Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

With the impending release of the iOS 4 operating system scheduled for Monday and the iPhone 4 set to follow shortly thereafter, Apple has released another relatively minor iTunes update—iTunes 9.2—to provide support for its new touchscreen software and hardware. iTunes 9.2 is the first to offer compatibility with the new iOS and iPhone 4 devices, as well as supporting its upcoming iBooks 1.1 application, which synchronizes ePub- and PDF-format books to the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

The main changes in iTunes 9.2 are highlighted in the usual sparse release notes, and primarily include support for new features and changes in iOS 4 and iBooks 1.1.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

As usual, there are a number of other more subtle new features hidden in this update as well, and we’ve taken our traditional in-depth look at what’s changed. For the time being, some of the iTunes 9.2 changes are hidden unless an iOS 4 device is connected, so we’ll update this article with those additional features when iOS 4 is officially available.

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. Mac users should also see the update included in the Software Update application.

The update weighs in at approximately 107MB for the Mac version and 93MB for the Windows version. QuickTime has not been updated with this release, although the Windows installer still includes QuickTime 7.6.6 for users who do not already have it.

Initial Startup

After upgrading, iTunes 9.2 will take some time when you first run it to convert your existing iTunes library database to a new format. We found this update took a little bit longer for this process than in previous versions, with one extremely large iTunes library requiring almost 90 minutes of “Updating” before iTunes was ready to use.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

Following the main update to the library, iTunes 9.2 will also take a few minutes to create new artwork thumbnails. This process should run somewhat faster, with the longest run we encountered taking just under 10 minutes.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

As usual, this database upgrade will prevent you from reverting 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 a “Previous iTunes Libraries” subfolder, but any changes you make after the upgrade will be lost if you want to go back to the previous version for any reason.

Support for iBooks 1.1

Several of the changes in iTunes 9.2 are directly related to a new version of iBooks released on June 21st. ”>iBooks 1.1 adds support for the iPhone and iPod touch as well as the ability to view PDFs within the iBooks application on any iOS 4 device.

iPhone and iPod touch Support

At the beginning of April, iTunes 9.1 reorganized the “Audiobooks” section from earlier versions into a new “Books” section, grouping audiobooks and e-books together in one place. Most references to “Audiobooks” were changed to “Books” throughout the iTunes interface, including the sync tabs for Apple’s various media devices. At that time, however, only the sync options for the iPad actually included e-books in that section—others were limited to listing audiobooks only in much the same way as they had previously.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

iTunes 9.2 provides the same e-book management interface for iPhone and iPod touch devices running iOS 4, regardless of whether iBooks is installed on the target device or not. The settings here are essentially the same as for the iPad, and a separate entry in the capacity bar is also included to indicate how much space is being taken up by e-books.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

You can choose to sync e-books to your iPhone or iPod touch regardless of whether the iBooks application is installed or not. If the app is not present, iTunes will display a warning dialog indicating this following the sync. The iBooks app can be installed either via iTunes or directly from the App Store on the device itself, and will pick up any content that you’ve already transferred to the device.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

PDF Support

With the inclusion of PDF reading features in iBooks 1.1, iTunes 9.2 has also made some changes to how PDF files are handled. For several years now, iTunes has supported importing PDF files as “digital booklets” for the music library, and many albums purchased from the iTunes Store have included PDF files as parts of the album to provide digital cover artwork and liner notes. Likewise, it has not been uncommon for podcasts and iTunes U collections to include PDF files as part of their subscriptions from time to time. Prior to iTunes 9.2, dragging a PDF file into your iTunes library would drop it into the “Music” section, where it would organized in much the same way as a music track.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

iTunes 9.2 now imports PDF files directly into the Books section, ready to be synced to a device running iBooks 1.1. PDF files appear in the Books listing alongside ePub books.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

In much the same way, PDF files from the Books section will appear in the “Books” sync settings in iTunes for an iPad or iOS 4 device and are synced over in the same manner as ePub titles.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

Note that iTunes 9.2 doesn’t perform any checks on what version of iBooks is on your device. For instance, PDF files can be synced to an iPad using iBooks 1.0 but will not be readable on the device until iBooks 1.1 is installed. Further, unlike syncing e-books to an iPhone or iPod touch, no warning message is provided when syncing PDF files to an iPad device running an older version of iBooks.

iTunes 9.2 also still does not provide any built-in method for viewing ePub files. Double-clicking on a PDF file will open it in your default PDF reader application in the same manner as in previous versions of iTunes.

Syncing Existing PDF Files to iBooks

As noted earlier, iTunes has been able to store and read PDF files for some time, and many users may have a number of PDF files stored in their Music library or as part of podcasts or iTunes U collections. By default, these PDF files remain exactly where they are and do not appear in the Books section and are therefore not available to sync to iBooks. With iTunes 9.2, however, you can re-categorize these PDF files by using the “Media Kind” field in the Options panel of the file properties. Simply change the “Media Kind” to “Book” and the PDF will appear in the Books section in iTunes and can be synced to iBooks on your device.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

Application Folder Management

One of the significant user interface changes in iOS 4 is the ability to organize applications into Folders. In addition to being able to do this directly on an iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 4, iTunes 9.2 also provides the same capabilities in the Apps sync settings.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

This works in much the same manner as on the device itself. To create a new folder, simply drag an application icon on top of another one and a new folder will appear with the two applications, and a default folder name based on genre. You can then rename the folder, drag in more applications, or drag applications out of the folder onto the same page or other pages.

With support for background home screen wallpapers in iOS 4, the iTunes 9.2 Apps screen also displays the selected home screen background in much the same way as it previously did for the iPad.

Automatically Sync New Apps

iTunes 9.2 adds another new feature that will be of value to users with more than one iOS device who frequently download a lot of apps. In prior versions of iTunes, when new apps were downloaded from the App Store, they would be automatically synced to every iOS device associated with the current library. This created problems for families where multiple devices were shared on a single computer, since not every user would necessarily want every apps. The problem was exacerbated with the advent of the iPad, where apps downloaded for an iPhone or iPod touch would also end up getting synced automatically to the iPad.

Fortunately, iTunes 9.2 addresses this with an option to “Automatically Sync New Apps.” Found below the listing of applications on the “Apps” tab for each device, this option determines whether new apps that are downloaded into the iTunes library will be automatically synced to the specified device.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

This option is enabled by default, but when disabled, new applications will never be synced automatically; users will need to select new apps manually from the list before they will be transferred. Note that updates to apps that are already installed on a device will still be synced automatically regardless of this setting.

File Sharing Support for iOS 4

While not specifically new in iTunes 9.2, iPhone and iPod touch devices running iOS 4 now have a “File Sharing” section on the “Apps” tab in much the same way as the iPad. This allows files to be transferred to and from supported applications via iTunes.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

New List View Columns

iTunes 9.2 also adds a few new columns to the List View. Artwork, Episode Number, Purchase Date, Ringtone, and VoiceOver are now available in all views. Some of these were previously available only in specific sections, and enabling the “Artwork” setting in the View Options essentially performs the same function as the Show Artwork Column option on the iTunes View menu.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

Note also that the “Play Count” and “Skip Count” columns have been renamed to simply “Plays” and “Skips” respectively.

Other Notable Changes

We’ve observed a few other small changes and UI enhancements in iTunes 9.2 that are not particularly significant by themselves but are certainly worth noting.

An unplayed count now appears beside the TV Shows section in the iTunes source listing, indicating the total number of unwatched TV Shows.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

The Summary tab for most current iOS devices now shows slightly different icons. iTunes 9.1 introduced an “powered on” version of the icon for the iPhone 3GS which has now been extended to the iPhone 3G and iPod touch models.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

The iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch devices, which will be capable of displaying home screen wallpaper with iOS 4 now show an icon with not only the iPhone home screen but also a generic background wallpaper. This appears even when using iOS 3.x on these devices.

 

Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 (Updated)

The original iPhone and first-generation iPod touch continue to appear with the same black screen icon as in previous versions of iTunes.

Performance Improvements

iTunes 9.2 claims to provide two specific areas of performance improvement: Faster backups with iOS 4 devices and faster scrolling.

When syncing iOS 4 devices there is a noticeable improvement in backup performance. A test iPhone running iOS 4 which took almost two minutes to backup with iTunes 9.1 saw backup speeds reduced to under 30 seconds when using iTunes 9.2. The bulk of this improvement seems to come from faster scanning for content to be backed up rather than the actual transfer of data. In short, an iPhone with few or no changes to be backed up can scan through and “complete” its backup in 5-10 seconds. This improvement is less noticeable on a device that has a lot of data to be transferred as part of the backup, as the transfer speeds themselves do not appear to have been improved.

Scrolling performance in Grid View also appears to have been significantly improved over iTunes 9.1, at least in the media sections of iTunes. This is likely due to the pre-caching of artwork thumbnails performed during initial startup, as the artwork loads significantly faster while scrolling, removing the delays previously encountered. Even in a very large iTunes library with over 50,000 tracks, scrolling through grid views was extremely smooth in almost all views. The notable exception here is the Apps section, which still seems to “stall” while icons are rendered, suggesting that App icons are not being cached by iTunes in the same manner. With the improvements elsewhere, using the Grid View for the Apps section now feels almost painful by comparison.

Beyond these two areas, iTunes 9.2 does not appear to offer any other significant performance improvements. It remains a 32-bit application, and memory usage and processor utilization appear to be about the same as in the prior version.

Update or Wait?

iTunes 9.2 is a mandatory upgrade if you plan on upgrading your device to iOS 4 or purchasing an iPhone 4. Users of older iOS devices or iPods will find few useful new features in here, but the scrolling performance improvements and artwork caching alone are a nice improvement for any iTunes user with a medium to large-sized library, particularly if you normally use the Grid or Cover Flow views.  Beyond that, these users will find that this version continues to work about the same as iTunes 9.1 did.

The bottom line is that there’s nothing we can see in here that would cause us to recommend against installing this upgrade for any reason, but the greatest benefits will be for users looking to use iOS 4 devices.

This article will be updated with additional iOS 4 device-specific details in the near future.

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