The day after its “The Beat Goes On” event on September 5, 2007, Apple released iTunes 7.4. This new version provides the necessary device support for the new iPod nano, iPod classic, and iPod touch, as well as a number of other new features.

The update lists other new features such as the newly-announced custom ringtone feature for the iPhone, the ability to play purchased videos with closed captioning, rating albums, and watching videos at a larger size within the iTunes window:

UPDATE: On Saturday, September 8th, Apple released iTunes 7.4.1. The description does not provide any additional information, and there have been no noticeable changes. We are left to assume that as with most minor releases this is simply an update to fix some problem that slipped through in Thursday’s release. Some reports have come in from iLounge readers that this version appears to have resolved some problems that users have had with their new iPod classic and iPod nano models properly appearing in iTunes when first connected to their computer, and others reported that a way to insert your own ringtones without buying them from the iTunes Store was blocked, as well.

Here is the breakdown of some more specific information on the above features and some of the other things that are new and interesting in iTunes 7.4:

Initial Startup

As with previous versions, when you first start iTunes 7.4, it’s going to take a few minutes to upgrade your iTunes library database. This process can take anywhere from 30 seconds on a small iTunes library up to five minutes on a large iTunes library on a slower computer.

 

New Device Support

As the update information implies, this version of iTunes now provides support for the new iPod nano, iPod classic and iPod touch. Previous iPod devices remain fully supported, of course, as do the iPhone and Apple TV.

 

From a user standpoint, the support looks like little more than new properly-colored icons for these models, but there are likely new things going on under iTunes’ hood, as well.

iPhone Ringtones

On September 11, 2007, the iTunes Store began to sell ringtones for the iPhone. Ringtones are priced at $0.99 per ringtone, plus the cost of buying the initial song from the iTunes Store: you can’t just use any piece of music, and only a fraction of the iTunes Store library is eligible for ringtone conversion. You’ll begin to notice how few songs are actually convertible when you browse the iTunes Store and find only a handful of songs with a bell icon next to their names. The bell means that the song is eliglble to become a ringtone after purchase.

 

You can also check your current iTunes Library to see whether any songs you have purchased are eligible for conversion. To do this, go to View > View Options at the top of the iTunes window (PC) or screen (Mac) and click on Ringtones. A message will appear in a dialog box: “You can create iPhone ringtones from many songs purchased from the iTunes Store. Do you want to check with the iTunes Store to see which songs the music labels have cleared for use as ringtones?”

 

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iTunes will then process your library and show you how many tracks can be converted. Seven tracks in our 9,871-track library were eligible.

 

Right clicking on the track lets you “Create Ringtone…”, a process that first requires you to read and re-accept the iTunes Terms of Service—an interesting step—then allows you to come back and again hit the Create Ringtone button. Once that’s done, iTunes loads the music file and displays it as a waveform image—a visual representation of the song’s audio peaks and valleys.

 

Initially, iTunes suggests a 15-second clip of the song with several characteristics: a fade in at the beginning, a fade out at the end, and a delay of 1/2 of one second before the ringtone loops. In other words, 15 seconds of the song will play, fading in and out, then the track will repeat until the iPhone is answered or goes to voicemail. You can turn off the fade in and/or the fade out, expand the gap to as much as 5 seconds in 1 second increments, and made the ringtone clip as short as 3 seconds or as long as 30 seconds.

 


The process is extremely easy: you just drag the blue selection area around the song, pick the 30 or fewer seconds you want, preview the clip, then click on Buy. Apple has done an excellent job of simplifying the process. But the whole idea of spending 99 cents plus the cost of the original track for something like this is terrible—a rip-off. We actively recommend that our readers not use this feature of iTunes; there are no facilities built into iTunes to create or upload your own ringtones.

 

Whether or not they’ve bought ringtones, iPhone users now see a “Ringtones” tab within the synchronization preferences in iTunes. This tab allows for the synchronization of purchased ringtones to the iPhone, and as with other types of media content, the user can choose to synchronize all ringtones, or only selected ringtones. Naturally, the “Ringtones” tab only appears for iPhone devices. Ringtones cannot be synchronized to a non-iPhone device in any form.

 

Ringtones also appear within the iTunes Library within a separate category called Ringtones in the source list. You can see a video showing off all the new iTunes 7.4 ringtone features here.

UPDATE 9-11-07:  Reading through the specifics of the iTunes Store Terms of Service there are some new clauses specifically concerning ring tones that came to our attention. 

The first point worth noting indicates that ring tones can only be synchronized between your iPhone and a single computer at a time, and more importantly, any attempts to sync your iPhone with another computer will result in your ring tones being erased (and presumably replaced with any authorized ring tones from the other computer):

 

The second point of note indicates that ring tones may only be used for phone calls:

 

Despite this, however, the iPhone does allow ring tones to be used in any application that otherwise supports the built-in ring tones, such as alarms within the iPhone’s “Clock” application. In light of the above statement, however, it will be interesting to see if future firmware updates to the iPhone continue to support these alternative uses for ring tones.

Note also that after creating/downloading your first ring tone, you will need to re-authorize your computer for your iTunes account before this ring tone will play on your computer or transfer to your iPhone.  Presumably a different authorization key is used for ring tone support. Note that the same issue was encountered last year with Apple’s initial release of games for the 5G iPod.

At this time, ring tones are, of course, only available in the U.S. iTunes Store, and can only be applied to songs that were purchased from the U.S. iTunes Store. Whether or not this feature will be rolled out to other International iTunes Stores with the iPhone’s release in other countries is uncertain.

iPhone Address Book Synchronization

A small new feature has appeared in the iPhone’s “Info” tab under the Address Book synchronization.  “Put new contacts created on this iPhone into the group…” now allows the user to specify an Address Book group that any new contacts created on the iPhone (and presumably the iPod touch) will be added to. 

 

To enable this feature, you must first only be synchronizing “Selected Groups” rather than all contacts. You can then specify any one of your selected groups into which new contacts should be added.

Music Playlist Synchronization

Another subtle change has been made to the way in which music playlist selection works for synchronization. When selecting the “Music” tab from a device synchronization screen, selected playlists are now shown organized into their proper folders, with icons to differentiate between standard playlists and Smart Playlists. Further, the “Purchased” and “Audiobooks” categories appear at the top, designated by special icons:

 

Folders can be expanded and collapsed from within this view, and users can simply check/uncheck a parent folder to select all of the playlists contained within.

UPDATE 09-08-07: The hierarchical folder view also appears when right-clicking on a track in iTunes and choosing the “Add to Playlist” or “Show in Playlist” options:

 

(Thanks to Kirk for the tip)

Further, the icons and folder hierarchy have been added to most other places in iTunes where a list of playlists is available, such as the Party Shuffle playlist selection, and the selection of a playlist for synchronization to an iPod Shuffle or iTunes phone.

At this point there is no folder support on the older 5G iPod, or the current iPhone or Apple TV devices.  The new iPod classic and iPod nano do support folders when using automatic synchronization, however, and these folders will appear on the iPod as an additional menu layer.  It is hoped that firmware updates will be available to add this support to older iPod devices as well as the iPhone and Apple TV.

Note that this change only applies to the Music synchronization tab.  Playlists for Movies, TV Shows and Podcasts appear on the respective tabs in the same way they did in the previous version, although any folders for video playlists do appear on the new iPod models.

Further, it would appear that the ‘Audiobooks” category at the top is omitted when managing music playlists for Apple TV devices. Although this may be related to the Apple TV’s inability to play audiobooks purchased from Audible.com, it also excludes synchronization of Audiobooks that may have been purchased from the iTunes Store, which are supported on the Apple TV.

Closed Captioning

iTunes 7.4 now adds closed captioning support for video playback. Closed captioning will only be played with video files that contain the necessary closed captioning information, but can be enabled or disabled from the iTunes Preferences under the “Playback” tab, or from the “View” menu in iTunes:

 

 

As of this writing, none of the iTunes-purchased videos we tested had any closed captioning information available. It is also unclear whether Apple will identify videos with closed captioning within the iTunes Store, or how this support will work with self-encoded content. Presumably third-party software developers will find a way to convert closed-captioning from other content sources to take advantage of this at some point as well.

The new lineup of iPod devices announced yesterday also includes the closed-captioning capability, and offers the ability to turn captions on or off within the “Video” settings.  It is unknown at this point when firmware updates may be available to add this capabilities to existing devices like the Apple TV or iPhone.

Video Playback

iTunes 7.4 now allows you to play back your video content in a full iTunes window view. Previous versions allowed playback within the album artwork view in the bottom-right corner, in a separate video window, or in full screen mode. With iTunes 7.4 you now also have the option of playing back video content within the iTunes window itself:

 

This option is configured within the iTunes Preferences, under the “Playback” tab. Note that iTunes 7.4 also now allows you to specify different playback options for TV Shows/Movies versus Music Videos, so you could for example always view your TV Show or Movie content in a full-screen window, but only view Music Videos in the iTunes Window itself:

 

 

Preferences and Settings

Most of the remaining preference panes are largely unchanged, although it was noted that the “Apple TV” and ‘iPhone” tabs have now been moved to the far right-hand position:

 

The content of these tabs, however, remains exactly the same as it was in the previous version.

UPDATE 09-08-07: Downloads Screen

If you are viewing the Downloads Screen, any items that are downloaded will now remain listed when they are finished, rather than disappearing as the downloads complete.  Navigating away from the downloads screen will clear the list of any downloaded items.

Album Ratings

Possibly the most significant update in this version of iTunes is the addition of Album Ratings, a feature that will likely be of interest to many iTunes users, but of huge benefit to those who rely heavily on Smart Playlists to manage their content.

The feature itself is not yet very well-documented, and can therefore be a bit confusing. The first key point to remember is that you need to be in the Album view in order to access or view the album ratings:

 

When viewing your albums in the Album view, you should also always ensure that you’re actually sorting by Album in order to ensure that all tracks are grouped properly. iTunes still rather oddly allows you to choose other sort orders in this view, which can result in a very confusing layout, since tracks will not be properly grouped with their respective albums if they are not being sorted by album title.

Once in the Album view, you will see a rating field below each album cover, which will appear similar to the track ratings. You can rate an entire album by simply clicking on this field as you would for a normal track, or you can continue to rate individual tracks.

 

If you rate tracks within an album individually, but do not choose a specific rating for the album, the album rating will show an average rating for all of the tracks within the album (note that tracks with NO rating do not affect this average). The album rating will be shown with hollow stars to indicate that it has been automatically generated by iTunes:

 

You can keep this default average rating, or override it yourself with your own specified rating for the album. Ratings you supply yourself will be shown with solid black stars:

 

Note that when you rate an album, all tracks within that album that have no rating will receive the album rating by default. These default ratings will be shown using hollow stars (as shown above), in the same way the average album rating is shown. You can of course override them later yourself by supplying actual ratings for each track.

Removing the rating from any album or track (ie, setting it to NO stars) will revert to the default iTunes-supplied rating for that album or track (ie, the average rating for the album, or the album rating in the case of individual tracks).

Note that these ratings do not appear by default anywhere except in Album view, although of course you can add the “Album Rating” column to any view, as with just about any track property. However, the album rating column is not a particularly intuitive way to view album ratings in a track listing.  Other than adding the album rating column, even Cover Flow view does not presently supply this information in any other way. Further, the 5G iPod, iPhone and Apple TV do not in any way provide access to this album rating information, although of course individual tracks can still be rated in the same way that they always have, and these ratings will be applied to average album ratings after a synchronization. It is possible that the new line of iPod devices will provide this functionality as well.

The greatest advantage to the new Album Ratings feature, however, is in its use in smart playlists. For those who would prefer to build smart playlists that include entire albums, iTunes now offers the ability to do this through the Smart Playlist “Album Rating” criteria:

 

This will allow a Smart Playlist to select ALL tracks within an album where the album itself has been given a certain rating, regardless of the rating of the individual tracks. More sophisticated criteria can be built to refine these selections even further.

UPDATE 09-07-07: Some Bad News – Windows 2000 Support

According to Apple’s iTunes 7.4 System Requirements, this version no longer provides any support for Windows 2000 users.  The system requirements for iTunes 7.3 listed the system requirements as “Windows 2000 with Service Pack 4, Windows XP with Service Pack 2, or Windows Vista”  As of iTunes 7.4, the only supported Windows operating systems are “Windows XP or 32-bit editions of Windows Vista”.  Note that both iTunes 7.3 and iTunes 7.4 require at least Windows XP Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista for iPhone or Apple TV support regardless, however.

Computers running Windows 2000 will no longer be able to install iTunes 7.4 at all. It is therefore very likely that those users wanting access to the new iPod models will need to consider an operating system upgrade as part of the deal.

UPDATE – 09-09-07: In response to several requests from our readers, we have now confirmed that the newer iPod models will definitely not work with older versions of iTunes. Attempts to connect the new iPod models to iTunes 7.3.2 on Mac OS X, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 all yielded the same result:

 

Unfortunately, this means that Windows 2000 users interested in purchasing one of the newer iPod models will need to upgrade to at least Windows XP if they plan to use iTunes.

The new iPods do still appear as external hard drives under Windows 2000, however, in much the same way that previous models did. This compatibility problem is likely related to the iTunes application, therefore, rather than with any inherent Windows 2000 incompatibility with the iPods themselves.

It is not certain whether third-party applications may provide support for the new iPod models at some point in the future, but it is certainly possible that this might offer an alternative solution for Windows 2000 users, in much the same way that Windows 98 users have been supported in the past.  At this time, there are no third-party tools available that specifically work with the new models, but this is likely only a matter of time before compatibility is added or confirmed.  Some third-party applications may in fact already offer limited iPod management capabilities with the new models.

Sorting… What Hasn’t Changed

iTunes 7.3 introduced one odd behavior that we feel is counter-intuitive to the way that most other products work—the change to the default sorting order in iTunes. The basic change itself provided better default handling of symbols and characters at the beginning of track, artist, or album names, which was a beneficial feature for most, but it also made the rather odd decision to sort all numeric values at the bottom of its listings.

This behavior was so peculiar that we originally thought it was merely a bug or oversight on Apple’s part. As iTunes 7.3.1 and 7.3.2 appeared and this behavior didn’t change, it became apparent that this may have in fact been intentional on Apple’s part. With iTunes 7.4, this behavior remains unchanged, further solidifying that this in fact is the way that Apple intends to sort information within the iTunes library.

Unfortunately, this “numbers-last” sorting order is counter-intuitive to how most other software applications function. Other media players, be they portable devices or computer software applications, have always taken a numbers-first approach, as do standard sorting algorithms in Word Processing and Spreadsheet applications. In short, this new behavior is extremely counter-intuitive to what most experienced users would expect, and as a result is a rather odd change on the part of iTunes.

These new sort orders can still be manually overridden with the various “Sorting” fields within iTunes itself, but this seems like a lot of unnecessary effort to return to what is expected default behavior.

More to come…

The introduction of iTunes 7.4 corresponds with the introduction of a number of new products and features that are not yet available, including the new iPod devices themselves, iTunes Store services such as ringtones and closed captioned videos, and possibly even firmware updates for existing iPod and iPhone models. We will provide additional updates and information in this article and other iLounge feature articles as these other products and features become available in the next few days.