their own column and have a softer, more subtle design. A setting under iTunes’ General Preferences now allows the checkboxes to be removed from the listing display entirely for those users who don’t use them at all.

 

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Album List View

iTunes 10 introduces a fourth view for your library alongside the traditional listing, Grid and Cover Flow views. The Album List view is actually something of a return to the similar view originally found in iTunes 7. In iTunes 8 this view was replaced with the Grid view and users could instead toggle an artwork column in the normal detail list to provide an album view. The main limitation in both of these cases, however, is that the artwork column remained a display feature and did not provide any grouping or sorting by itself; users needed to keep the actual album name column present in order to keep their albums appropriately sorted.

 

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iTunes 10 returns to the older iTunes 7 style Album List view with a twist. Users can now choose a sort based directly on the artwork column, eliminating the need to display album and possibly even artist columns separately. Sorting/grouping options include Album by Title, Album by Artist and Album by Artist/Year—the same options that can be cycled through by clicking on the Album column heading. Users can also choose from three different sizes for the displayed artwork.

 

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In Album List view, artwork is only displayed for albums with five tracks or more; shorter albums are still grouped and display the album and artist name in the first column but simply omit the artwork.

 

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Ping

The key new feature in iTunes 10 is Apple’s new music-centric social network, Ping. iTunes 10 fully integrates Ping into the application and the iTunes Store, with a new “Ping” section prominently displayed in the iTunes sidebar immediately below the iTunes Store. Selecting the Ping option, or responding to a Ping friend request from outside of iTunes will open the main Ping page in the iTunes Store, giving you the option to enable Ping.

 

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Setting up Ping

Enabling Ping will require you to sign in with your iTunes Store Apple ID and password and then prompt you to set up your Ping profile. When setting up your user profile, Mac users can choose a photo from their existing iChat buddy icons, take a new photo with the iSight or simply browse for an appropriate JPG or PNG file.

 

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As noted below the Name fields, the process of setting up a Ping profile will also replace your nickname from any previous iTunes Store reviews that you may have posted with your actual name. You can manage your reviews either before or after setting up your Ping profile to remove any reviews that you may not want associated with your real name.

 

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After filling in your personal details, you are then prompted to choose your privacy preferences. You can choose to allow anybody to follow you, allow other Ping members to make requests to follow you that require your approval, or simply choose to not allow other users to follow you at all. Users who choose to not allow followers will not appear in the Ping user listing, although their names and photos may still show up in other areas such as product reviews. This setting can also be changed later from your user profile page.

 

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You will also be asked to choose how to display music that you like, with options to automatically select any music that you rate, review or purchase, only display music that you specifically choose with the “Like” button or display no music that you like on your profile page.

 

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Once you’ve set up your Ping user profile and options, you are then taken to a Ping homepage, providing some recommendations on artists and other users to follow, recent activity and the ability to search for and invite friends by taping in names or sending out e-mail invitations. At initial launch a Facebook Connect button was also available to search your Facebook contacts for Ping connections, however this was removed shortly thereafter, and it is uncertain when or if it will return.

 

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Friends and Followers

Following other users and responding to follow requests works much as you would expect, with iTunes 10 handling all of the details within the Ping section. When following a user who needs to approve your request you’re shown a dialog box indicating that they will see your details in order to determine whether or not to approve your request.

 

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You can view the users that you follow, the users that follow you and the users making requests to follow you, as well as approving follower requests, all from within the “People” section within Ping in iTunes 10.

 

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Your e-mail address will also receive notifications of follow requests and new followers. E-mail messages include a link to view the follower request which will automatically open the Follower Requests page in iTunes 10 in much the same way that other iTunes Store links work.

Getting Social

Your Ping home page will display a list of recent activity from anybody that you’re currently following, including other users that are being followed, comments being made by other users, and items that they have recently indicated that they like. As noted earlier, depending on their preferences, users’ likes may be indicated by their manually clicking the “Like” button or simply by purchasing or reviewing/rating an item.

 

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Albums on the iTunes Store now include “Like” and “Post” buttons beneath the album artwork and purchasing options on the left-hand side. The “Like” button simply allows you to indicate that you Like a specific album, while the “Post” button brings up a dialog box allowing you to make a comment on the album that will appear in your Ping stream to your followers. Like and Post options can also be found on the drop-down menu for the “Buy” button, and you can like or post about individual tracks by clicking on the “Buy” buttons for the track rather than the album as a whole.

 

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As Ping is intended to be a music-centric social network, the Like and Post options are, for now at least, limited to music content. Other content such as Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts and Apps do not have any Like or Post options available, although reviews that you post on any item on the iTunes Store will be displayed with your full name and listed in your “My Reviews” page. Names in reviews, even for non-Ping users, now appear as clickable links that allow other users to view all of your iTunes Store reviews gathered together.

For the time being, Ping is an interesting feature of iTunes that appears to be Apple’s trojan horse effort to challenge Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks with an initially limited music focus that will surely expand over time to encompass other media. Additional tweaking will clearly be necessary to make it more than just a place to promote music and musicians, but we have little doubt that Apple will take that step as soon as the current network is stable enough to support it.

TV Show Rentals

Announced yesterday as a feature of the second-generation Apple TV, iTunes 10 also provides support for Apple’s new TV show rentals. Note that this feature is currently only available on the U.S. iTunes Store.

 

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Renting a TV show in iTunes 10 works in much the same way as purchasing or renting any other type of content. TV shows eligible for rental will show an additional button that can be used to rent the show instead of purchasing it. Rentals are $1 regardless of whether you choose to rent the show in HD or standard-definition, making it almost pointless to rent the show in the lower quality unless you plan to watch it on an older iPhone or iPod touch device that does not provide HD video support.

 

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Rented TV shows are downloaded to the “Rentals” section in iTunes 10 which appears directly below the Music section in your source list whenever any rental content is stored in your library. iTunes 10 has renamed this heading from “Movie Rentals” to simply “Rentals” to reflect the new support for TV show rentals. Rented TV shows and movies are mixed together in this section by date.

 

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Like movie rentals, TV show rentals can be stored in your iTunes library or other compatible device for up to 30 days before they expire whether you’ve watched them or not. Unlike movies, in the U.S. at least, TV show rentals expire 48 hours after you begin watching them, rather than the 24-hour limitation on movie rentals. This is similar to the restrictions for movie rentals in Canada and the U.K.

 

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TV show rentals are notably more limited in terms of device support. Whereas standard-definition movies can be viewed on just about any video-capable Apple device since 2007, TV show rentals are limited to being played back on iOS devices running iOS 4.1 or later, or the second-generation Apple TV. This notably excludes the iPad, at least until iOS 4.2 arrives, the first-generation Apple TV and all of Apple’s Click Wheel iPods. Standard-definition TV shows can be transferred to any device capable of running iOS 4.1, while HD TV shows require the iPhone 4, fourth-generation iPod touch or second-generation Apple TV. It is also unclear at this point whether TV Shows rented in iTunes 10 will be available to stream to the second-generation Apple TV.

Transferring rented TV shows to other devices works in much the same way as it does for movies. A list of available TV shows appears on the “TV Shows” tab for your device and you can move TV shows back and forth by clicking the appropriate buttons. Like movie rentals, TV shows are moved between iTunes and the device, and you must be connected to the iTunes Store in order to update your authorization information.

 

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It’s also worth noting that like the movie rental restrictions discovered earlier this month, TV shows rented directly on the iPhone 4 or fourth-generation iPod touch cannot be transferred off of the device, regardless of whether they were rented in standard or high-definition.

AirPlay

At yesterday’s event, Apple announced an expanded version of its AirTunes feature, re-dubbed “AirPlay.” The improved feature allows users to stream not only music but also video and photo content between devices. In iTunes 10 this feature continues to work similarly to AirTunes in previous versions, although the lack of AirPlay client devices make it unclear at this time whether the video and photo streaming capabilities are present in iTunes 10.

The most significant changes with AirPlay in iTunes are the redesign of the icon in the bottom-right corner, which still opens a pop-up menu of available AirTunes/AirPlay speakers for you to choose from. Unlike prior versions of iTunes, a speaker name or number is only displayed when selecting remote speakers, not when using the local computer’s speakers.

 

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Selecting the “Multiple Speakers” option now presents an expanded dialog box that shows more descriptive information about the device hosting each set of speakers and allows for individual, per-speaker volume controls, with a master volume slider at the top.

 

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The AirPlay settings under the Devices preferences in iTunes now also omit the option to Disable iTunes volume control for remote speakers, presumably connected to the individual per-speaker volume controls that are now available in iTunes 10.

 

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At this time, the only AirPlay client devices available continue to be the Apple Airport Express and the first-generation Apple TV, and these continue to work in the exact same manner as they did previously. Apple has announced plans to license its AirPlay technology to other companies such as Bowers & Wilkins and Denon to allow speakers and AV receivers to act directly as AirPlay clients—an alternative to Bluetooth streaming, presumably with considerably better audio quality and now video and photo support as well.

Syncing Changes

In addition to the cosmetic changes to the device sync options noted earlier, iTunes 10 provides a few other small refinements in this area, with some steps forward and at least one step back.

Sadly, the Search fields that previously appeared for content such as Apps, Artists, Movies and Books are now completely gone, forcing users to scroll through potentially long lists to find and select specific items for synchronization rather than being able to quickly search. This is particularly disappointing for the Apps listing, where the icon rendering for each app makes scrolling through a long list sluggish at best.

Update: As noted in the comments, it turns out that the search feature is actually still there. It has now been integrated into the main iTunes Search field at the top-right corner of the iTunes window, which will become active on any sync settings screens where search was available before: Apps, Music, Movies, Books and Photos. It also has the additional benefit of simultaneously filtering the Artists, Genres and Albums listings on the Music screen and both Events and Faces on the Photos screen.  While this new placement unifies the Search field behaviour in iTunes, in our opinion it’s somewhat counterintuitive compared to the previous design.  In the past, the Search field has always applied to the main window content, however on the sync settings it is being used to filter only part of the displayed information. This makes it far less obvious that any search capabilities are available at all, and it is not entirely clear exactly which sections the search applies to until you actually start typing.  Further, it is not consistently available across all categories—TV Shows, Podcasts and iTunes U could all benefit from having the same filtering capabilities, yet the Search field is greyed out when those tabs are selected in the same way that it simply wasn’t there at all in iTunes 9.

The Apps tab now provides the ability to group apps by Kind of app—iPhone, iPod touch and/or iPad. For iPad devices, an additional filtering option is also now added in the drop-down menu to limit the listing to only apps designed specifically for the iPad.

 

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The Books tab for synchronizing with iOS devices using iBooks now provides a drop-down menu to choose to display only Books, only PDF files, or both.

 

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Users can now choose to sync specific Albums in the Music sync settings.

 

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Capacity Bar

The Capacity bar found at the bottom of the sync panes has been redesigned with a slightly new layout and the colors for Photos and Other now switched—Photos are now represented by an orange bar, and Other space is now represented by a yellow bar. Some of the other colors have also taken on a lighter, more pastel shade.

 

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Interestingly, the Capacity Bar also now updates in real-time as you modify your sync selections, even before clicking the “Apply” button. This allows you to quickly and easily see if you will have sufficient capacity on your device for your selections. An Over Capacity warning is also displayed when you exceed your device’s capacity, allowing you to deselect items before syncing rather than waiting until the end of the sync only to discover that not everything fits, a great change that should reduce error messages from stuffed devices.

 

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The “Cancel” button previously found above the “Apply” button now reads “Revert” more accurately reflecting its intended purpose—to revert or undo your sync preference changes rather than applying them.

 

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A running tally of the number of selected items for a given category is now shown at the top of each category screen.

 

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Improved Sync Progress

The sync progress indicator has also been improved in iTunes 10 to provide better feedback to the user on what is occurring. Sync operations are now divided into six possible “Steps” and the current step is indicated as part of the sync progress.

 

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There appear to be six possible steps, depending on the content selected for synchronization, starting with backing up your device, preparing to sync, finding and transferring purchased content from your device, transferring apps to your device, transferring media content to your device and syncing photos to your device. The type of content being synced is also now displayed as part of the status allowing users to more easily determine whether they are syncing Movies, TV Shows, Music, etc, without having to identify the content merely by its title.

 

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Selecting Photos for Second-Generation Apple TV

A new menu item, Choose Photos to Share… is now found on the Advanced menu to allow users to choose which photos from their library will be available on a second-generation Apple TV.

 

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This mirrors the option previously found on the “Photos” tab for first-generation Apple TV devices that were streaming, rather than syncing with the iTunes library, suggesting that the second-generation Apple TV may not even appear in the iTunes Devices listing.

Other Changes

There have been a few other subtle changes that we’ve discovered that are also worth mentioning:

You can now play and rate tracks via iTunes on a connected iPod, iPhone or iPad even when using automatic sync. For iOS devices this works regardless of other settings; Click Wheel iPods must have Disk Use enabled for the tracks to be accessible. This will be of particular benefit for iPhone users, where enabling manual management on a second computer is still not an option.

 

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The “Look for Apple TVs” setting has now been removed from the Apple TV preferences and is now simply enabled by default. It is unknown at this time whether this has been moved to a hidden preference as Apple has sometimes done in the past with removed preference settings.

 

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Ratings for a 13 new countries have been added to the Parental preferences, including Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. This seems in line with Apple’s announcement yesterday of plans to expand its Movie and TV Show sales into additional countries in the near future.

 

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Performance

In the release notes, Apple has promised “performance improvements which make iTunes faster and more responsive.” Our preliminary testing bears this out with iTunes appearing noticeably more responsive in specific areas such as synchronization settings and scrolling through long lists.

Unfortunately, it seems that this has come with an increased memory footprint for the application, with Activity Monitor (Mac) and Task Manager (Windows) showing iTunes 10 to be taking up about 300-500MB more RAM than iTunes 9 did when performing similar tasks on a similarly-sized iTunes library. For modern computers with 4GB of RAM or more this shouldn’t be a killer difference, but it does suggest that iTunes 10 will be a tighter fit for users on more constrained platforms such as netbooks or older PC and Macs.

Update or Wait

The main thing that iTunes 10 brings to the table is Apple’s new Ping social network. Whether it is worth updating to iTunes 10 for this feature alone is simply a matter of personal taste; an iTunes Store integrated network is a nice idea, but it is certainly no replacement for Facebook and for the moment, there’s not much in here that would attract users in droves once the novelty wears off. Additional artist and user participation will obviously change this over time.

Another typical requirement that would necessitate upgrading to iTunes 10 is for those users who purchase any of the new iPods announced at yesterday’s Apple event. As is always the case with new devices, a new version of iTunes will be required to support them; older versions will likely refuse to connect or simply ignore the newer iPods or the Apple TV.

Just about everything else that iTunes 10 offers is cosmetic. The performance improvements seem nice for users with higher-performance computers, but users of older machines may see diminishing returns or possibly even worse performance than iTunes 9 offered. Our general recommendation at this point is anybody with a computer older than a year or two might be better off staying with iTunes 9 for now unless there is a compelling reason to update due to the newer iPod or Apple TV models, interest in renting TV shows or a desire to get involved with the Ping network.

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