Apple iTunes 6 full review

There is a temptation with iTunes 6 to bash the latest version of Apple's music player for what it isn't, rather than evaluate it for what it is. Take, for example, the reaction to the news that the new version allows you to purchase ad-free TV programmes via the iTunes Music Store and play them back within the application itself - commentators seemed more interested in tabulating how many shows were available (just five, as of this writing, and even then only in the US) and who was supplying them (Disney and its assorted networks) than in assessing the experience of purchasing and watching TV shows through iTunes.

That's the wrong approach to take for iTunes 6 for a couple reasons. First, despite the addition of more video playback features that build upon the capabilities first introduced in version 4.8, this iTunes version remains primarily a music jukebox application, albeit one with a video component. And second, griping that the UK Music Store features only music videos and Pixar shorts (while the US version isn't that much better with just five TV shows) loses sight of the fact that this is the first of what promises to be many steps in extending iTunes' features beyond music. The selection of video content at the iTunes Music Store is set to expand over time.

That said, as far as first steps go, iTunes 6 is a tentative one. The application remains without peer for its musical features - in fact, the spate of updates that began this summer have culminated in a nearly perfect music player. Video playback is not nearly so impressive. Slow startup, erratic behaviour, and other glitches mar what would otherwise be a promising first effort at expanding iTunes' digital-media reach.

Picture perfect?
Video playback first appeared in iTunes 4.8, released in May. Version 6 expands on that capability by making animated shorts from Pixar, and music videos available from the iTunes Music Store at £1.89 a pop. You can also drag other video files - like a QuickTime movie, say - into iTunes 6. If you do so, you need to manually go to the Options tab for that file and check off Remember Playback Position to make it bookmarkable and Skip When Shuffling. These options are automatically checked for iTunes Music Store content. Video content lives in your iTunes library alongside songs, audiobooks, and podcasts. Version 6 adds a Video category to the Source menu that's similar to the Podcasts category added to Version 4.9. Click on the Video icon, and iTunes will display all your video files in one place.

You can play back videos in one of three places - in iTunes' main window (the window beneath the Source list that normally displays album art), in a separate, resizable pop-up window (shown above), or across the full screen. You set where you want the video to play in the Playback preferences pane. Of these options, full-screen is perhaps the least desirable - the picture is not very sharp and there's no easy way to control playback, apart from using the space bar to pause the video. The picture is much sharper, and the playback options more accessible, using either the main or separate window options.

Not that video playback using either of these windows is that much of an improvement. Starting playback on a video file will result in a delay of anywhere from 3 to 11 seconds as iTunes fires up the video - you'll probably receive an unwelcome visit from the dreaded spinning beachball as iTunes leaps into action. Resuming playback after a pause can also result in a slight-but-noticeable delay. On one occasion during testing, pausing playback knocked the video and audio tracks out of sync so that the video I was watching felt more like a Sergio Leone-directed spaghetti western. This quirk is a rare occurrence, but it's worth noting that it could happen.

More troublesome is a quirk that you will experience if you opt for the pop-up window for video playback - you can't resize the playback window without causing the video to stutter and stall. Using the progress bar to fast-forward and rewind videos is not as smooth as similar scrolling through a music file. Downloading the iTunes 6.0.1 update improved matters somewhat, but didn't completely eliminate the problems. The glitches don't seem limited to any one particular brand of hardware - I did most of my testing on a 1.5GHz PowerBook G4 with 512MB of RAM and running OS X 10.4.2, but similar problems cropped up when watching videos on dual-2GHz and dual-2.3GHz Power Mac G5 desktops.

You can get around most of the playback issues by control-clicking on the video file, selecting Show Song File, and dragging the file into QuickTime Player. Video playback is much smoother in that application, although you wind up sacrificing iTunes' more useful features, such as remembering where you paused a file when you resume playback later. (And really, Apple could improve things considerably simply by adding a preference setting or a right-click option that makes a video file open in QuickTime Player instead of iTunes.)

Are these flaws significant? If you don't plan on using iTunes for much video playback, or if you see the application more as a conduit for moving videos from the iTunes Music Store onto your video iPod, then obviously, no. But if you plan on spending a lot of time watching videos through iTunes, you will notice these flaws, and you'll probably be as eager to see them addressed in future versions of iTunes as I am.

Also in the picture
As to other video-related features of note, you can create playlists that mix and match audio and video files, as well as audiobooks and podcasts. These hybrid playlists will work fine in iTunes, but you can't play them on a video iPod (with the exception of playlists that contain songs and music video files).

Video purchases from the iTunes Music Store face similar restrictions as songs bought at the store - you can play videos on up to five computers and on an unlimited number of iPods. Unlike burning music to a CD, you can't burn videos to a DVD. You are able to burn video files to a CD-R or DVD-R for backup purposes, however. If you weren't fazed by these kinds of restrictions when buying music from iTunes, you're unlikely to be troubled by them now. And if you aren't a fan of FairPlay Digital Rights Management, you can take small comfort in the realisation that Apple isn't treating you to anything unexpected.

Other additions
The bulk of the remaining changes in iTunes 6 involve new features at the iTunes Music Store. The store adds a gift option for buying music and videos for other people. (Previously, gift-giving options were limited to the store's gift certificate and allowance features.) You can submit short 6,000-character reviews of albums and, in an Amazon-like twist, review other customers' reviews by clicking on whether their opinion was helpful or not. Another new feature, still in beta form, is Just For You, which is a recommendation service that bases its picks on your past purchases.

Of these additions, the reviews feature is a pleasant diversion and Just For You shows promise, even as Apple tinkers with the final version. It's the gift feature - a badly needed addition - that's likely to have the biggest impact on improving your shopping experience. Click on the Gift option (shown below), and iTunes walks you through sending individual tracks, entire albums, video content and even do-it-yourself playlists to other people. I do have one quibble: for music purchases, the Gift option appears only on album pages. It would be nice if iTunes provided more points of entry for sending gifts.

I should also point out that using these new Music Store features requires an upgrade to iTunes 6. That's not only true of people who use the gift feature to send gifts, but those receiving them as well. (iTunes 5 and earlier users who attempt to redeem a gift purchase will be instructed to upgrade to the latest version.) It's a minor point, to be sure, but one that makes this particular update to iTunes a little less voluntary than it otherwise might be.

As for iTunes' music jukebox features, those remain superlative. In fact, using the music player has become even easier, thanks to changes introduced in iTunes 5. One of those iTunes 5 additions - the ability to add folders to the Source list - is particularly welcome.

If your iTunes library is anything like mine, you've doubtlessly created more playlists and smart playlists than you know what to do with. I have so many I can't get from one end of my Source list to the other without scrolling. By choosing New Folder from the File menu (or pressing shift-option-C-N), I can create a folder and then drag and drop playlists into it, grouping playlists together by genre or category or whatever organisational label suits me. It's made my Source list a lot easier to navigate.

True, folders aren't a new feature to iTunes 6. But if you never made the leap from Version 4.9, this feature alone should prod you to upgrade.

Version 5 also improved searches within iTunes. When you enter a query in the search window, a bar appears that specifies what type of media - music, audiobook, podcast, and so on - you're looking for. You can also search by artist, album and name. It's a handy addition, particularly if the size of your iTunes library has reached gargantuan proportions. Another new feature, Smart Shuffle, lets you use an adjustable slider to set the likelihood of the application playing several songs from the same artist or album in a row. How much you appreciate this addition will depend on how convinced you are that the shuffle mode in iTunes is messing with your head.

There were some other changes made to iTunes in the recent run of updates that are worth a quick recap:

  • iTunes 4.8 brought video playback features to iTunes and made free music videos and movie trailers available at the iTunes Music Store. The free music videos are gone in iTunes 6, replaced by the £1.89-each offerings, but the movie trailers remain.
  • Version 4.8 also added Contacts and Calendars tabs to the iPod preference pane; those tabs, similar to what Mac users are used to with iSync, remain in iTunes 6.
  • iTunes 4.9 added support for podcasting, making podcasts available through the iTunes Music Store. In the subsequent Version 5 update, iTunes automatically added podcasts to your library and indexed them; support for video podcasts also was added.
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