Apple today released iTunes 4.9 for both Mac OS X and Windows, most prominently introducing support for podcast downloading, and at the same time, providing a directory of more than 3,000 podcasts through the iTunes Music Store. Why the emphasis on podcasts? For months, people have been enjoying the free, serialized Internet radio broadcasts, downloading them individually or through subscriptions, then listening to them on their computers or iPods. More than a year after these broadcasts began, they’ve become popular enough to attract attention from the mainstream media – and Apple – which now claims that “podcasting is the next generation of radio.”
For more information on podcasting, check out our February 2005 article, Understanding the Podcast Revolution, a look at the concepts, key players, and popular software packages. Some people believe that the arrival of iTunes as the 800-pound gorilla of software will render most of the programs mentioned in the earlier article obsolete, but others believe iTunes will only provide an easy introduction to a world previously explored by a relatively small audience.
You’ll want to download iTunes 4.9 from Apple’s official downloads page, as well as the most recent iPod software updater. The new iPod software allows certain iPods to easily browse and scroll the long track names of podcasts.
Free Podcasts for All
When you fire up iTunes 4.9, you can’t miss the Podcasts icon in the Source list. (In fact, you can’t remove it, even if you’re not interested in podcasts.)
Clicking this icon takes you to an empty window at first; this is your podcast playlist, this is where you view and manage your podcasts.
To start getting podcasts, click the Podcast Directory link at the bottom of the window; this takes you to the Podcast page of the iTunes Music Store. (You can also get to this page from any of the iTunes Music Store’s main pages; there is a Podcasts link in the navigation column at the left of these pages.)
The Podcast Directory is like any other iTunes Music Store page; you can click graphics to access information about the programs, check out the Top Podcasts in a list at the right of the page, and browse podcasts by either clicking the Browse button at the top-right of the window, or by clicking one of the category links at the left of the page.
You can search for podcasts from the search field at the top of the window, or from the search field at the left; the latter lets you choose from Search All Podcasts, Search Podcast Titles, and Search Podcast Authors.
When you click a link or graphic for a podcast, you’ll see more information about the podcast. As with albums, you’ll see a description, a track list (in this case, it’s a list of episodes), and more information about the podcaster.
As of today, there are some weaknesses in this information. Many of the “artists” are not correct, and the time is not available for any of the podcasts. This can, however, be added to information about the podcast; podcasters will need to change their file information for iTunes in order to display this and other information. You can get more info about the podcast by clicking the “i” icon next to the description; this displays show notes provided by the podcaster. Again, not all podcasts offer this information.
After you’ve found a podcast you want to hear, you have two options: you can click Get Episode in the Price column (podcasts are all – for now – listed as Free). This downloads just one episode of the podcast to your iTunes library, and stores it in a Podcasts folder in your iTunes Music folder. You can then listen to it on your computer from the Podcasts playlist, or sync it to your iPod, and listen to it by selecting Music > Podcasts, then selecting the show name and episode.
If you find a podcast you like, and that you’d like to automatically receive whenever it’s updated – daily, weekly, monthly or at irregular frequency – click the Subscribe button in the top part of the window, or click Subscribe in the Podcasts playlist next to the podcast’s name.
This tells iTunes to add a subscription to your Podcasts playlist. iTunes displays an alert, asking if you really want to subscribe to this podcast. Subscriptions download the most recent episode, but also tell iTunes to check and download future episodes when available.
If you click Subscribe, iTunes displays the Podcasts playlist window, then starts downloading the most recent episode of the podcast. You’ll see an orange icon to the left of the podcast as it downloads; this is the same icon you see when importing songs.
You can view more episodes of the podcast by clicking the disclosure triangle next to the show’s name. As you can see above, these episodes are dimmed, and have a GET button next to them. To download any previous episode, just click the GET button. To view show notes, click the “i” icon at the right of a show’s description.
(You can also subscribe to podcasts that are not listed in the iTunes Music Store. Select Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast, then enter the URL for the podcast you want to subscribe to. Check the podcast’s website for the URL; this is often a link ending with .xml. As a side note for podcasters or fans of unlisted programs, you can use a link from the iTunes Music Store to add an unlisted podcast to Apple’s directory, a several step process that checks to be sure the podcast isn’t listed, then submits it to Apple.)
After you download podcasts, a blue dot in the left-hand column of the Podcasts playlist indicates those you have not yet listened to.
When you start listening to a podcast, these dots go away, even if you have not finished listening. If you haven’t listened to an entire podcast, you might want to reset it to “unplayed”. You can do this by right-clicking (Windows) or Control-clicking (Mac) a podcast’s name and selecting Mark as Unplayed. You’ll see later, in Podcast and iPod Settings, that this can help you choose which podcasts to sync to your iPod.
You are limited in the way you manage the Podcasts playlist. You can only sort by release date, and this sorts within each podcast; there is no way to sort by other criteria, or to drag podcasts into the order you want. Podcasts remain listed alphabetically. While you can make a playlist of your podcasts, and sort them in any way you want, as for music, this special Podcasts playlist does not offer any flexibility.
You can delete any podcasts from the Podcasts playlist by selecting a podcast or episode and pressing Delete. If you delete an episode, only that file gets deleted; if you delete a podcast, your subscription gets deleted as well.
In addition to standard podcasts, which are just audio recordings, iTunes can deliver “enhanced podcasts”, which contain “chapters that reference pictures or web links that are displayed within the iTunes song artwork viewer.” The best way to see an enhanced podcast is to subscribe to Apple’s iTunes New Music Tuesday podcast. When you start listening to this in iTunes, you’ll see a Chapter button to the left of the info display.
Click this button to display the chapter selection menu. In some cases, as in the example below, the menu will contain graphics, but some will only contain text. In either case, this lets you skip to a different part of the podcast without having to fast-forward.
In addition, the graphics change in the album art section of iTunes’ window as the show progresses. Some shows, such as Adam Curry’s PodFinder, also feature clickable links in the album art window. If you hear something about a podcast you like, when listening to this show, just click the link to go to the appropriate page in the iTunes Music Store Podcast Directory.
Podcasts available from iTunes can be either AAC or MP3 files, and are bookmarkable. These bookmarks allow you to stop listening at any point, then pick up again from the same place – a new addition to MP3s. To be enhanced podcasts, however, and use the additional features such as chapters, they must be AAC files.
Podcast and iPod Settings
In addition to iTunes’ ability to download and manage podcasts, the program offers podcast preferences as well as new settings for your iPod, so you can choose which podcasts to sync. Click the Settings button at the bottom of the Podcasts playlist window to see the podcast settings.
You can choose to have iTunes check for new episodes every hour, every day, every week or manually. If you select Manually, just click the Update button, at the top right of the iTunes window when you are viewing the Podcasts playlist. (You can also click this at any time to check for new episodes.) When iTunes finds new episodes, you can choose whether it downloads the most recent episode, all episodes, or does nothing. In the latter case, the new episodes will display in the Podcasts playlist, but they’ll be dimmed; click the GET button to manually download any episodes you want.
Finally, choose from the Keep menu how many episodes you want to keep; All Episodes, All Unplayed Episodes, Most Recent Episodes, and several other choices, from two to ten episodes. Unfortunately, these options apply across the board; you cannot use different settings for separate podcasts.
When your iPod is connected, you can choose which Podcasts iTunes copies to the iPod. Either click iPod Preferences from the Podcasts window, or click the iPod button at the bottom of the iTunes window, then click the Podcasts icon.
You’ll notice that this tab is similar to the Music tab, where you choose how to sync your music to your iPod. You can choose Automatically Update All Podcasts, or you can choose to Automatically Update Selected Podcasts Only. If you choose selected podcasts, check the ones you want to sync.
If you check Do Not Update Podcasts, iTunes won’t sync any of your podcasts to your iPod. You can also choose from the Update menu how many episodes you want to sync to your iPod. (You can manually sync any podcasts you want to your iPod, if you don’t use automatic syncing.)
Parting Thoughts: The Wild, Wonderful World of Podcasts
In just a couple of years, podcasting has gone from a geek-to-geek form of entertainment to mainstream listening. With the release of iTunes 4.9, listening to podcasts is easy; before, you needed special software, and syncing podcasts to your iPod was not always simple. Now, you can check out all sorts of audio programs with just a few clicks, and listen to them on your computer, with iTunes, or on your iPod on the go. It’s time to check out some of the 3,000-plus programs available from iTunes and see if this turns you on. You’ll find news, views, and wackiness. There really is something for everyone.
Links to Additional iLounge information on iTunes 4.9, new iPod Software, and new iPods
News Story: Apple’s revised iPod lineup
News Story: Apple cuts 1GB iPod shuffle price
News Story: New iPods now available in stores; photos inside
Photo Gallery: Unpacking the new color U2 iPod
Editorial:// Today’s iPod lineup, and you