When it comes to managing music on your computer, iTunes has no competition. Of course no competition is often bad for product development, not having anything to measure success against, but each tweak of iTunes has been a welcome improvement to an already great product.
So iTunes 5, a whole version upgrade, should be even better, right? Well, although it is good, something tells me it’s a full version upgrade simply because Apple reached 4.9 and ran out of numbers. While iTunes 5 has a number of updated features, it could be argued that iTunes 4.9 was more significant because it introduced podcasting. Whatever the reason, it has some welcome new features. What might not be so welcome is the “streamlined interface”. What Apple calls streamlined I call ugly. The interface looks no better than the previous version, except it’s more square, the volume control has moved a bit and the display has a slightly glossy effect. I prefer the old one.
The real differences become apparent when you search for a song. Improved searching now takes into account that you may be looking for more than just music and can also be focused on audiobooks, podcasts, videos or booklets. Each one of those has contextual searches, so audiobooks can be searched by author, for example. The booklets search looks for PDF booklets that come with some digital albums, although you can in fact drop any PDF into iTunes and catalogue it there.
While the improved search is welcome, I found it a bit flaky. Searching for some things returned no results, despite the fact that I knew the band was there. Clicking to limit the search to Artists then revealed the band, and clicking back on All then showed it. It’s not the end of the world, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.
My favourite new feature is the ability to make folders for my ever-increasing number of playlists. It allows for a tidier interface and easier navigation on the iPod.
The Smart Shuffle feature is quite funny. People had complained that the shuffle was not as random as it should be. The evidence for this was that often a shuffled list would have two tracks from the same album right next to each other. Proof? Well, only proof that it is truly random, because if that never happened it would indicate some kind of premeditation. In response to the complaints Apple introduced Smart Shuffle, which make things appear more random by making them less random. Now you can insist that songs by the same artist, or from the same album, are kept apart.
One last feature that was sneaked in is the ability to add lyrics to songs in the same way you can add album art. Sure, at the moment you have to type them in yourself, but I guarantee that within a month there will be AppleScripts that will check out your music, suck the lyrics from the Web and add them to your tunes.
iTunes is free, and people should upgrade regardless, just to stay compatible with the latest systems and iPods. But that said, I couldn’t help being a little disappointed at what should be a .1 upgrade rather than a full version leap. But I suppose I should be more grateful for free stuff, so it gets the thumbs up.