Desktop digital-music jukebox
Pros: Free; Smart Playlists; audible.com compatability; composers; sound check feature.
Cons: Some quirks in the Smart Playlist setup.
Publisher: Apple (0800 039 1010)
Minimum specs: Mac OS X 10.1.4
Star Rating: 8.8
iTunes has been one of the most successful additions to the range of "iApps" that lie at the heart of Apple's digital-hub philosophy. Version 3 of Apple's free desktop digital-music is a mature, well-developed program. iTunes 2 was in fact barely worthy of version-update status, offering merely the addition of iPod support and little else. iTunes 3, though, boasts new and useful features.
The most impressive addition is Smart Playlists, which takes the effort – some may say the fun – out of making compilations. It works by allowing the user to generate lists by compiling simple rule-sets, so that iTunes 3 can, for example, easily generate a random playlist of your 10 most-recently listened-to tracks. The list will be dynamically updated depending on what those 10 tracks are.
But where Smart Playlists really starts to get fun is with its use of tags such as genre and date to generate lists. If you wondered why anybody would spend time categorising MP3s into genres and sub-genres, here's the answer. It means you can now compile, say, a random-play Smart Playlist of all your ambient, handbag and drill-and-bass techno. It's also possible to specify the total size of the list. Tell iTunes 3 that it is to serve you up a 650MB playlist and you have a ready-made and jam-packed CD of music. Click the option for cross-fades and you've just become a DIY DJ with a single mouse click. Tracks can also be star-rated from one to five stars – obviously nicked from the Macworld Star Rating system – and this, too, can be used as a Smart Playlist variable. After all, there's no point in gathering all your jazz together when you only like half of it. If you do happen to accidentally have a track that you don’t like, hit delete and the Playlist will replace it with another.
These fun-yet-useful features may have you striving to define your music with insane detail. Now, was that track speed garage or happy hardcore? There are some quirks with the Smart playlist setup that make it difficult to select more than one genre, but this is nothing serious.
If music isn’t your thing – and I’m not just talking to Hear’Say fans – audio books can also now be played in iTunes. Audible.com has a massive selection of audio books, and spoken-word lectures and magazines available in digital format. Now, you can buy audio content from Audible.com, download it directly to iTunes and listen to it right away. You can also sync with your iPod for when you're away from your Mac. When this is done, your digital bookmark will pick up just where you left off. When you get back to the Mac, it keeps the place from where you left off on the iPod.
A number of iTunes niggles have also been fixed in version 3. Before, MP3s from different sources had different sound levels. Now, the new Sound Check feature analyses all your music and fixes the levels. I’m not sure it knows how to handle the difference between ambient and heavy metal, but anything that stops the sudden shock of a song cranked up to 11 can’t be bad.
Classical-music fans also complained that prior to 3 they were unable to search their music because they preferred to search by composer rather than artist, meaning there was no way of finding Handel, or Bach. Apple has added a composer tag to the info on each track, which neatly solves this problem.
Macworld’s buying advice
When faced with a price tag of zero it's hard to say anything bad about iTunes. Version 3 is a significant improvement over 2, and if it were a for-sale product I'd expect to pay at least £30 for it. Of course, if you're still running OS 9 you'll need to pay £99 to get OS X to run iTunes 3. iTunes 3 is another compelling reason to move to OS X. Download it today.