Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

One of the key announcements at yesterday’s “Let’s Rock” event was the release of iTunes 8, a significant new update that adds some key interface improvements and other interesting new features.

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)
Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The major new features of iTunes 8 include a Genius feature, which automatically generates playlists of similar music from your iTunes library and recommends new titles from the iTunes Store, as well as a new “Grid View” library browsing feature, support for HDTV content from the iTunes Store and a “stunning new music visualizer.”


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

As usual, however, Apple has made a few other significant changes in more subtle areas of iTunes. In this article we will take a more in-depth look at the announced new features as well as some of the other significant changes that iTunes 8 brings to the table.

Downloading the Update

To update iTunes, either download the new version directly from Apple’s web site at, or choose the “Check for Updates” option in your existing version of iTunes, which will trigger the Apple Software Update application and scan for new Apple software.

The download itself is approximately 65 MB for Windows users, and 56 MB for Mac users. Quicktime 7.5.5 is also required by iTunes 8, which is included with the Windows version, but must be downloaded separately via Software Update for Mac users.

iTunes 8 will run without upgrading to Quicktime 7.5.5, but you may be unable to play back certain video content until the Quicktime update has been applied. iTunes will remind you of this when you first start it up or go to any of the iTunes Store video pages:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Initial Startup

Surprisingly, if you are coming from iTunes 7.6 or later, iTunes 8 does not perform any noticeable library database upgrades or maintenance during initial startup, suggesting that only minor structural changes have been made to the iTunes database.

That having been said, however, even though iTunes starts up without interruption, some background processes do appear to run. We suspect that these may be related to updating artwork caches for the new Grid View, since these thumbnails do not appear right away.

Further, iTunes does tag the version number within the iTunes database somewhere, so you will not be able to revert to an earlier version of iTunes without restoring your iTunes library database from an earlier pre-upgrade backup


One of the most significant new features in iTunes 8 is the new “Genius” feature, which analyzes the songs in your iTunes library in order to build playlists of recommended song groupings.

When you first run iTunes 8, a Genius Sidebar will be shown on the right-hand side of the screen when viewing your music library. From here you can enable the Genius feature, learn more about it, or hide this sidebar entirely. You can also enable the Genius feature by visiting the Genius section below your Party Shuffle playlist.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

When you first enable the Genius feature, iTunes will ask you to sign in to your existing iTunes Store account or create a new one. iTunes advises you that although your library information is stored anonymously, an account is required to enable the Genius feature:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Once you sign on, you are required to acknowledge that you have read and agreed to Apple’s Genius Terms of Service, basically acknowledging that iTunes will anonymously collect and store information about your current iTunes library and your iTunes Store purchase history to aggregate with information from other Genius users in providing customized Genius playlists.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Once you have consented to this information, Genius begins the process of gathering information about your iTunes library:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

This process can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes depending on the size of your iTunes library. In our 15,000 track iTunes library, the process took approximately 15 minutes. This process occurs in the background, however, and you can continue using iTunes while you are waiting for the analysis to complete.

Once this information has been collected, it is sent to Apple, and your Genius results are then delivered, followed by a notice that Genius has been enabled and is now ready to be used.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

To make use of the Genius feature, simply select a track from your iTunes library, and then click the Genius button which appears in the bottom-right corner of the iTunes window:

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

iTunes will use the collected Genius information to automatically find 24 other tracks that are related to the selected track, and will display them in the main iTunes window:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

A button bar at the top of this listing will provide information on which track the song listing is based, and options to limit how many songs are included (25, 50, 75 or 100), refresh the content, and a button to save the currently displayed list as a Genius Playlist.

Clicking Save Playlist will save the currently listed songs as a Genius playlist named after the original track. This playlist will be shown with the Genius icon next to it, and can be renamed or moved into a folder like any other playlist. Likewise, this playlist will sync to any iPod, iPhone or Apple TV as a normal playlist, at least with the current models and firmware versions (upcoming iPhone and iPod touch v2.1 firmware will support on-device Genius playlist creation, and may therefore specifically recognize Genius playlists rather than displaying them as normal playlists).


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Selecting the saved Genius playlist will display the original menu bar, with options to change the number of included songs and refresh the Genius playlist.

With Genius mode enabled, iTunes can also provide recommendations on content available for purchase on the iTunes Store in the right-hand Genius sidebar. This basically replaces the iTunes Mini-store window first introduced in iTunes 7.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The Genius sidebar can be hidden from view simply by clicking on the hide Genius sidebar button in the very bottom-right corner of the iTunes window. Clicking this button again will show the Genius sidebar again.

Grid View

The other most visible change in iTunes 8 is in the new Grid View layout. While iTunes 8 has not done away with the traditional list view or Cover Flow views, the previous “Grouping” view has now been replaced with Grid View. This is now the default view when running iTunes 8 for the first time, but you can easily switch back to the traditional list view by choosing View, List from the iTunes menu, or clicking the list view button in the top-right corner by the Search field.

Similar to the way iPhoto’s “Events” layout works, Grid View presents your top-level information such as artist, album, genre, TV show, and so forth, in a grid layout represented by album artwork and title information.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Music can be viewed by either Albums, Artists, Genres or Composers. If more than a single album is represented within a category (for example, when browsing by Artist or Genre), only one artwork image is shown, but moving the mouse over the artwork will flip through the various album covers contained within that category, similar to the way Events work in iPhoto ‘08.

Update: For entries that have multiple album artwork (such as when browsing by artist or genre), you can choose which image you would like to use as the default by scrubbing through so that the proper image is displayed, and then right-clicking and selecting “Set Default Grid Artwork.”  The displayed album cover will become the default image displayed for that particular grid item.

Additional Grid View grouping and sorting options can be found on the iTunes View menu, or by right-clicking on the category headers at the top of the screen.

When browsing by Genre, iTunes has provided its own artwork covers to represent commonly-used Genres. Genres that do not have their own artwork simply display a selected album cover instead, in the same way the Artists view would.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)
Update: The artwork used for the Genre images can be customized with a bit of digging under the hood of iTunes. iLounge Discussions Forums member Germansuplex has posted an excellent thread on Custom Genre Artwork, detailing how to add your own custom genre artwork or replace the existing artwork used by iTunes itself. Some sample artwork images are even provided.

A slider found in the top-right corner of the Grid View display can be used to adjust the size of the album covers displayed. This slider setting is saved individually for each Grid View mode, so you could display large artwork in Genre view, for example, and smaller artwork when viewing Albums.

Selecting an item from the top-level grid view will open a listing of tracks for that particular item (ie, artist or album), organized similar to the Grouping View found in earlier versions of iTunes.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

When viewing the tracks within a given category from Grid View, a title bar will appear at the top of the track listing, similar to what you would see in iPhoto or on the iPhone or iPod touch. Clicking the top-left arrow button will return you back to the Grid View listing, and clicking the left and right arrow buttons in the top-right corner will switch through each Grid View item.

The Grid View listing for Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts and Audiobooks works in a similar way, with content-specific categories to choose from. For instance, for TV Shows, instead of Artist, Album, Genre and Composer, your browsing options are Show, Genre, and New. TV Shows and Podcasts will also display blue “badges” indicating how many new episodes are available for each category.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

In each of the various Grid Views, hovering over an album artwork image with the mouse will show a “Play” button. Clicking this will begin playing the content within that particular category (ie, Album, Artist, Genre, Show, etc). The tracks in that category will begin playing with the first track, unless Shuffle is turned on, in which case a random track is selected for playback.

Artwork Column

iTunes 8 now adds an “Artwork” column that can be shown or hidden from any track listing view. When this column is shown, the track listing is grouped by album, similar to the grouping view found in previous versions of iTunes.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The Artwork column can be hidden either by selecting the Show/Hide Artwork Column option from the iTunes {i]View menu, or by clicking the small triangle which appears at the very top left of the column headings:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Note that while the artwork column is visible by default when accessing track listings through the Grid View, but it can be turned off in here as well. As with all other column layouts and views, this setting is persistent, so if you hide the artwork column in Grid View, it will remain hidden until you choose to show it again.


Presumably to make space for the two new “Genius” buttons, iTunes 8 has now removed the Show Browser button from the bottom-right corner of the iTunes window. The View, Show/Hide Browser menu option can still be used to show or hide the iTunes Genre/Artist/Album browser when viewing your tracks in list view. The Browser is not available in Grid View or Cover Flow view, and selecting “Show Browser” in these views will automatically return you to List View.

Editing Track Info

A few changes have been made to how individual track information is edited in comparison to previous versions, including access to several new track properties.

iTunes 8 now offers access to the “Description” field for video files. Previously, this field was only accessible via Applescript (for Mac users) or via third-party tagging software such as AtomicParsley which could write directly into the MPEG-4 file headers.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Users familiar with the Video tab in previous versions of iTunes will notice that the “Video Kind” field is conspicuously missing from this screen. This has instead been moved to the “Options” tab and renamed “Media Kind.” As this more generic naming implies, this field is now used to change the kind not only for video files (between Movie, TV Show, and Music Video), but can also be used to set normal audio tracks to either Music or Audiobooks.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

This provides a greatly simplified way of organizing your normal audio tracks into Audiobooks without having to go through the previously cumbersome process of converting them to AAC and renaming them to an M4B extension. Now, even MP3 files can be tagged as audiobooks, appear in the normal audiobook section in iTunes and the iPod, and take advantage of the variable playback speed feature for audiobooks on the iPod.

Multiple Item Editing

The ability to edit the information for multiple items in previous versions of iTunes was generally limited to audio-specific information such as album, artist and track. No method was provided to modify video-related information on multiple items such as Video Kind, and the handling of specifying Sort Order fields was also needlessly complex, requiring you to edit the Sort Order fields for one track and then apply those changes to others from a context menu option.

Thankfully, iTunes 8 has remedied these limitations with multi-page window for editing multiple items. The first tab is very similar to the multiple item editing options found in earlier versions of iTunes, except that the options for Volume adjustment, Equalizer presets, Compilations, Skip when Shuffling, Remember Playback Position, and Gapless Album tracks have been moved to the “Options” tab instead.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The second tab, Videos, offers the ability to edit information for multiple TV Shows, a feature that has been conspicuously absent in the past two major iTunes releases:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The third tab provides a much simpler way to specify the sort order overrides for multiple items at once:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The fourth tab contains the additional options for Volume adjustment, Equalizer presets, Compilations, Skip when Shuffling, Remember Playback Position, and Gapless Album, as well as the “Media Kind” field, allowing the media kind to be set for multiple items; for example, setting multiple video items to “TV Shows”—again a feature that required third-party tagging software in previous versions of iTunes.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Preference Changes

iTunes 8 also incorporates some significant organizational changes to the preferences screens, generally simplifying and cleaning up from previous versions. Some preference settings have been removed entirely, while others have been moved elsewhere.

The General tab now contains an additional “Show” option for the new Genius feature, and the “Import” settings previously found under the “Advanced” tab. A number of other settings on this tab have been either moved elsewhere or removed entirely. For instance, Show genre when browsing is no longer available at all, while Show content ratings in library has been moved to the “Parental Controls” tab and Group compilations when browsing has been moved to the ‘Advanced” tab.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)
Update: The preferences which no longer appear in the iTunes preferences dialog boxes are actually still available under the hood as hidden preferences. These can be accessed via the Terminal command-line on Mac OS X or by editing an XML preferences file for Windows users.  For example, to turn off the Genre in the iTunes Library Browser on Mac OS X, you would open Terminal and enter the following command:

defaults write show-genre-when-browsing -bool FALSE

This is the equivalent of the iTunes 7 preference setting for “Show Genres when Browsing”

To change whether links to the iTunes Store are shown when browsing through your library, you can use the command

defaults write show-store-arrow-links -bool FALSE

Replacing “FALSE” with “TRUE” will toggle these options back on.

For Windows users, these hidden preferences are adjusted by editing the iTunesPrefs.XML file, which is buried in your “Application Data\Apple Computer\iTunes” folder (under your main username folder). Make sure you back up this file first, and then go in and simply add entries such as:

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

With thanks to Paul Mison for ferreting out the relevant information on these hidden settings on his blog.


Clicking The “Import” button opens up a second window showing the CD Import settings, also previously found on the “Advanced” tab. Note that options for Play songs while importing or converting and Create file names with track number are no longer available.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The Playback tab has been reorganized as well. The Keep movie window on top of all other windows option has now been moved to the Advanced tab, and the Smart Shuffle option appears to have been removed entirely, possibly deprecated by the new Genius feature.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The option to Shuffle by Songs, Albums, or Groupings can now be found on the main iTunes “View” menu, making it more convenient to change this shuffle setting on the fly.

On the Store tab, the Load complete preview before playing option has been removed.

The Syncing tab has now been renamed to “Devices.” In addition to showing a summary of iPhone and iPod touch device backups, the settings for AirTunes and iPhone/iPod touch remotes have been moved here from the Advanced tab.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The Advanced tab, which now appears at the far right-hand side, has been simplified with fewer options, and no sub-tabs.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Previous versions of iTunes had the Importing and Burning options located here, but in iTunes 8, Importing has been moved to the General tab, and the Burning options now appear each time you burn a new CD, rather than being set as global preferences.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Podcast Settings

Users familiar with previous versions of iTunes will probably notice that the “Podcasts” tab no longer appears in the iTunes preferences window. Instead, Podcast settings are now accessed from a button within the Podcasts section itself.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Clicking the “Settings” button which appears at the bottom of the Podcasts section will open the Podcast settings, similar to those previously found in the main iTunes preferences.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

One notable new feature here, however, is the ability to choose the number of podcast episodes downloaded and kept on a per-subscription basis. Previous versions of iTunes simply allowed subscriptions (or individual episodes) to be excluded from auto-deletion on an individual basis. While this option is still available, iTunes 8 offers additional flexibility by allowing you to specify completely different retention settings for different podcasts.

HDTV Content

With the release of iTunes 8, Apple has now begun selling HDTV content on the iTunes Store. While earlier versions of iTunes will allow you to browse through the available HDTV content, you will need iTunes 8 and Quicktime 7.5.5 in order to view HDTV content.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

When purchasing an HDTV show, iTunes actually downloads both a 720p HDTV version, and a normal standard-definition version. The HD version is used for viewing on the Apple TV and can also be viewed on your computer, while the SD version is used for syncing to your iPod or iPhone, which do not support high-definition content.

Note that there are higher system requirements for viewing HD content on your computer: A Dual-Core 2.0GHz CPU is required, and our own testing suggests that 1GB of RAM should be considered the minimum for acceptable HD playback quality on either Mac OS X or Windows XP/Vista.

HD TV shows are identified by a small “HD” badge at the right side of the Name column. This replaces the TV icon normally shown for TV shows, which is now only used for standard TV content:


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

Update: Many of the HDTV shows available from iTunes also include Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. The “Learn More About HD” page in the iTunes Store does mention this, but no clear indication is given on the iTunes Store page for each actual show.

Note that although iTunes will select the correct show to use for your iPod or Apple TV, you will see two entries for each HD episode: One for the HD version, and one for the SD version. These are separate files of course, and iTunes itself does not hide the SD titles.

Further, since these are stored as separate entries, information such as watched/unwatched status, play counts and bookmark position are independent of the other version, although iTunes will try to sync up the actual played status when you finish watching an episode (marking both items as played), it does not do this for partially played episodes and current playback position.  What this means for practical purposes is that HD content watched on your Apple TV will show up as completely unwatched on your iPod or iPhone until you have actually finished watching it, and vice-versa. The same applies to playback position as well, so if you watch half of a TV show episode on your iPhone, you will not be able to pick up where you left off on the Apple TV. Basically, iTunes selects the correct version for your device, and will flag both versions as played at the same time, but doesn’t otherwise match up the HD and SD versions in any other way.

The unwatched items badge count shown on the Grid View for TV Shows will also be inaccurate for content that is stored in both SD and HD versions, as it will show an total count of unwatched episodes in both formats.

This same issue can also create complications for Smart Playlists, since playlists of TV Shows will end up including both types of content. Although no method for selecting ONLY HD or SD content is provided in the Smart Playlist criteria, you can work around this by using the “Size” criteria, since HD TV episodes are generally significantly larger than their SD counterparts.

Update: Dynamic selection of HD versus SD content does not work when synchronizing playlists to your iPod or iPhone.  A playlist or Smart Playlist which contains only HD episodes, for instance, will not sync properly, resulting in an error that the selected content cannot be played on your iPod or iPhone. You will need to either mix your SD and HD content together in your TV Show playlists, or create separate playlists to use for Apple TV syncing and iPod/iPhone syncing.

UPDATE: Device Screen Changes

While most of the sync settings have not changed from previous versions of iTunes, with iTunes 8 and iPhone or iPod touch OS v2.1, the Capacity bar now displays Apps as a separate category highlighted in green. Previously, iPhone and iPod touch apps were simply included in the orange “Other” category.


Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 (Updated)

The addition of spoken menu support for the fourth-generation iPod nano has also yielded a new synchronization setting in iTunes, Enable spoken menus for accessibility. This option uploads the necessary voice data to your iPod nano and enables spoken menus.