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Alongside the iPods, Apple has updated its free iTunes digital-music software. Basic operation is unchanged, but there are several top new features that make it well worth downloading the 8.3MB update.
The headline-grabbing new feature is Apple's iTunes Music Store, where you can download individual songs for 99 US cents and albums for $9.99. Unfortunately it isn't yet available outside of the US, but you can browse the site - built with Safari technology but set inside iTunes - and hear the 30-second previews. Apple has persuaded all five major record companies to sign-up for iTunes, but has quite a way to go in persuading them to allow more than the current 200,000 songs to be downloaded.
The only Beatles tracks on offer are their pre-mop-top days backing old-style rock‘n'roller Tony Sheriden. And the only Rolling Stones track is from an Austin Powers soundtrack. But if it grows and is rolled out internationally, there's little doubt that this is the future of music distribution.
The downloaded files aren't MP3, they're AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) - a format based on the latest MPEG-4. 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. Don't worry, iTunes still plays MP3s, so you won't have to re-rip all your CDs if you already have a large iTunes library. iTunes now also gives you the choice of encoding songs in AAC.
In our listening tests we dug out that old hi-fi-shop classic - Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon - and played variously compressed tracks ‘blind' to an expert panel using both the iPod's ear-plugs and top-quality Grado SR60 headphones. We also played a selection of songs from Blur's new album Think Tank for a more modern digital-sound comparison. Maybe it's because our ears are shot from listening to our iPods too loud, but none of us could discern any really noticeable difference between even 192Kbps MP3 and 128Kbps AAC. Do some tests yourself before moving to the new standard as everyone's ears are different, and you may prefer to stick to higher levels of MP3.
But 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. We ripped Blur's Think Tank (13 songs, 49 minutes, 497MB uncompressed) at different compression levels, with these results: MP3 192Kbps, 67.7MB; MP3 160Kbps, 56.4MB; AAC 192Kbps, 68.3MB; AAC 160Kbps, 57.1MB; and AAC 128Kbps, 45.8MB. As you can see, if 128Kbps AAC is at least comparable to 192 MP3, you can achieve 32 per cent space savings - which will delight owners of the original 5GB iPod, who'll be able to store a theoretical 1,320 songs in the new format. A 30GB iPod could hold nearly 8,000. You must have QuickTime 6.2 installed to encode in AAC.
Another new feature in version 4 is the ability to share - play, not copy - music with other Macs on your Ethernet or wireless network; see "Share's greatest hits", above top. The last new feature is the ability to add a CD's artwork to your music. The Music Store downloads include artwork, and you can drag your own scanned covers via iTunes.
As iTunes 4 is free it would be churlish to point out its weak points - the most obvious being the limitation that you must have a US address to download songs from the Music Store. Apple claims that it is striving to internationalize the service, but its efforts to do so to the ordering services of iPhoto don't bode well. In truth, this decision depends on the music companies more than Apple itself.
The other new features in iTunes 4, however, enhance an already great digital-music application. Windows users should be salivating at the prospect of a working version for them.
In the meantime, it's another reason to be a proud Mac user - and to lookenviously at the new iPods reviewed here.