Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.1 (Updated)

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.1 (Updated) 1

In anticipation of this weekend’s United States rollout of the iPad, Apple has released iTunes 9.1, a minor update to last year’s iTunes 9. This new version is designed primarily to provide support for the iPad and its related features such as the iBookstore, but also adds a few other nice enhancements.

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The main changes in iTunes 9.1 are highlighted in typically sparse release notes, and include support for the iPad, including iBooks and ePub content and the ability to manage Genius Mixes.

 

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There are, of course, a few more interesting new features hidden under the hood. As usual, we’ve gone through iTunes 9.1 with a fine-toothed comb, and below, we look at what’s new.

Downloading and Installing the Update

As with other iTunes updates, you can either download the new version directly from Apple’s web site at http://www.itunes.com or simply choose “Check for Updates” from the menu in your existing version of iTunes.

The new version weighs in at approximately 94MB. QuickTime has not been updated this time around.

Initial Startup

After upgrading, iTunes 9 will take a few minutes when you first start it to convert your existing iTunes library database to the new format used by iTunes 9.1. As with previous upgrades, a typical iTunes user can expect this to take no more than 5-10 minutes, but if you have a large iTunes library, you will want to allow some time for this to complete—our largest iTunes library took over an hour.

 

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Unlike the extra background processing that occurred with the major iTunes 9 release, once this update is complete iTunes should be ready to go and perform normally.

Keep in mind as well that due to this database upgrade you won’t be able to revert back to a prior version of iTunes without restoring a copy of the database from before the update. iTunes does make its own copy of your previous iTunes library database in your “Previous iTunes Libraries” subfolder, but any changes you’ve made to the database since the upgrade will be lost if you want to go back to the previous version for any reason.

Books

The most notable change in iTunes 9.1 is support for storage and synchronization of eBooks, specifically for the iPad. Rather than adding a separate section, however, Apple has simply re-labelled the “Audiobooks” section to just “Books” and now combines both audiobooks and text-based eBooks in the same sorting area.

 

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As with the Audiobooks section before it, the Books section can be displayed in List, Grid or Cover Flow views. In Grid View, Books and Audiobooks can be grouped into separate sections as shown above or you can choose to group by Author or Category. In List and Cover Flow views, both types of content are mixed together into the same list, although the “Kind” column can be used to differentiate books from audio books.

 

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iTunes 9.1 also lets users import their own ePub-format books from other sources such as Project Gutenberg. ePub files are imported in the same manner as other types of media content—drag and drop into iTunes—then are automatically grouped into the Books section. Books are managed in much the same way as other types of media content as well: the File Info dialog box can also be used to update metadata for Books, and cover artwork can be added in the normal manner.

 

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For Books, the Options page currently only provides one user-settable option: VoiceOver Language, which will presumably be tied to the VoiceOver feature on the iPad itself. Apple has also released a new VoiceOver pack (version 1.3), which signals that iTunes will automatically download pronunciation updates for this feature going forward.

 

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Note that iTunes 9.1 does not provide any support for actually opening ePub files directly on your Mac or PC—these files are stored in iTunes only as a repository for syncing with the iPad and any future devices that may provide support for Apple’s iBooks app.

It is unclear at this time whether the iBookstore will be available through iTunes or only on the iPad. As of this writing it is not yet appearing on the iTunes Store, however Apple may be waiting for the actual launch of iPad before opening the iBookstore. At the very least it seems likely that iBooks purchased on the iPad itself will sync back to iTunes and be displayed and managed in the Books section. We’ll update this section when the iPad is available.

UPDATE (April 3, 2010): iBooks purchased on the iPad sync back to iTunes automatically in the same way as any other media content. The iBooks app on the iPad also allows users to download free samples of books for preview purposes; these free samples do not sync back to iTunes.

Genius Mixes

First introduced in iTunes 9.0 last fall, Genius Mixes expand upon the earlier Genius Playlists feature by providing longer radio-style mixes of music tracks that go well together. Once your library had been analyzed by the Genius feature, iTunes 9 could automatically generate up to 12 mixes based on different genres.

 

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In iTunes 9, Genius Mixes were fairly static; iTunes would happily create up to 12 mixes but users had no control over the mixes themselves or even their titles. iTunes 9.1 now adds the ability to rename, reorder and even delete Genius Mixes entirely.

Genius Mixes can also now be selected as a source for the iTunes DJ feature, allowing it to draw its track selection from a Genius Mix rather than a playlist or the entire music library.

 

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Convert Higher Bit Rate Songs to 128 kbps AAC

When Apple first released the iPod shuffle in 2005, iTunes added a feature that allowed users to automatically convert higher bit rate tracks down to 128kbps to accommodate the much lower capacity of the iPod shuffle. Since then, many iTunes users have been hoping that Apple would add the same capability for other iPod models and the iPhone.

After five years, iTunes 9.1 finally delivers this feature. All iPod and iPhone models now offer the option to “Convert higher bit rate songs to 128 kbps AAC,” found on their Summary tabs within iTunes.

 

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As with other sync options, this can be enabled on a per-device basis and will simply tell iTunes to automatically convert all files transferred to the iPod to a 128kbps AAC format, allowing users with larger libraries or smaller iPods to potentially fit more music onto their devices. Note that this option only applies to music and does not affect audiobooks, podcasts or video files. Also note that the 128kbps files are created on-the-fly and stored only on the target device and not in the iTunes library itself; enabling this option for multiple devices will require the conversion to be performed separately for each target device.

Note that this conversion option is not available for the Apple TV, which today has as much capacity as the largest iPod, but a much slower synchronization process, and presumably wouldn’t benefit much from conversion for most users.

Sync Screen Changes

iTunes 9.1 also introduces several other minor changes to the synchronization options. This includes a slightly redesigned layout for most of the settings screens which places groups of settings within their own dialog boxes rather than the two-tone shaded areas used in prior versions. iTunes 9 actually introduced this style for certain updated settings screens; iTunes 9.1 unifies this style across all of the sync settings tabs.

 

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Note that iTunes 9.1 also displays iPhone 3GS devices in the Summary page with the screen on, showing an image of a generic home screen. Older iPhone models and all iPod touch devices—even the updated 2009 third-generation iPod touch—continue to show the image with a blank screen.

UPDATE (April 3, 2010): iPad Sync Options

The iPad displays the same type of Summary screen in iTunes as the iPhone and iPod touch, displaying an image of the iPad, with the screen on, the name, capacity, software version and serial number. The standard “Check for Updates” and “Restore” buttons are present as well as the usual syncing options. The iPad introduces one additional sync option to this list however.  Since the iPad supports 720p videos, iTunes will sync the HD versions of videos to the iPad by default. Users can select “Prefer standard definition videos” to choose to sync only the standard definition version instead to save space on their iPad. Note that this only applies to videos from the iTunes Store that include both the HD and standard definition formats; iTunes will not perform any downconversion of HD content—if a standard-definition version is not available for a selected video the HD version will be transferred to the device regardless of this setting.

 

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Apps

The Applications category in the iTunes source list and the sync settings tab for iPhone OS devices have now been condensed to just “Apps,” and the sort options have been moved to a drop-down menu rather than the previous button bar layout. The corresponding “Games” settings for Click Wheel iPod models has not been changed, however.

 

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UPDATE (April 3, 2010): The Apps sync screen for the iPad is similar to the screen for the iPhone and iPod touch, with the sample home screen layout shown for an iPad. Any custom wallpaper selected on the iPad will also be shown here. Selecting, unselecting and rearranging apps here works in the same way as it does for other iPhone OS devices.

 

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The iPad Apps sync screen also hides one additional trick: If you have apps installed on your iPad that support document transfer, a separate set of File Sharing options will appear below the main app sync section, displaying a list of these apps and the documents that they contain.

 

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You can also now choose to see the “Version” column when viewing your Apps category in list mode, which can save a trip to the file info dialog box when you just want to check which version of an app is in your library. You can sort on the Version column in the same way as any other column in iTunes list view, although we’re not really sure what point there would be in doing this.

 

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The View options for the Apps section have also been revised to more accurately reflect app-related information. Artist has been changed to read “Seller,” for example.

 

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Books Syncing

A Books tab now appears in the sync options for all iPod and iPhone devices for managing synchronization of audiobooks. This is likely where you will select eBooks to synchronize to the iPad as well.

 

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The settings on the Books screen work much like the settings for TV Shows; users can choose either specific audiobooks or playlists for synchronization and can select individual parts from multi-part audiobooks. This provides additional flexibility when syncing audiobooks.

The Apple TV settings do not include the separate Books tab, however non-Audible audiobooks can still be synchronized to the Apple TV from the Music settings, as in previous versions of iTunes.

UPDATE (April 3, 2010): With today’s release of the iPad it has been confirmed that eBooks from the iTunes library are synchronized to the iPad via the “Books” tab. Books can be sorted by Title or by Author and a Search field is available to quickly search through the list of Books in the iTunes library directly within the sync selection window.

 

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Books purchased through the iBookstore on the iPad sync automatically back to iTunes in the same manner as other purchased content. Purchased books appear in iTunes with a “Kind” type of “Purchased Book.”

 

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Note that the iBookstore remains available only from the iPad at this time and not via iTunes on your computer. Further, free samples of books downloaded from the iBookstore on the iPad do not sync back to your iTunes library.

Aperture Support

iTunes has provided basic support for synchronizing photo albums from Apple’s Aperture application since Aperture’s first release. However this support has been quite limited in comparison to the more advanced synchronization options available for iPhoto users. With the release of Aperture 3 earlier this year, iTunes 9.1 has expanded support for synchronizing photos from Aperture. Users of Aperture can now select Faces and recent Projects from their Aperture libraries, and iPhone and iPod touch users can choose to synchronize videos from Aperture to their devices. As with iPhoto, synchronized videos must already be in an iPhone OS compatible format—iTunes will not perform any video conversion during the sync.

 

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iTunes 9.1 now also displays your Aperture or iPhoto albums in a hierarchical view, shown within their appropriate folders and projects.

 

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As with prior versions, iTunes 9.1 displays iPhoto Events in a separate list. Aperture Projects on the other hand are displayed in a hierarchical list alongside Aperture photo albums. Much like iPhoto Events, users can choose to automatically sync recent projects and can select additional projects manually.

Faces and Projects appear on iPod and iPhone devices as standard albums in the same way as Faces and Events from iPhoto. On the Apple TV, Faces are displayed in their own category and Aperture Projects are treated as normal photo albums. This differs from viewing iPhoto content on the Apple TV, where Events are displayed in a separate “Events” section.

iTunes 9.1 also preserves any custom sort ordering set within photo albums from an Aperture library. In prior versions, Aperture albums were always sorted by date.

Unlike iPhoto, Aperture Slideshows cannot be synced to the Apple TV, even as static photo albums—they simply do not appear in the list. iTunes 9.1 continues to allow iPhoto users to sync their slideshows to the Apple TV, including custom transition and playlist settings. As before, syncing videos to the Apple TV from either iPhoto or Aperture is not supported.

Aperture photos will also not display the date taken when browsing photos on the Apple TV or iPod classic. Aperture Albums display no date at all, while Aperture Projects display only the date that project was imported into Aperture. By comparison when browsing iPhoto content on these devices, the actual date taken is displayed at the top of the screen for each photo.

Support for syncing Places information from either iPhoto or Aperture is not available on current iPod, iPhone or Apple TV devices. The iPad will include Places support although it is not yet clear whether iTunes will implement Places as separate sync categories for the iPad or simply transfer the location information as metadata for the iPad itself to sort out. We’ll update this with more information once the iPad is released.

UPDATE (April 3, 2010): The “Photos” sync tab for the iPad in iTunes 9.1 is the same as for other iPhone OS devices, with no specific “Places” option. Instead, the iPad reads places information directly from the photo metadata to display your photos on a map in the iPad Photos application.

 

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iPad Remote

Very little has changed in the Preferences in iTunes 9.1, with most of the changes related to terminology such as Audiobooks being replaced with “Books” and Applications being renamed “Apps” on the General tab, and references to the iPad on the Devices tab. One setting of note on the Devices tab, however, is the option to “Look for iPod touch, iPhone and iPad Remotes.”

 

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While it is possible that this may simply indicate that the existing Remote app will also run on the iPad, with the specific reference to “iPad Remote” it seems more likely that Apple plans to release an iPad-optimized Remote app rather than forcing iPad users to rely on the non-optimized iPhone Remote app.

Other Minor Changes

The iTunes Advanced Preferences screen has a new option, Reset iTunes Store Cache. No help is provided on this option, but presumably this clears any cached iTunes Store interface information within iTunes and is likely useful primarily as a diagnostic tool for users who may be having problems accessing the iTunes Store.

The Group Compilations when Browsing option has disappeared from the Advanced Preferences as well, although is is still referenced in the iTunes Help file. As with other preferences that have been removed from the iTunes UI, the Group Compilations when Browsing option remains available as a hidden preference that can be adjusted by editing the preference files outside of iTunes. When upgrading an existing library iTunes will keep the existing settings.

UPDATE: The Group Compilations option is now found on the View menu in iTunes under the Column Browser submenu. This works in the same way as the preference option did, and allows you to toggle it on and off more easily. Thanks to Doug Adams for pointing this out in the comments.

The Column Browser submenu now also contains a setting to Use Album Artists. When enabled, the Album Artist field is used to group tracks instead of the Artist field. This can be particularly useful for albums that include featured or alternate artists as they can now all appear under a single artist entry when browsing the library while still retaining their actual artist information in the individual tracks.

 

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The Show Duplicates option on the File menu has been renamed Display Duplicates. It functions the same as in prior versions, however.

New options can now be found on the Control menu to Increase and Decrease Volume along with corresponding keyboard shortcuts.

What still hasn’t changed – iPhone Manual Mode

Each time an iTunes update comes out we receive a flurry of e-mails from readers asking us if Apple has finally fixed certain longstanding problems such as the ability to manually manage the media content on an iPhone from more than one computer. Sadly, iTunes 9.1 and iPhone OS 3.1.3 still have not addressed this issue.

The inability to manually manage the media content on an iPhone from more than one computer continues to be a source of frustration for many of our readers and one of the oddest limitations we’ve seen in iTunes. For many users this keeps the iPhone from being entirely usable as an iPod. It is obvious at this stage that this is a deliberate design decision on Apple’s part, and one that it is for some reason refusing to fix for the benefit of users.

More importantly, this makes us wonder whether the iPad will suffer from a similar limitation or will function more like the iPod touch. It is worth noting that with the iPhone there is an additional licensing restriction that prevents ringtones from being loaded from more than one iTunes library, which may indirectly contribute to this limitation. The iPod touch and iPad do not support ringtone capabilities and are therefore not bound by this restriction.

Performance

iTunes 9.1 contains no noticeable performance improvements from the previous version on either Windows or Mac OS X. It remains a 32-bit application and memory usage and utilization appear to be the same in the new version as in iTunes 9.

Update or Wait?

If you’re planning to buy an iPad, the answer to this question is obvious as you will need the newest version of iTunes to support the iPad. For other users, the main benefits of this update seem to be support for converting songs on-the-fly during sync and improved support for the new features in Aperture 3. The new separate Audiobooks syncing options may also be of interest to Audiobook enthusiasts.

Other new features are more minor in scope and there’s nothing else here that would make the average user rush out and download this update. The good news, however, is that we haven’t seen anything in iTunes 9.1 that suggests you shouldn’t update. For all intents and purposes it continues to work much the same as iTunes 9 did.

 

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