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TUAW Hands On: iTunes 8

Robert Palmer

Released today, iTunes 8 is the most recent and advanced iteration of Apple's media management and playback software. iTunes 8 includes a new Genius recommendation engine, new visualizers, a new grid view, and new terms and conditions.

The Genius engine recommends other songs you might enjoy, based on a song you've selected in iTunes. If you have a diverse range of music, iTunes does a pretty good job of finding the "mood" of your selected song, and generating a playlist of songs that fit with that mood. Plus, it kicks off the playlist with the song you selected.

When you first use the Genius system, you must agree to its terms and conditions, and then it gathers information about the songs in your iTunes library. This took about three minutes on my 2.8GHz Intel iMac and my 2,100-song library. It then sends that information to Apple and builds a profile based on your likes and dislikes. You can then use the Genius Sidebar, which appears to the right of your playlist.

Genius playlists appear to work best with items available in the iTunes Store. Selecting a song already in the store shows a tightly related list of similar music. For songs not available in the iTunes Store, the recommendations are stranger, but may improve over time. For example, when I selected The Smiths' This Charming Man, which is not available in the U.S. store, it recommended songs like U2's Even Better than the Real Thing and Dreadlock Holiday by 10cc. Those choices aren't really what I would have expected.

Still, I think Genius playlists will be great for when I'm in the mood for a particular genre, but don't have a specific playlist set up. It may not make all the selections I would prefer, but for a one-click operation, it's hard to beat.

The Genius Sidebar shows songs available in the iTunes Store related to your current selection. It shows other songs from the same album that you don't own, as well as recommendations for other artists. As you might expect, 30-second previews are available for the songs in the iTunes Store. If the Genius Sidebar can't make a recommendation (as is the case with This Charming Man) it shows a list of top songs and albums from the iTunes Store.

Steve Jobs said that the Genius' recommendations will improve over time, as more people use the system. I can see this becoming a very popular, post-radio way for people to find new music, and drive a lot of revenue to the iTunes Store.

Syncing my iPod touch with iTunes 8 was dramatically faster than previous versions. Normally, my iPod would take about five minutes to sync, but with iTunes 8, the sync was complete in less than a minute. I had not yet updated my iPod to the new 2.1 firmware.

To organize your music, iTunes 8 also includes a new grid view that shows album artwork much like in iPhoto. You can increase or decrease the size of each album cover, and sort by album, artist, genre, or composer. Unlike iPhoto, you can't change the color of the background (a dark gray). The scrollbar attached to the grid area is also a custom control that I haven't seen before in other apps.

iTunes 8 also includes a new visualizer, based on The Barbarian Group's Magnetosphere, as Josh Ellis mentioned last Friday. Many suspected this would be the case, as The Barbarian Group was in attendance at the event. The new visualizer was very snappy on my iMac, and showed very cool, three-dimensional animations of glowing orbs, planet-like objects, and colorful light streams. When the song changes, the color and style of the visualizer changes too.

iTunes 8 is also much improved for people using assistive technologies like VoiceOver and screen reading software. You can manage your iTunes library using VoiceOver in Mac OS X Leopard, or with Window-Eyes for Windows XP and Windows Vista. You can also use your screen reader to purchase or download content from the iTunes Store, including iTunes U.

Also in iTunes 8 is a new set of Terms and Conditions, which may or may not be related to NBC's return to the iTunes Store. For the United States, you may no longer use (or attempt to use) the iTunes Store from outside the territory of the U.S. For example, conceivably, if you normally use the U.S. store, and you're on vacation in the UK, you must use the UK store for the duration of your stay. Apple says that it "may use technologies to verify such compliance." Look out, Sarah Connor. Update: This restriction (rule 10) is not new -- see Mike's followup post.

In summary, iTunes 8 adds great new recommendation and visualization features that will keep iTunes on top when it comes to media management apps. I can't see someone switching to iTunes based on these additions, but it will definitely keep current users happy -- and perhaps most importantly -- buying music.

Thanks, Juan and Zachary!

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