iTunes 7.4 is the latest version of Apple's venerable media management tool, which has evolved over the years from a Mac-only music player to a multiplatform front-end to various media types that syncs with Apple's ever-expanding range of media devices. I use iTunes to manage my own music collection, as well as the TV shows, movies, audio books, podcasts, music videos, games, and other content that I synchronize with my own iPods, iPhone, and Apple TV. Put simply, like many Windows users, I've bought into the Apple digital media ecosystem in a big way and thus have a lot invested in this software.

The Windows version of iTunes, which is the version used by most of the people who downloaded 600 million copies of the software over the past few years, is seriously compromised compared to the less popular but original Mac version. That is, the Mac versions of iTunes, as well as the QuickTime Player and associated technologies that are required for iTunes, perform much more ably on Apple's Mac than they do on PCs. This has become more and more of an issue over time as Apple has added features and functionality to what is likely the world's most used digital media jukebox.

Aside from the troubling performance issues, iTunes 7.4 is top-notch, though this latest version is a somewhat minor update over the iTunes 7 release that Apple shipped a year ago. What's most curious about this, however, is that at the time of this writing, Apple has done little to adequately document what's new in iTunes 7.4 and of the new features the company has discussed publicly, none are yet available.

Here's what's new this year in iTunes.

Ringtones

At the company's Beat Goes On event on September 5, 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced one major new iTunes 7.4 feature, and it applies only to the iPhone. This feature, ringtones, places a new Ringtones entry in the iTunes Library list and allows you to make your own ringtones--for a cost--that you can then sync to the iPhone. The system is rather obtuse: Instead of being able to make ringtones from any song in your library, or purchase pre-made ringtones from a collection on the iTunes Store, you instead need to pay for protected songs via the iTunes Store twice, once for the song itself and once for right to make a the ringtone. The total cost of this transaction is $1.98 per ringtone, though of course you get the full song as well. (And, no, it doesn't count if the song is already in your library unless you purchased it from Apple.)

But it's even worse than it sounds: You can't choose from all of the songs in the iTunes Store's 6 million song library, but only from a 500,000 song subset of that library, no doubt due to licensing restrictions. (Applicable songs will be marked with a small bell icon in the store.) And once you've paid for and purchased the song/ringtone rights, you then have to edit the ringtone yourself, using a visual editor that will no doubt prove intimidating to many users. (Certainly, the way Steve Jobs fumbled over it during the event keynote suggests it's not particularly easy to use. He even humorously referred to the Ringtone link as "my ringtone thing," further revealing a lack of familiarity with what is essentially an esoteric feature.)

Ringtones support will be "turned on" this week, according to Apple, and I will examine this feature in more detail once it is made available. But I'd like to point out now that while a lack of readily available ringtones for the iPhone was a complaint in my review of that device, this feature doesn't really address my concerns. You should be able to purchase pre-made ringtones, obviously, as few people are really technically adept enough to want to do this themselves. And if Apple must force ringtone editing on the populace, they should allow customers to make ringtones from any song in their collection.

iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store and Starbucks integration

During the event last week, Jobs also showed off two new services for iPhone and iPod touch owners that aren't specifically iTunes 7.4 features, but are of course related to iTunes. I'll be reviewing the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store and its Starbucks integration piece separately at future date--they are slated to come online beginning late this month--but it's worth noting here what they are and how they will work with iTunes.

The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store is a mobile version of iTunes, designed for the iPhone and iPod touch, which allows users to browse the entire iTunes Store collection over-the-air and make purchases on the go. Once songs or other content are downloaded to the device, they are reverse synced with the desktop version of iTunes when the device is next connected to the PC. Thus, it is possible to purchase a digital album wirelessly with an iPhone or iPod touch and then later access and play that music back on your PC using the desktop version of iTunes. This sounds like a killer feature, and it's certainly one that users have been wondering about for years. ("'Finally,' some of you are saying," Jobs noted during the event keynote.)

The Starbucks piece is much less interesting, despite the bizarre hyperbole used to introduce the feature during the event keynote. Today, Starbucks offers expensive Wi-Fi access through many of its 14,000 coffee shops around the world via T-Mobile. Over a two year period of time, the company will update participating Wi-Fi equipped shops in the US to work with iPhones and iPod touch devices in a very unique way: While they won't get free Wi-Fi per se, these devices will be able to navigate the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store only for free while inside participating Starbucks. There are two advantages to this plan, neither of which is particularly exciting to anyone but Apple. First, you will be able to spend money at Apple's online media store. Second, you will be able to access a special Starbucks application on the device that displays the name of the song that's currently playing in the shop, as well as the previous ten songs. Then, you can--yes, you guessed it--purchase those songs from the iTunes Store if you're interested. In short, it's all about you spending even more money in Starbucks, as if the $5 cups of coffee weren't enough.

Unannounced new features in iTunes 7.4

While last week's Apple event was pretty light on new iTunes 7.4 features, the new player--and the accompanying new version of QuickTime--does include a number of functional updates. The one with the biggest potential, in my opinion, is its long-overdue support for closed captioning: To date, every single TV show and movie you can purchase from the iTunes Store comes without this crucial feature. Sadly, that's still the case, though I question the legality of selling such offerings in the US. Apparently, new versions of these videos with embedded closed captioning will be required for this feature to be truly meaningful. I'm looking forward to seeing that happen, as this feature will make the iTunes Store's TV show and movie libraries suddenly quite interesting to my deaf son. Today, they're utterly useless to him and anyone else who relies on captioning.

iTunes 7.4 also includes a vastly improved display of playlists in the sync panes for any attached iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. Instead of the previous static and bizarrely ordered list, in which every single playlist in iTunes was non-alphabetically laid out, iTunes 7.4 now presents these playlists as they appear in the main iTunes Library list, with hierarchical folders. Bravo.

There is also a new album ratings system. iTunes has always supported per-song and per-video ratings, but this new album rating is separate from that and works with the application's smart playlist feature. These ratings appear as a row of up to five stars under each album art image in Album View. What's interesting about album ratings is that they appear to be tied to the song ratings: If you've rated all of the songs in a particular album as three-stars or less, iTunes suggests a three-star rating as the maximum album rating (though you can go up to four- or five-stars if you really want to).

Finally, Apple has increased the size of the default video playback window in iTunes, but only if you choose to displays videos within the main iTunes window (and not in a separate window as I typically did previously). The effect is quite interesting, with the video occupying most of the available iTunes real estate across the entire width of the application. This new display mode also comes with a cool and unique control overlay that will have two or three controls, depending on the type of video being played: A movie chapter list (typically found only on Hollywood movies purchased from the iTunes Store) with an amazing pop-up menu of chapters, a full screen toggle, and a close button. It's quite nice. In fact, I think it's one of the coolest new features in iTunes 7.4.

Final thoughts

As a relatively minor update, iTunes 7.4 doesn't dramatically change the outlook for Apple's digital media hub. Apple iTunes is still a performance dog on Windows, and it is still the instrument of Apple's lock-in strategy, in which you are forced to use iTunes and its proprietary store's music and video formats in order to enjoy the iPod, the world's bestselling line of portable media players. Worse still is the iPhone, which also requires iTunes of course. In fact, you can't even make a non-911 phone call with the iPhone until you sync it with iTunes. Yikes.

That all said, as deals with the devil go, iTunes offers some appetizing fruit. Performance issues notwithstanding, I still find it to be the nicest jukebox out there for organizing my music collection, and I've never seen anything like it for podcasts. (Microsoft? Anyone out there?) And of course, I'm firmly in the iPod camp for good reason: Apple's devices are simply the best there is, and if using iTunes is the price one has to pay, then that's hardly a punishment. I use iTunes because I want to. My issue with it is that so many people use it because they have to.

Recommended, with caveats.


--Paul Thurrott
September 10, 2007