Thursday, September 14, 2006

First thoughts about iTunes 7

Computer problems delayed me from giving the new iTunes 7 release a thorough workout until today. Here are some impressions, which you can compare and contrast with what others are saying around the net.

Audio playback quality: No problems here. I have had a lot of problems with stuttering and non-responsiveness in the past. Since any change (even increasing the play count or setting a rating) always caused iTunes to save all the library data (in binary form and in XML form), iTunes used to stop updating its display and stop responding to Play/Pause/etc. controls about 30 seconds before the end of each track. Doesn't seem to be lagging like that anymore, although the recent reboot to upgrade QuickTime might also factor into it. I notice that when I quit iTunes now, there's a "Saving Library" progress dialog, so maybe it's less aggressive about writing every last change to disk now.

Video playback quality: Previously, I absolutely couldn't watch a video played through iTunes because of stuttering and lagging. I would always do File > Show in Finder and play videos through QuickTime. Now the performance is OK, even at full-screen, although a floating control bar appears with no obvious way to dismiss it. (Various attempts to dismiss the control bar just resulted in the video ending.)

Navigating via cover art: The new "Coverflow" view is cute, and performance seems to be good even with a big library. iTunes couldn't locate art for plenty of albums that I thought would be slam dunks. (Abba "Gold" for example.) The coverflow view will prompt me to go back to the Clutter freeware app and fill in some of the missing covers. The other cover-displaying view, a hybrid of coverflow and the song list, looks like it will be useful for playing or otherwise manipulating whole albums worth of songs. To use it productively will require some extra cleanup -- filling in missing track numbers, dealing with duplicate copies of songs from the same album, and turning off the "Compilation" flag for greatest hits albums all for the same group. I suspect both of the new views will work best with the library filtered down to something manageable, either by selecting a playlist or searching for an artist name.

Multiple libraries: I installed iTunes Library Manager, a shareware app that enables multiple libraries for a single user, some time back. But I never got enthused about it, because (a) if even a few songs from some category should go on my iPod, it's easiest if those songs are in the main library, (b) the search and sort options in iTunes are good enough that I don't worry too much about the number of songs, and (c) I didn't want to worry about whether it was OK to delete a song file, or if that file might be used in some other library. However, once the library gets into the tens of thousands of songs, memory and performance overhead pile up to the point where it's tempting not to keep iTunes open all the time.

So I am reconsidering the use of multiple libraries. I expect to keep all "active" music in one main library, and shunt stuff off to secondary ones as an alternative to unchecking songs or sequestering them in never-viewed playlists. I'll start off with those songs in a playlist, export the playlist from the main library, delete the songs from the main library, then import the playlist into the secondary library which has the side-effect of adding those songs if they aren't part of the library already.

Skip count: I see this as kind of a backup to the 2-star or 1-star low ratings. You might feel guilty assigning a low rating to a well-known song, but a high skip count can serve as evidence that you're just not that into it. Or, when listening to songs in the car, you can skip bad ones rather than spending the clicks to give them a low rating. (Think of it as Apple's contribution to driver safety.) Then, assign the ratings in iTunes later by looking for songs that were skipped. I envision tweaking my current "Never Played, Never Rated" smart playlist to be "Never Played, Never Rated, Never Skipped". Then once a song moves from that playlist to another smart playlist looking for a positive skip count, I'll know it's OK to give it 2 stars.

Backup via iTunes: Hey, there's a popular article on the Lifehacker blog explaining how to do this in older versions of iTunes. And I have my own more extensive version of such a procedure on this blog. Some Mac afficianados scoff at the idea as not being a "real" backup like you get with Retrospect. I liked the technique even when it took some work pre-iTunes 7, so at worst I'll stick with the old procedure. The big question is whether the backup options will be flexible enough. That is, can I back up just a specified set of playlists? Will the backup include unchecked songs? If I back up purchased music now, can I back up the entire library later? And will it get confused if I switch the backup type and select the option to only back up songs added or changed since the last backup?

Now that I've stepped through the dialogs (without actually doing the backup), it looks like the choices are not flexible enough to make me stop using the manual procedure. My whole library is too big for me to want to do a full backup now. There's no obvious way to restrict it to a particular playlist, or to say "assume I've got a decent backup already, and set now as the starting point for recording new/changed songs". This feature seems aimed more at people starting with relatively small libraries that can be backed up to just a few DVDs.

Come to think of it, after adding artwork to zillions of song files, I'll probably need to make a gigantic backup anyway!

Searching: Although from a usability standpoint I didn't like the Search Bar with all its options, now that it seems to be gone, I kind of miss the ability to see in advance which search option is selected before I start typing. Doesn't look like there is any way now to see different types of content like videos and songs all in the same list. That was a useful capability to figure out just how much U2 etc. someone had in their library. But I can see where it might confuse many people.

iPod sync options: Haven't tried 'em out yet. Still verifying that nothing bad has happened to my song files or library data! My multiple computers are different enough in terms of free space that I tend not to want to copy song files between them, except in very small numbers to the laptop before trips or while working on a media project.

Stay tuned for more iTunes 7 items as they come up...

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