Say what you will about Apple Computer, but there is an undeniable sense of quality to the products they create, whether it's a sleek Macintosh computer, ultra-thin iPod portable media player, or elegant software like iMovie HD and Keynote. Apple's products are almost always Spartan in their simplicity, even to the point of alienating some people by leaving out functionality that would crowd and overpower similar PC-based solutions.

The company's latest software, iTunes 7, is no different. It is both professional looking and functional, beautiful and rewarding. It is, dare I say so, the best software-based media jukebox I've ever used. And if you're Microsoft, struggling to release Windows Media Player 11 (WMP11), iTunes 7 is a shot across the bow, a reminder that the hardware products and services that Apple wraps around iTunes are the best selling solutions in the market. Clearly, Apple intends to keep it that way.

History of iTunes

Apple's iTunes first appeared on Mac OS 9 in January 2001 and subsequent 2.x versions of this software appeared only on that system as well. In the beginning, iTunes was an extremely limited application, and given its isolation on Classic versions of Mac OS, the wider world rarely took note. In October 2001, Apple released its first iPod (see my review), and Apple promoted iTunes as the interface between the Mac and the iPod. But even that wasn't enough to push iTunes beyond obscurity: It took a few years for Apple to sell the iPod in mass market numbers.

In July 2002, Apple shipped the first version of iTunes for Mac OS X, dubbed iTunes 3. This iTunes version added a number of features, including smart playlists, Audible audio book support, and ratings and sound check functionality. Given the then-nascent condition of Mac OS X at the time, this didn't do much to improve iTunes' standing in the world either. Neither did Apple's decision to use Musicmatch Jukebox as its software bundle for the Windows-based iPods that were introduced that same month.

Eventually, two events conspired to make iTunes a hit with users. The first was the release of the iTunes Music Store--recently renamed simply to iTunes Store, the first successful legal source for purchasing music online. The iTunes Store eventually dominated online music sales, providing a place for iPod users to quickly and easily purchase music--and eventually other content--for their devices.

The second was the release of a version of iTunes that was compatible with Windows. Not surprisingly, this version of iTunes, iTunes 4, was released simultaneously with the iTunes Music Store. With Windows compatibility came a seemingly endless supply of customers. And suddenly, iTunes and the iPod were no longer niche products. They were mainstream products. And today, they are the best-selling solution for portable audio on the market.

Since then, Apple has shipped a number of major new iTunes versions. Apple iTunes 5 shipped in September 2005, adding smarter shuffling, parental controls, an LCD-style playback display, and other features, but it was curiously replaced by iTunes 6 just one month later. iTunes 6 added support for downloadable videos for the first time via paid video downloads and video podcasts. Apple updated iTunes 6 throughout 2006 with various small upgrades that added the reviled MiniStore, support for the Nike+iPod sneaker devices, and numerous bug fixes.

Enter iTunes 7

Apple's release of iTunes 7 (Figure) earlier this month during a special "Showtime" event wasn't particularly surprising: Rumors about Apple adding downloadable Hollywood movies to its iTunes Store had been circulating for months, and clearly such a move would be accompanied by an iTunes update of some sort. But iTunes 7 is a major upgrade to my favorite digital jukebox, and with this release, iTunes jumps firmly into Windows Media Player territory: No longer is iTunes a simple digital music player, as it was for the first several major versions. No, iTunes is now an all-in-one digital media management system and a front-end for synchronizing digital music, photos, videos, TV shows, and full-length movies, and podcasts and audio books, with an iPod. It is, quite suddenly, the real digital hub in many millions of people's lives. And oh my, you're going to really like this version.

I should note at this point that the Windows version of iTunes 7 (Figure) has been plagued by a number of high profile bugs. Its new visual browsing features seem to tax the PC's processor more than do previous versions. It takes up more RAM. It crashes occasionally. Given Apple's behavior in the past, I think we can make a few assumptions here. First, the initial iTunes 7 release is really just a public beta. It will be updated several times in the days ahead. And all those problems people are reporting will begin to disappear.

I should also note that most of my own experience with iTunes 7, at least so far, has come via my Mac OS X-based MacBook (see my review of Mac OS X "Tiger"), and not Windows. There are a few reasons for this. First, I've chosen to manage my iPods through the Mac, and not Windows so that I can better investigate the Mac's digital media features. And second, my PC systems are currently in an unstable state of flux, thanks to the numerous Vista prerelease builds that have been floating out of Redmond lately. I have little doubt, too, that the OS X version of iTunes is vastly superior to the version Windows users get. That shouldn't surprise anyone.

I've also been testing iTunes 7 with the new generation of iPods that Apple announced alongside iTunes 7. These include a fifth generation 80 GB iPod with video and a second generation 4 GB (green) iPod nano. When it arrives, I'll add a second generation iPod shuffle to the mix as well. And yes, I'll be reviewing each of these devices in the days ahead too, but I will discuss them as needed in this review, since iTunes has now taken over the iPod management duties that used to be handled by separate software. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We'll want to save that information for...

What's new in iTunes 7?

As noted previously, iTunes is a major upgrade. If you've been using iTunes for a while, you'll probably adapt quickly to the new version, though some features have annoyingly moved around a little bit. Here's what I've found.

General UI changes

First up is the overall user interface. The iTunes UI has been updated to a gun metal gray fascia with dark gray and blue-gray accents, a somewhat jarring change from the medium gray and gel controls of previous version. Debatably, the new UI is more professional looking. It's certainly crisp and clear with its dark black accents.

Not that it's a big deal, but the friendly green iTunes icon from past version has changed to an unfamiliar-looking blue iTunes icon. It's just as friendly looking, I guess, but we'll need to get used to it. (Interesting factoid: The original Mac OS 9 versions of iTunes sported a blue icon as well.)

Categorized Source pane

Aside from the color scheme, one of the first things you're likely to notice is that Apple has dramatically reorganized what it calls the Source list. This is the blue-gray navigation pane on the left side of iTunes. In previous versions, the Source list was indeed just a simple list. But now, it's broken out into categories, as Microsoft does in Windows Media Player. The Library section contains Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, and Radio by default, and Audiobooks and iPod Games are added if you buy either online (Figure).

The Store section contains an iTunes Store link by default, but you'll see other links there if you purchase content online or download anything. For example, if you've purchased any content online, you'll see a Purchased link. And any time you're downloading content, be it a song, movie, podcast, audiobook, or whatever, a Downloads link will appear, giving you access to iTunes' new download manager (Figure). (See below.)

If you've got an iPod or have placed an audio CD into your Mac or PC's optical drive, you'll see a Devices section from which you can manage these things (Figure). (See below for more information about the new iPod functionality in iTunes.)

If you're within range of other PCs or Macs that are sharing out their iTunes libraries, you'll see a Shared section. Under this section will be each of the shared libraries, which are completely browsable. You can even stream videos from other systems now. (For this reason, the default name of a shared library is now "\[User\]'s Library" and not "\[User\]'s Music," as they were in the past.

Below Shared, you'll see a Playlists section. This includes Party Shuffle and the built-in Smart Playlists that come with iTunes (90's Music, Music Videos, My Top Rated, Recently Added, Recently Played, and Top 25 Most Played) as well as any Smart Playlists, Playlists, and folders you create.

Overall, the new organization is greatly appreciated. It's unclear why the section names need to be capitalized ("LIBRARY" instead of the less bombastic "Library") but otherwise, it's clean looking, easily navigated, and logical. And since iTunes is now the hub for so many different kinds of media, the need for organization is greater than ever.

Automatic album art retrievable

During Setup, iTunes will ask you if you'd like for it to automatically download album artwork (Figure), a handy feature that Windows Media Player has offered for years. However, Apple's implementation is more limited than Microsoft's for two reasons. First, you must have a valid iTunes Store account for this feature to be enabled, which seems pointless. Second, iTunes can only automatically apply album artwork for albums that Apple sells at the iTunes Store. That means you won't be able to auto-apply album artwork to albums by such artists as The Beatles.

That said, the feature works pretty well. And if you ever need to manually apply album artwork to a particular album, you can simply right-click it in iTunes and select Get Album Artwork. In my simple tests, all worked well. But you may run into issues with compilations, especially, and of course albums not found on the iTunes Store.

Why is this important? With iPods and now the iTunes new view styles really emphasizing album art--a feature that makes it much easier to find the music you're looking for, assuming you're familiar with the album art--it makes sense that Apple would want to offer an automated way of adding album art. Previously, iTunes only supplied album art for music you purchased from the iTunes Store; if you ripped your own CD collection to the disk manually, as I've done, you had to go out and find the album art yourself. Now, this is not as big an issue (though, again, WMP has offered this functionality for some time.)

New view options

One gets the idea that Apple could feel Microsoft breathing down its virtual neck, because the new visualization options in iTunes 7 are straight out of the Windows Media Player 11 playbook (see my WMP11 review for details). In previous versions of iTunes, you basically had only one way of viewing your media library: As a flat list of text, straight out of dBASE III+ (Figure). What's curious about this type of display is how unemotional and unexciting it is. Given the fact that the typical digital media library is full of music and video, the previous iTunes display was more than a little anachronistic.

Well, credit Microsoft (for once) for showing Apple the way. Beginning about this time last year, Microsoft started shipping prerelease versions of WMP11 that include highly visual display types, with wonderful album art views. I'm a huge fan of this approach and now we know Apple is too, since it completely ripped off WMP11 for iTunes.

In iTunes 7, Apple provides two new view styles. The first, Grouped Artwork view, comes straight from WMP11. Here, regardless of how the library is sorted, album art comes front and center. It works very much like WMP11 (albeit without that player's innovative stacks views) and is both fun to browse and nice to look at (Figure).

The second is called CoverFlow, and though my initial reaction is that this view style was pure Apple, I was surprised to discover that Apple simply bought the technology from the small company that created it. (This is, if not a first for Apple, exceedingly rare: Apple generally just rips off ideas without paying for them.) CoverFlow is amazing demo-ware because of its highly visual nature (Figure). But like the Time Machine feature coming in the next version of Mac OS X, CoverFlow makes for a better demo than it does a real world user interface. My suspicion is that most people will tire of it quickly. God knows I did.

These views are both highly graphical, but they fall flat if you haven't taken the time to supply album art for all of your music. I've been rather anal retentive about that, so I'm all set. I bet most other people haven't been as vigilant. If you haven't done so, iTunes 7, with its automatic album art downloading, is a good place to start.

So let's recap. There are two new view styles in iTunes 7. One was stolen from Microsoft, and the other was purchased from a small software development company. And you know what? Who cares? They're wonderful additions to iTunes, and it's about time Apple stole something fun from Microsoft.

Integrated iPod management

Previous to iTunes 7, iPod owners had to separate various iPod-related management tasks between an iPod Updater application and iTunes itself. Now, everything is done from within iTunes and the world is a better place for it (Figure). Thankfully, Apple has moved iPod management out from the hidden Preferences window and directly into the iTunes UI. It's a wonder to behold.

What you get is a multi-pane interface from which you can manage the iPod's firmware and the iTunes content that is synchronized with the iPod. On the first pane of this interface, Summary, Apple includes a wonderful capacity gauge that graphically shows both how full your iPod is and what type of content it contains (Audio, Video, Photos, and a curious "Other" category). There's even a nice graphical image of your iPod that correctly displays both the model type and color.

By putting all of the iPod's functionality up front and center, Apple is taking the mystery out of using these devices. And that's a good thing. This is one of the best new features of iTunes 7. I'll be looking more closely at this functionality in upcoming reviews of the new iPod and iPod nano devices.

I will mention one unique iPod feature, however. In sharp contrast with previous iTunes versions, it's now possible to copy content from an iPod to iTunes in limited scenarios. (Previously, iPod users had to resort to third party utilities to do this.) If you purchase content from the iTunes Store on one PC or Mac and then plug your iPod into a different machine, the copy of iTunes you have on the second machine can now download that purchased content to your library. Sadly, you're not given any options about what to copy: iTunes will simply discover any content you don't have on the PC (or Mac) and download it. Naturally, the second PC or Mac has to have been authorized for your iTunes Store account for this to work.

Integrated download manager

In previous versions of iTunes, downloads from the iTunes Store were handled differently depending on the type of content you were getting. For example, if you purchase a song or music video, the download was tracked in the Purchases section. If you downloaded a podcast, it was tracked in the Podcasts section. Now, iTunes includes a single download manager from which you can track any and all downloads that originate from the iTunes Store, whether they're paid or free. The download manager is accessed via the new Downloads entry in the Store section, which appears only when there are downloads pending or in process (Figure).

Aside from consolidating the iTunes download experience into a single location, the download manager also provides a few other interesting features. First, it lets you pause and restart downloads. As before, iTunes should be smart enough to handle situations in which your system goes offline in the middle of a download, but this feature gives you the opportunity to stop downloads when you know you're going offline and, potentially, avoid an Apple Support call.

Second, the download manager lets you prioritize downloads. If you're downloading a bunch of podcasts as well as, say, the new episode of "Lost," you can simply pause all other downloads to ensure the most important download gets all the bandwidth.

Third, and this is a first for iTunes, you can actually start watching movie and TV downloads as they're coming down the pipe. We'll look at this feature later in the review.

Gapless playback support

Once Setup is complete, iTunes will scan your music library and look for songs that are meant to be played back-to-back without any gap between the songs. Concert albums are an obvious example of this type of music, as are many classical compositions. Previously, such connected songs were curiously disconnected in iTunes and other digital jukeboxes, but now that's no longer the case. When you burn gapless songs back to a music CD or synchronize with a new iPod, the resulting songs are gapless too. (Older iPods retain the gaps.) This is an excellent feature and one that music fans should cheer.

iTunes Backup

Thanks to a new Backup to Disc option in the iTunes File menu, you can now trigger a handy iTunes Backup utility that will help you backup your entire iTunes library and playlists collection, back up only your iTunes purchases, or backup only those items that have been added or updated since the last backup (Figure). It's simple and it works. Bravo.

iTunes Store changes

I've argued that the quality of the music that Apple sells from its online media service, iTunes Store, is lousy. And it is. Foisting 128 Kbps files on unsuspecting consumers should be punishable by public flogging. Despite this, no one seems to care. The last time I checked, Apple has sold about a bazillion songs online, far more than the 17 or 18 Napster and MSN Music have sold combined. So the market has spoken. And iTunes Store is king.

Lately, however, the iTunes Store has been about a lot more than just music. In 2005, Apple added downloadable videos and TV shows to the mix at $1.99 a pop, though the video quality was just as horrible as the music quality offered through the service: Apple videos were encoded at just 320 x 240, perfect for a squint- and neckache-inducing iPod with video screen, but not so good when displayed on a PC or Mac monitor or a television. And of course, the iTunes Store also offers podcasts (for free) and audio books.

With iTunes 7, the iTunes Store has been enhanced as well. First, the name has changed. I've been referring to it as the iTunes Store, which is the new name, but it was previously called the iTunes Music Store. This is important because the iTunes Store isn't just about music anymore. Presumably, the name iTunes was kept simply because it has such a dedicated customer base.

Second, Apple has upped the video quality ante with iTunes 7. Now, all TV shows and videos are encoded at near-DVD quality 640 x 480 (Figure). That's a whopping four times the resolution of the previously offered videos and TV shows and, sure enough, all of the preexisting content on the iTunes Store has been silently updated to the new format. That's fantastic.

Not so fantastic is that all of your previous purchases are stuck at the old quality and resolution levels. If you foolishly purchased, say, Season 1 of "Lost" at 320 x 240, you're stuck with it. Buy it today--the price is still $1.99 per episode--and you'll get the 640 x 480 version. I'd like to see Apple offer customers a chance to re-download content that's been improved. It's only fair.

Third, Apple added support for Hollywood movie downloads to the iTunes Store. So far, only Disney has signed up, but one might expect the other major studios to follow. There are only 75 movies for sale, but some are quite decent. The quality level is similar to TV shows and videos, with one caveat: Though the horizontal resolution of purchased movies is indeed 640 pixels, the vertical resolution is often quite a bit less because of the widescreen aspect ratio used by most movies. I've seen resolutions like 640 x 272 and 640 x 344. The movies are encoded at 1634 Kbps H.264, which is decent quality. Not quite DVD, but not bad (Figure).

Movie pricing is bizarre and a far cry from the standardize pricing Apple has for music, videos, and TV shows. Movies can cost anywhere from $9.99 to $14.99, which isn't horrible, frankly. The $9.99 price point is apparently reserved for "catalog" movies, those movies that have been around for while. New movies are $14.99. But if you preorder new movies--typically a month or two before they're made available--you'll pay $12.99. So what's bizarre about the pricing, you ask? It's not consistent. While the current best-seller on iTunes, "Pirates of the Caribbean - The Curse of the Black Pearl," has been out on DVD since December 2003 (and sells for the expected $9.99 price), "The Incredibles" has been available on DVD since March 2005--about a year and a half--and yet it retains the $14.99 "new" price. Sorry, but that's not a new movie, guys.

From a technical standpoint, Apple also improved movie (and TV show and music video) playback in the iTunes application. Previously, movie playback was so lackluster, I actually used QuickTime Player to watch TV shows, but thanks to new improvements like the on-screen playback controls, iTunes is now quite usable (Figure).

You can also watch movies and TV as they download, which is new to iTunes 7. It's unclear how far along the download has to be for this to work, but I've started watching shows quite quickly and it appears to work just fine.

Apple has also added a new iPod Games section to the iTunes Store. There are only a handful of games available, and given the limitations of the iPod scroll wheel, my guess is we won't see a lot more. Apple offers mostly casual games, as you'd expect, like Bejeweled, Mahjong, Pac-Man, and Tetris, and I have to admit they look quite nice on the iPod's screen. Games are priced competitively as well, just $4.99 each. Though iPod games are managed through iTunes, you can't play them from iTunes (Figure). They're for the iPod only.

Finally, the integration between the iTunes Store and iTunes (the application) is growing greater as well (I bet you didn't think that was possible). A new Store menu in iTunes provides quick access to a number of iTunes Store-related features, such as Search (an advanced search panel just for the iTunes Store), checking for as-yet-to-be-downloaded purchases, authorizing and deauthorizing the current computer, and viewing your iTunes Store account information.

Differences between the Windows and OS X versions

Apple likes to describe the Windows and Mac OS X versions of iTunes as being identical, but of course there are some differences. Some of these differences are superficial and owe more to underlying differences between Windows and Mac OS X than anything else. For example, the Windows version of iTunes includes a menu bar along the top of its application window, similar to other Windows applications. The OS X version, naturally, utilizes the top-mounted system menu that's common to all OS X applications.

Likewise, the window control buttons--Minimize, Maximize/Restore, and Close--are found in the upper right of the Windows version's application window, as they are in other Windows applications. In the OS X version, iTunes sports three gel-like window control buttons in the upper left of the application window, as you'd expect.

Because many Windows users have their own music file organization scheme going on, typically within the My Music special shell folder, the Windows version of iTunes will use your own organization scheme by default, but you can optionally choose to let iTunes keep your music organized under the iTunes Music folder, as is done on OS X.

In OS X, iTunes (and other Apple applications) are updated through a control panel-like application called Software Update. Since this application doesn't exist on Windows, and Microsoft is not yet allowing third party developers to add their own software updates to Microsoft Update, Apple has duplicated its Software Update front-end for Windows users. Dubbed Apple Software Update on Windows, this new application will help you automatically download updates for iTunes, QuickTime Player, and other Apple software. Apple Software Update is installed separately to your Program Files directory, and not to the Control Panel. It looks and works amazingly like the OS X version (Figure).

Oddly, the Windows version of iTunes includes two features not found on the Mac. One is good and one is utterly horrible. The good: After installation, it will scan your hard drive for Windows Media Audio (WMA) files and then transcode them to AAC so that they are compatible with the application (and any iPods you might have).

The bad one is insidious: If you have the temerity to remove the iTunes shortcut from the desktop or Quick Launch toolbar, or if you move or delete the iTunes folder from the Start Menu, iTunes will actually take half a minute each time you load the application to reapply all those shortcuts. That's right: If you want a clean desktop or Start Menu, Apple will fix that problem for you right away, thanks very much. I'm sorry, but that's completely unacceptable, and it mars what is otherwise a wonderful experience. Please, Apple. You have got to fix this.

Conclusions

Apple's iTunes 7 is the best version of iTunes yet and is, without question, the finest media player on any platform, even when you factor in the problems that are currently dogging the Windows version. That said, I can't give iTunes a 5-star rating until Apple fixes these problems, because Windows users in particular will be screaming bloody murder--and rightfully so--that Apple would run roughshod over their systems in such a fashion. From a pure usability standpoint, however, iTunes 7 is the best there is, and Microsoft could learn a thing or two from the professional and clean user interface that Apple offers. Windows Media Player 11 may have indeed gotten there first with such things as categorized and visual browsing, but iTunes does them right. And of course, iTunes is 100 percent compatible with the finest portable media players on the planet. There are many reasons why I prefer iTunes over competing solutions, and with iTunes 7, the list has only gotten longer.