updated 05:30 pm EDT, Wed September 9, 2009
iTunes player and store tested
Apple regularly promises that each whole-digit iTunes revision is a major overhaul, but in most cases these are add-ons to the existing framework rather than genuine redesigns. Some have complained that this has gradually led iTunes into feature creep, especially at the iTunes Store: the sheer number of features has meant wading through the interface to get at what used to be simple tasks. iTunes 9 theoretically promises the best of both worlds; we're taking a first look to see if the claims live up to expectations.
interface changes: navigation and sync
Starting up iTunes for the first time, you'd be forgiven for thinking that little has changed. Other than putting the optional browser on the left by default rather than on top (this can be changed back) and asking Mac users to use an Option-click to switch to the mini player, the app is ultimately very similar to what's been seen before. Even the album view and status views are more cosmetic changes than anything else.
It's not until you visit the sync menu for plugged-in devices that the largest changes become apparent. Simply put, it's much more visual and easier to control. Movies are shown visually and let you sync movie playlists on top of usual sync options. Any episodic content, such as podcasts and TV shows, also let you fine-tune sync options to only load particular episodes in addition to the usual automated options for recent or untouched items.
More importantly, app syncing is now treated as a much more sincere effort. You can as always disable syncing certain apps, but you now get an at-a-glance list of app sizes and the option of searching to find a given app if you have a large list. The app management screen, which replicates the home screens of the iPhone and iPod touch, is also a real gem for those with large quantities of apps: it's now possible to customize the number of home screens and the layout of individual apps without having to do so on the hardware itself, which can save a tremendous amount of time versus the infamous "app shuffle" on the touchscreen.
iTunes Store: interface changes and social networking
By far the largest sea change, though, has happened in the commercial front end of iTunes. For all intents and purposes, Apple has scrapped the proprietary, software-driven portal in favor of a much more visual and flexible web store (in fact, it's suspected that Apple is using a WebKit-rendered page). Browsing this interface is a relief, if just for the sake of speed: music, movies, apps and other features now have their own drop-down menus at the top, and any given section now shows all the items in a given category (new releases, recommendations) in a single scrollable panel instead of the excruciatingly slow page-by-page view of the past. It's now much easier to find a new title or to switch to a different section of the store, and this alone would be worthwhile.
However, Apple has also brought some much needed instant sampling features. Clicking the "i" on the corner of an album or video thumbnail lets you see the track listing, sample content, and buy much as you would if you'd visited the dedicated page for the product. Album and video pages themselves are more readable, especially for recommendations.
Subtly, each "buy" item now has a drop-down menu for each of the contextual items and gets more features. At a basic level, it's now much easier to gift individual songs or episodes, but there are now also two options to share a track with Facebook or Twitter. These aren't particularly special, but they're convenient for broadcasting love for a particular track and honor the common formatting used by frequent visitors. For example, a Twitter share automatically includes an #iTunes hash tag in addition to the track data and store link.
iTunes Store: iTunes LP and iTunes Extras
In browsing the iTunes Store in version 9, it's also clear that Apple is now pushing more complete packages instead of stressing the by-song purchases of before. iTunes LP embodies this and is, essentially, the return of the "enhanced" CD that surfaced in the 1990s when Internet music was just enough of a threat to the CD to be noticed. These are essentially mixed-format albums with DVD-like menus: you can play one or all of the audio tracks, but there are now browsable special videos and other material. To be honest, we find these somewhat trivial: they boost the price of the album and feel more like they're made to please label executives worried about the death of the album format than to reach users.
iTunes Extras are more useful and apply to purchased movies -- rentals don't have the choice. Much like the LPs, they too add extra videos and other material, but at least here those extras are expected as they would also be available on a Blu-ray or DVD. If nothing else, you're now getting much more of the value of a physical disc.
others: Home Sharing, Genius Mixes
A chronic problem of iTunes purchases is the need to sync across multiple computers; this usually involves carrying them over on a USB drive, burning a disc or (for the more experienced) accessing a network share. Home Sharing solves that: any computers authorized both to a single iTunes account and Home Sharing can now sync purchases between each other and even other content. We haven't had much need to try this, but it's simple to set up.
Genius Mixes are another matter. These largely appear to be a rebranding of Genius playlists, but they're now browsable in a more visual fashion.
We still have to use iTunes for a longer period to settle on an opinion, but for now it's mostly positive. Those most likely to appreciate the upgrade are those with one of Apple's touchscreen players or who consider the iTunes Store their primary source of music. Without these, a lot of the changes are more incremental, but it's increasingly hard to find someone who won't be touched by these changes. And if it does, version 9 is a true necessity.