The iTunes stores provides one of the most liberal usage policies of any of the Internet music download services, matched by some of the best prices. Most individual tracks are 99 cents, most albums under $10. There is no subscription fee, so once you've downloaded it, you can listen to it forever. You can also burn CDs with the music you've purchases, provided you don't burn the same playlist more than 10 times.
These terms are a testament to the weight Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs, pulls in the media industry. The fact that he was able to single-handedly negotiate such liberal licensing terms is simply amazing given the comparatively restrictive policies we've seen from other online music download services. Jobs clearly gets it, and he's dragging the music industry, kicking and screaming, into an entirely new way of thinking about online music distribution.
And now it's all available on the lowly Windows PC. We'll talk about the implications of Apple writing Windows software later, but for now, on to the review.
You start at apple.com and click the download link for the Windows version of iTunes. I thought perhaps I'd experience some sort of clunky installation experience - after all, Apple has never written any Windows software, let alone had to deal with the vagries of the Windows installation process. But the installation went off without a hitch, requiring one reboot.
Atfer the reboot, you launch iTunes, it asks you a few questions, and you are ready to go.
The iTunes Music Store
To download music, you must first create a user account. This is a fairly simple process. You provide an email address, credit card number and verification information. It's quick and painless, and when complete you are immediately logged onto the iTunes Music Store (iTMS from now on).
First, a little bit about the interface layout in iTunes. iTMS is presented as a browser pane within the iTunes software. A hierarchical "Source" sidebar on the left hand side of the screen allows you to switch between the Music Store, your own music libraries, shared libaries, CDs, Internet radio, and the iPod (though I don't have one, so I can't test this).
All of the various content choices are displayed in some way in the main browser pane. Along the top of the iTunes window you'll find a search box that works as well for the iTMS as it does for your own music libraries.
The iTMS is attractively laid out with quicklinks on the home page to top songs, top albums, featured artists, and celebrity play lists (what does Shaq listen to?). A drop down allows you to browse a particular genre (what, no separate genre for Heavy Metal?)
Click on an album you like and you are taken to an album details page. Here Apple takes advantage of the fact that iTunes is more than a simple web browser. The top of the browser pane shows cover artwork, top downloads from the album, and a "People who liked this, also bought" list (didn't Amazon patent that?).
The bottom of the browser pane shows a sortable list of all the tracks in a grid format. You can add and remove columns, chosing from Album, Artist, Comment, Composer, Disk Number, Genre, Time, Track Number, and Year. Double clicking on the track plays a short, 20 second sample of the music. The Artist and Genre columns provide little arrow icons that serve as links to display more music from that artist or genre.
At the top of the page you click "Add Album" to purchase all of the tracks, or click "Add Song" in the grid to purchase a single track. Some album's don't allow you to purchase the entire album, you have to buy all the tracks individually. Some tracks are available only when purchasing the entire album (these are marked "Album Only" and are usually longer tracks).
Buying and downloading music
Apple provides two options for purchasing music, a "1-click" option, and the traditional Shopping cart/checkout. I prefer the shopping cart. It helps keep down the impulse buys and the cart itself is pretty slick. When you select the shopping cart, the main browser pane shows a list of all the tracks you've selected for purchase. Tracks from a whole album purchase are nested under their album title. Almost all of the same functions (preview, links to other works/genres) are available in the shopping cart. At the top of the pane a list of "Recommendations based on the items in your cart" is shown. Ah, blessed be the up-sell...
After you click "Buy Now" you will be asked to provide your iTunes password. You can optionally tell iTunes to remember you password for music downloads, and you will not be prompted. After a final confirmation, the download begins. You can continue to browse the music store, listen to other music in your library, or rip CDs while the download continues. The status window at the top of the screen continues to show the download progress. You can also check up on the status of a download by looking on your "Purchased Music" folder, a sub folder of the Music Store folder.
iTMS Music Selection
I found plenty of variety in just about every genre I like. Apple claims 400,000 tracks from 5 major labels are available. If you like audio books, they've got 5,000 online. And no, Metallica, that fun loving band of music sharing nay-sayers, isn't available.
The easiest way to burn a CD is to create a playlist with the tracks you want to burn. If the playlist contains any music you've purchased from the iTMS, you will only be able to burn that particular playlist 10 times. Not much of a restriction in my book.
Burning is as simple as selecting the play list, selecting the songs in the playlist you want to burn, then clicking the "burn disk" icon in the upper right hand corner of the screen. This confused me at first, because the icon is grayish before activation, it looks disabled to this long-time Windows user. But once clicked, it comes to life, turning into a little radioactivity icon that throbs and spins as the burn progresses.
The progress of the burn is displayed in the same place that the download status is displayed, the oval status window at the top of the screen. A little icon in the status window allows you to switch between "Now playing", download status, an equalizer, ripping status, and burning status. Another little 'X' icon in the status window allows you to cancel a download, rip, or burn.
I have to say that this layout is a marvelously efficient use of screen real-estate, and avoids the dialog box hell many similar programs suffer, but at first I found it a bit confusing, especially since it's not immediately obvious how to get the status window to display the status of the various tasks iTunes has initiated.
I burned several CDs and had no problem playing them on other PCs. There are only a few options to set for burning. You can explicitly specify the burn speed, and the format, picking between Audio CD, MP3 CD, and Data CD (I am assuming this is just a direct burn of the music files, in whatever format).
Music burning just works, and works well. In fact I burned a disc at the same time I was ripping another, and playing some downloaded music. Everything worked without a hitch, though CPU utilization was high enough that it slowed down other things on my machine.
iTunes also supports burning to DVDs but I believe this is still available on the Mac only. As I don't have a DVD burner handy, I can't test this.
Organizing your music
Even without the iTMS, Windows users should want iTunes for it music library management/jukebox features alone. iTunes blows away the competition in so many ways it's hard to catalogue them all.
Let's start with the play lists. Playlists are added to the Source pane, along the left hand side of the screen. You can create a play list and add songs manually. You also have the ability to check and uncheck songs within a playlist, to disable and enable their playing after you've created the list.
The "Smart Playlist" feature allows you to build dynamic song selection criteria based on the meta tags (song attributes - artist, album, rating, genre etc...) For example I created an "Ella" play list for Ella Fitzgerald. This included three rules: "Album contains 'Ella'", "Artist contains 'Ella'", and "Song Name contains 'Ella'". These playlists can optionally update dynamically as new music is added.
You can tell the Smart Playlist to match 'Any' or 'All' of your criteria. Criteria include "contains", "does not contain", "is", "is not", "starts with" and "ends with". Criteria can be applied to any of the meta tags. The number of songs in the playlist can be limited to a specific number of songs, minutes, hours, or total file size.
Selecting the "Library" icon from the Source pane displays your entire music library in all of its glory. The bottom of the screen shows the total number of songs, number of days of music, and total size in Gigabytes. The default view is a sortable grid displaying all of the meta tags as columns. You can sort on each column. The columns can also be rearranged. Every column but the "Song Name" can be enabled and disabled.
All of the usual meta tags are present, along with some new ones (at least to me) "My Rating", "Play count" and "Last Played", and "Equalizer". That last one lets you specify an equalizer preset for that track only. You can also specify a volume preset when you view the track's Info page (this is not available in the grid view).
Most of the fields are editable in the grid display, just click on the text and wait a second, an edit box will appear, allowing you to type over the information. You can also perform bulk updates by selecting multiple songs then viewing the "Info" page for those songs. A "Multiple Song Information" dialog appears that allows you to update selected tag fields for all of those songs.
I found this to be very handy for my ratty old MP3 library. It was poorly catagorized, with many fields missing. The bulk update feature made for quick cleanup.
As in the music store, double clicking the track in the grid plays it. By default, when finished with a track, the player plays the next track in the list, based on the current sort order. You can select a "Shuffle" mode that plays random tracks. Repeat options include "Repeat Playlist", and "Repeat song". I'd like to have seen a "Repeat album" feature.
The Browse feature
When viewing the Library, or any playlist, you can click the "Browse" button in the upper right hand of the screen (minor nit, the "Browse" button looks like a large, poorly rendered eye). This toggles the browse pane, taking some real-estate away from the song list grid at the top of the screen.
The browse pane itself is broken into three panes, Genre, Artist, Album. Selecting a genre limits the artist pane to only those artists in that genre. Selecting an artist limits the album pane to only that artist's albums. As you are doing this selecting, the grid below dynamically updates to show only those tracks that meet the catagories selected above. It's a very quick way to see what you have at a glance, and to find a particular track, album or performer in a large library. Very cool.
Overall iTunes does an excellent job of allowing you to flexibly organize and find your music. The interface is clean and simple, but powerful.
Simple. Stick a CD in, select it from the "Source" sidebar on the left hand side of the screen, and the click the "Import" icon. I was not impressed with the ripping speed, which seemed to vary between 2x and 4x. There doesn't appear to be anywhere to set or tune the ripping speed.
There are only a few configuration options for importing. You can set the import format, choosing between AAC (MPEG-4), AIFF (mac uncompressed), MP3, and WAV. For each of the formats you can pick the sample rate and stereo/mono. For AAC and MP3 you can select the bit rate (VBR is an option for MP3s).
iTunes uses CDDB to look-up album and track information. In my usage this performed flawlessly, recognizing all the albums I threw at it.
More on the AAC format
AAC is the default music encoding format (codec) for the iTunes player. Apple claims that 128kbps AAC encoding provides quality almost indistiguishable from the original, much better than a 128kbps MP3. To my ears it all sounds great. The AAC files I downloaded at 128kbps sound great. I rarely encode MP3s at that low a bit rate, so I really can't do a comparison.
The full name for the AAC standard is actually MPEG-4 AAC. Music purchased from the iTMS is downloaded in an encrypted version of this format (.m4p) which is presumedly proprietary to Apple. However, you can rip music into an unencrypted AAC format (.m4a).
AAC is not an open standard, but was developed by the MPEG group, which includes Dolby, Fraunhofer (FhG), AT&T, Sony, and Nokia. As a result any software or hardware that uses AAC has to pay a license fee. As AAC is realtively new, support may be sporadic for the format in other players.
As a test I ripped some CD tracks to AAC format and then tried them out in other players. The Real One player didn't recognize the .m4a file extension. After renaming the files with .mp4 file extension, Real One downloaded a decoder, but then failed to import the ripped tracks. Note that these should not be encrypted tracks, as I ripped them, they weren't purchased from iTMS.
Windows Media Player didn't know what to do with either file extension (and I have the fully up to date version 9). There supposedly exists a winamp plugin for MP4/AAC, but I did not test it. There also appears to be a burgeoning gray market in unlicensed MP4/ACC de/encoders.
Even if your other audio players can read the audio format, they may not be able to read the meta tags you've created in the iTunes software, as Apple apparently uses its own tag format. So, if you rip to AAC, expect that iTunes will be the only platform that is going to provide full access to your music, until other players fully support the format. Also, don't expect to play the purchased music in native AAC format anywhere but in the iTunes player because of the built in encryption/DRM (though you can certainly burn a disc, then rip to MP3 format, you will lose some of the native quality).
If any of this is a problem for you, just rip directly to MP3 format and be done with it.
Importing your existing library
When you install iTunes, it will ask you if you want to search for existing music. I passed on this option, preferring to tell it exactly where to look. Importing older libraries of MP3s is simple. Just use the "Add Folder to Library" feature in the "File" menu.
I pointed iTunes to the root folder of my entire MP3 collection, and it figured everything out, flawlessly importing all of the albums, along with all of the meta tags. By default it leaves the tracks in their current location (which is what I wanted). You can choose to consolidate your music library at a later point. This copies everything into you iTunes music directory.
The iTunes music library directory is configurable. By default in Windows it's under My Documents\My Music\iTunes\iTunes Music. If you want to change it (as will many with large secondary drives used for music storage), make sure you do so before you start downloading, otherwise you might end up with music files in multiple locations.
Sharing your music
No, iTunes won't let you get in trouble with the Recording Industry by sharing your music with everyone else on the Internet. What it will do is allow you to export your full music library, or various playlists, to up to five other people on your local network. I didn't test this feature extensively, but it worked flawlessly between my desktop machine and my laptop over a Wi-Fi network. Apple calls this feature "Rendezvous", and it's been available on the Mac for a while now.
It just works. I fired up iTunes on the laptop, and the shared library, with all its playlist was immediately available in the Source pane. I'd suggest Microsoft take a page from this playbook. Anyone who has ever messed around with Microsoft's supposedly 'plug and play' home networking knows what I am talking about.
You can't do much with a remote music library, other than play it, and it's play lists. You cannot edit the meta tags, or create/edit play lists. Not a biggie, I am not sure I'd want that much flexibility anyway.
Sharing between users on the same machine
iTunes makes sharing music with other PCs on the network a snap, but it's a bit harder to share music between users of the same PC. At home I've set up my computer with an account for myself, and one for my fiancee. I installed iTunes in my account, and downloaded some music.
We wanted to see if my fiancee could use this music as well. The iTunes icon was on her desktop, but when we launched it, there was no music available in her Library. We changed her music libary to point to the music library iTunes had created for my user account, but still, nothing showed up in the play list.
We did mange to get it to work by exporting my Library using the "Export Library" option on the "File" menu. This allows you to save all of your playlists and track information to a massive XML file. We then imported this into iTunes when logged into her user account. It worked. This is a bit clunky though, and I doubt any meta tag updates she does will be reflected in my Library, and vice versa.
I imagine we could have manually added the music to her iTunes Library using the import functionality. The larger problem is that as we buy or rip more music we will constantly have to worry about keeping both account's Libraries and playlists in sync.
One cool way to work around this would be to use Windows XP's fast user switching. I haven't tried this (I run Windows 2000), but in theory with fast user switching you should be able to use Rendezvous between two users on the same machine.
Digital Rights Management
Digital Rights Management, or DRM, has become a dirty word in some technology circles. Many other music download services use DRM to lock you into their music player, force you to pay a subscription to keep listening to your music, and to tightly control what you can do with the music once you've downloaded it.
With iTunes, what's most noticable is how unobtrusive Apple has made the DRM. In fact, it's almost not present. Here are a list of things you can't do:
- Burn a play list with purchased music more than ten times
- Share music with more than 5 other computers on your local network
- Share music over the Internet
- Access your purchased music at full quality outside of iTunes
- Re-download music once you've successfully downloaded it once (remember to make backups!)
iTunes provides a comprehensive list of Internet radio stations. I don't believe that Apple provides the content for any of these stations, but it does dynamically update the lists for each genre when you access them to ensure that the list remains fresh and defunct stations are removed.
I didn't exercise this feature too extensively, as I quickly found one of my favorite di.fm trance stations and spent the entire day at work listening to it - so I can't vouch for the quality or availability of the other stations. But there appears to be a wide selection, within a good variety of genres.
If there is one thing I don't like about iTunes is the way it plays fast and loose with the various user interface metaphors. The iTunes player is a strange mixture between a "Brushed Metal" look, the native Mac OS X "Aqua" interface, and the boring old Windows native interface. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what's used where.
The menus and most drop down lists are windows native, even if the controls that access them are the Aqua look alikes. For example, in the iTMS there is a drop down list labeled "Select Genre". It's rendered with the translucent Aqua look and feel, but clicking it displays a drab Windows native drop down list. Just weird.
Also, what's up with this brushed metal obsession of Apple's? Why should computer software look and feel like a 1970's stereo component? I don't know. Do you?
The interface overall is sluggish. Presumably because of whatever software Apple used to port the Aqua eye candy to Windows. I'd prefer to give up some of the eye candy for a bit more speed.
All things considered, the interface potpourri doesn't get in the way too much, and though sluggish it's still usable. So these are all minor quibbles. Apple did such an outstanding job in making iTunes a simple yet powerful way to organize your music, that a few minor interface issues can easily be overlooked. At least until the next release.
One might think that as a first attempt at Windows software that iTunes might be buggy or prone to crashes. It didn't crash once in my usage, and handled some heavy workloads without incident. In fact I had it burning, ripping, and playing all at once. I'll bet you could add downloading to that list without a hiccough. There have been some reports of iTunes locking up after install - Apple is currently investigating. I did not experienced that particular issue.
I did find some minor display issues where sometimes the screen didn't update properly. Particularly when ripping, the little check mark sometimes didn't appear next to the track after it was ripped. This didn't seem to affect functionality in any way, and the songs played fine after the entire CD was ripped.
Wider implications for Apple
For years, Apple has been writing superior software, but only for the Mac. This has been a way for Apple to draw users to the Mac platform. Apple's tight control of the both the software and hardware environment allowed them to provide a superior user experience. For Apple to produce Windows software represents a sea-change in this philosophy.
First of all it represents a huge risk to the Apple brand. If it doesn't work well, or crashes due to the weird hardware/OS combinations that are all too prevalent in the Windows world, they will tarnish that hard won reputation for quaility and ease of use.
Secondly, they are giving up one of the drivers that pushes people to purchase that high margin Mac hardware - the superior software, that used to be available only on the Mac. There are people who bought Macs simply because of the media software that came bundled. Now, there is one less reason to get a Mac. Will Apple port more of these goodies to the PC? Is Steve Jobs crazy?
Like a fox. Note that Jobs has no plans to port OS X to commodity PC hardware, nor has he made any moves to port any of the other software in his suite of media productivity tools to the PC. The reason he ported iTunes is because it's the best way to access the iTunes Music Store. Apple makes money selling music on the iTunes music store. Probably not much money yet, but certainly they will make considerably more money if they don't restrict users to the Mac platform. With the advent of iTunes for Windows, the iTunes Music Store became the largest distributor of online music overnight.
Remember also that Steve jobs is in the process of re-conceptualizing the Mac as a media hub, de-emphasizing the computer itself, for media accessories. The iPod is an outgrowth of this process. With iTunes on my PC, guess what's now on my Christmas list? An iPod. I've played with other MP3 players and they software they use to manage MP3 libraries. They sucked - hard. iTunes shows me that it can be easy - it should be easy. In a single stroke Jobs has vastly increased the market for the iPod.
So what Jobs has done is managed to increase the market for two of his newest alternative revenue streams (iPod and iTMS) without singificantly compromising the revenue stream that's funding everything (Mac sales). Brilliant, and very pragmatic, so unlike Jobs.
Steve Jobs claims that iTunes is the best software ever written for Windows. It's certainly the best music player/Jukebox ever written for Windows. I don't know that any of the others can match it, feature for feature.
With iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, I honestly can't see myself returning to buying CDs. It's just so much more convenient, and significantly cheaper to download and burn - and I don't care about the minor quality differences or the lack of cover art. This is what I've been waiting for. YMMV of course, but it's definitely worth a try.