Apple last night released iTunes 4.1 for Windows. Macworld took a look at the new software on a hijacked PC running Windows XP. The software also works on Windows 2000.
iTunes for Windows by AppleDigital music asset management, playback, burning and purchasing software for Windows, from Apple.
Pros: Free; supports AAC encoding on Windows; supports music sharing on cross-platform networks; visualizer; equalizer.
Cons: iTunes Music Store is currently US only.
Min Specs: Windows XP or 2000, 500MHz Pentium class processor or better, QuickTime 6.4 (included), at least 128MB RAM, Latest Windows service packs recommended, CD-RW drive to burn CDs, video display card, soundcard. DSL, cable modem, or LAN-based high-speed Internet connection recommended for buying and streaming music.
Apple has promised Windows users feature-parity in its Windows incarnation of iTunes 4.1.
At first glance, the software offers Apple's cool, classic brushed-steel look, which some Windows users may not appreciate. Apple applies this look consistently across its own platform, however, and Windows Media Player also offers its own look-&-feel on a Mac.
The blue-&-white listing of the song tracks makes it look like a school exercise book, one PC user remarked: "I want to draw a few doodles on it or some rude comments about the teachers," he added.
Like Mac users, Windows users beyond US borders cannot yet make use of the product's key feature, which is access to buying music and audio-books through Apple's iTunes Music Store.
Windows shopping Users can access free 30-second song previews, and read Celebrity Playlists from the likes of Moby, Ben Folds, Billy Corgan, Sting and Missy Elliott. Like non-US Mac users, they can look at, but not use, the vast array of 400,000 available tracks, and consider Gift certificates and Apple's new Allowance feature. The latter feature lets parents pay money into their child's iTunes account, thus giving them some control over the bills young people may rack up buying music legally online.
But iTunes 4.1 has other features - unlike Windows Media Player it will rip tracks in a non-proprietary format of choice - MP3 or AAC. While Microsoft's offering can read MP3s, and can also access CDDB information, it will rip music in its own proprietary format, which isn't supported on Apple's market-leading iPod.
Apple claims that AAC offers better sound-quality than MP3 at smaller file sizes, and so has set AAC's High-quality at 128Kbps rather than 160Kbps as it did with MP3. Whatever you do, don't take iTunes up on its offer to Convert Selection to AAC. It's OK to rip a CD to AAC, but not an already compressed MP3 - that would be like making a copy of a photocopy. Ripping CDs at 128Kbps AAC will save you a fair bit of space in comparison to the old default 160Kbps MP3.
Visualize the future iTunes' visualizations are similar to those available to Windows Media, "but you'd need to be an Apple fan to appreciate having the Apple logo at the core of the visualization," said a hardened PC user.
"Imagine the stink if Microsoft had their logo (or worse the face of Bill Gates) running through its software," they observed.
While the test PC was not equipped to burn CDs (being a budget-priced, standard beige box), the software is quite capable of conducting the task. iTunes 4.1 even lets both Mac and Windows users archive their entire MP3 collections to numerous CDs or DVDs - from within the application.
Rendezvous impressed our Windows tester. "File sharing across the network is a nice feature if the boss wants to create a mini radio station across his workstations," they said. In use this powerful feature did impress. Once the software was installed, iTunes 4.1 found the music servers effortlessly.
"I wish the PC was able to find network resources as easily," our tester said.
The equalizer is better than that included in Windows Media, because of its preset configurations.
Transporting music to a Windows iPod was an equally easy experience, over FireWire. The process took seconds, and left a happy PC music fan behind. Other Windows users started drooling over Apple's iPod Web site almost immediately after playing with iTunes. Apple's strategy looks like it's going to be a winner.
Working in other applications while playing music in iTunes worked fine - the tester has experienced no bugs yet, other than an unwarranted love for the Bonzo Dog Band.
Macworld's buying advice
As iTunes 4.1 is free it's too easy to point out its weak points, such as the need to have a US billing address to access Music Store content. Apple is working to internationalize the Store, but is hampered in this by the way the industry works.
But with iTunes Windows users get a very special tool that brings a little Apple elegance into their lives – and that can only be a very good thing indeed.