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iTunes 9: The Download Squad Review

Hot on the heels of today's iTunes 9 announcement, I've been busy at Download Squad's international outpost to take a look at some of the newer features in this update to one of the most well-known apps around.

It maybe be at version 9 - and Apple's hype machine is running at full-pelt - but is it any good? Join me as I run through an evening with the latest version of iTunes.

iTunes 9 Tour

User Interface

Apple's design decisions often make their first (or only) appearances in iTunes - and there's certainly some interesting choices in iTunes 9. The main window has a new gradient - slightly lighter than before - that also makes the window look a little unusual when inactive. There's also some new Play / Skip / Rewind buttons that protrude from the UI chrome a little more than before - as well as a heavily emphasised Search box.

The iTunes status area has also seen change, with a heavier glossy overlay and all-new spinning and progress bars. Right now, I've had a few knee-jerk 'Eww' reactions to these changes - however I'll hold off on rational judgement until I've used iTunes for a week or so. If you're intimately familiar with iTunes (it's open for a fair 12-14 hours a day here) the changes are jarring, but the casual user may not notice the more subtle changes such as all-new icons for many of the sidebar items. The Playlist, Smart Playlist and Application icons (to name a few) are all-new in this release - along with all-new rating stars, and whatever your opinions may be about the new UI, the small touches to update it are a welcome refresh.

In the past, Apple's UI folks chose a darker tone for the UI elements, but in iTunes 9 that's all been eschewed in favour of a lighter tone for many of the views. The change to lighter colours in the UI (if you'll excuse this slight detour into the far-from-mainstream) make it certainly less intimidating, however it doesn't sit well with the iTunes Store's redesign to my eyes.

Perhaps one of my favourite changes is the inclusion of file downloads in the iTunes status area - handy for keeping an eye on large downloads like movies (and iPhone software updates).

The iTunes Store

As well as iTunes 9 itself, Apple also rolled out a massive update - and entire re-design - of the iTunes Store. Again, it's something that regular users will find a little un-nerving. However, the all-new look and feel is a massive improvement over the previous design that has seen only moderate changes since the store's launch.

Alongside a tonne of slick visuals, there's also a fair number of new features. iTunes has become far more sociable, with more prominent links to share items with friends, copy the item's iTunes address - as well as two all-new options to share an iTunes product on Facebook or Twitter. The Facebook and Twitter integration is rudimentary, however it's a big step for Apple to continue to embrace external services (like it did in iPhoto '09) instead of sticking to just its own MobileMe service.

Until today, only the App Store has required the use of 1-Click purchasing. However today's update to the store has removed entirely the option to use a Shopping Cart for iTunes purchases - meaning you can only use 1-Click purchasing throughout the iTunes Store. However, as the folks at TUAW point out, the all-new Wish List feature is certainly a way for you to build up a list of items you'd like to purchase.

There's also new Ringtone capabilities for iPhone customers, with "20,000 precut ringtones available" for US$1.29/£0.99. Truth be told, 20,000 ringtones isn't all that respectable - especially when previous versions of iTunes would allow you to choose a section from songs from within your library (when the feature actually worked that is). Expect this achilles heel of the iTunes Store to be used in anti-iPhone flamewars for the forseeable future...

More Content Options

Whilst technically part of the iTunes Store, there's now two new options for purchasing content. There's the iTunes LP - a new music album format that includes artwork, digital booklets and other related content, as well as iTunes Extras - extra content that sits alongside movies, in much the same way that DVDs bundle bonus material.

More Genius

iTunes' Genius has a new addition to the family - Genius Mixes. In short, it's a 4 x 3 grid of playlists that iTunes thinks you'll like. It generates 9 different playlists ready for you to listen to, and it's actually pretty good. The exact results vary depending on your library of course, but if you're looking for something slightly spontaneous to listen to, this is the thing for you.

Device Sync

iTunes' device syncing has always been 'OK', but for some time now users have been wanting a little more and this release adds a bucketload of new options. Each individual tab for the device (be it Music, Movies, Applications etc) has now far more ways to manage exactly what you put onto the device. Music sees the ability to add more than just playlists (you can now add music by album, artist or genre) and there's an interesting new option to "Automatically fill free space with songs" - I seem to have a gigabyte or so permanently free on my iPhone, and this is a great way to add more music to your device (presumably using Genius to make it relevant) and ensure there's fresh tunes available on the go. Photos are finally easier to add to a device, with Faces and Places from iPhoto (along with clear icons about Aperture projects and albums) to reduce the guesswork involved in getting your holiday photos onto a device.

If you're an iPhone or iPod touch owner, there's also a brand-new way to manage your applications on the device. The Applications tab has been reworked to show you how much each application will take up - as well as a way to visually re-order your homescreens from within iTunes itself. There's still no way to remove applications you don't us (in my case, Stocks) from the device, but the new options are a great improvement to manage your applications' positions from the desktop app.

It's also worth noting that the cat-and-mouse game between Apple and Palm continues with this update - the Palm Pre no-longer syncs with iTunes 9, though knowing Palm there's likely an update around the corner.

In Summary

There's plenty to like about iTunes 9. It's got a number of nice (albeit overdue) touches that significantly improve the media-browsing and syncing of the ordinary person. The new UI elements will take some getting used to - as will navigating the iTunes Store - however these minor quips don't detract from the fact that this is a slick and useful update.

Tags: Digital Media, DigitalMedia, freeware, iPhone, iPod, iTunes, Movies, Music