Alongside new iPods, Apple earlier today unleashed iTunes 8, the newest version of its media player application. iTunes 8 gives you a fresh way to browse your music, improved accessibility for the vision-impaired, and a new automatic playlist-generation feature dubbed Genius. Judging from my test-drive of iTunes 8, the new features are useful, but none are particularly groundbreaking, must-have additions.
Techworld: How to get free iTunes music
One of the big enhancements is the Grid view, which displays your collection's album covers visually in a grid. Within Grid view, you can sort your music by album, artist, genre, or composer. As you mouse over an album's cover-art tile, a Play button appears. Skim your mouse over tiles when sorting by Artist, Genre, or Composer, and the tile will quickly flash the album art for items sorted under each category. Click on the tile to play all songs or videos in the tile. Double-click the tile to view everything categorised under that tile.
In my experience, this arrangement made locating music quickly somewhat easier--if you want to listen to a certain album, you can use the tile-based view to find it visually, instead of doing a search for it. But this feature won't drastically change the way you organize and find your music.
In addition to the new Grid view, iTunes continues to let you browse your music by List view, in which you can see details about your music and videos, and by Cover Flow view, in which you can flip through album covers as if you were using a jukebox.
ITunes 8's marquee new feature is Genius, which automatically suggests songs based on your selection of a baseline. Genius has two parts: the Genius sidebar and the Genius Playlist tool. If you're familiar with iTunes, you may notice some similarities between Genius and both the iTunes Mini Store and Just For You features from iTunes 7 and earlier. You will need to turn on Genius before using it; iTunes will collect information on your iTunes library, submit it to Apple, and then start feeding you Genius sidebar results. When you activate Genius, iTunes compares your songs, playlists, and iTunes purchase history against what Apple offers on iTunes and library information from other users to give you the most relevant recommendations.
Some users may be a little concerned about the fact that you are sending information about your library to Apple--and for good reason. For its part, Apple says that it collects information "such as track names, play counts, and ratings," but notes that your iTunes library data "will be stored with an anonymous Genius ID and not linked to your iTunes account."
To use the Genius sidebar, select a song. iTunes will give you Genius sidebar results tailored to your selection. The Genius sidebar consists of four parts: the top albums from the selected song's artist, the top songs you don't yet have in your library from that artist, relevant iTunes Essentials collections, and other recommendations based on your selection. This is a welcome feature to me, since I already enjoy using iTunes to find music from artists I'm not familiar with; the Genius sidebar will make that even easier for me to do.
The other half of Genius is the Genius playlists function. To create one, select a song and click the Genius button in the lower-right corner of the iTunes window (indicated by an atom icon). iTunes will then generate a playlist containing songs in your library similar to the song you selected. By default iTunes limits these playlists to 25 songs, though you can create Genius playlists up to 100 songs. I found that Genius generates some pretty accurate playlists. And as Apple notes, Genius should become more accurate as additional playlist information becomes available, though as my colleague Tim Moynahan discovered, it is possible to confuse the iTunes Genius.
Incidentally, Microsoft announced a similar feature today for its Zune line, known as Mixview. The two companies seem to be thinking along the same lines. Perhaps both used Pandora as inspiration?