I've always had sort of a love-hate relationship with iTunes, software that's evolved so much over time that it's become weighed down with extraneous buttons, widgets, and other UI silliness. Too, the Windows version has always been a performance nightmare, a sad joke compared to the responsive UIs of Microsoft digital media applications like Windows Media Player 11 and Zune. And yet, there's something indelibly enticing about iTunes, something that transcends all the bad vibes I get from this application, something that makes me turn to it again and again. I use iTunes, daily, and I actually like it. I wish it performed better. But I do like it.

This month, Apple shipped a new version of its iTunes software to accompany the 2008 iPods. Despite its version number, 8.0, the new iTunes is no more a major upgrade than was last year's version 7.4. In fact, it's hard not to think that Apple artificially bumped up the version number from 7.5 to 8.0 specifically to make this month's releases seem more profound than they really are. Put simply, iTunes brings with it all the same issues that have compromised previous releases. It's slow. It eats RAM like it's going out of style. It's buggy (so buggy, in fact, that the initial release caused widespread Blue Screen of Death crashes on Windows Vista; that problem has since been fixed). And its UI is straining under the weight of years of feature additions, many of them pointless.

But it also brings with it all the goodness of the past too. It works well with iPods and iPhones. It provides seamless connectivity between the PC and the world's biggest online content store. It works with Apple TV, which is still my favorite living room set-top box. And it bolsters the digital media navigation capabilities of previous versions with new view styles that were lifted straight out of Microsoft's offerings (again), but to good effect. It's a solid, evolutionary update.

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

Genius

One of the most mysterious features ever to grace iTunes, Genius is a way to create playlists that "go great together" with the currently selected song. If it works, Genius could be one of the nicer iTunes features ever.

Of course, for Genius to work, you'll need a fairly voluminous media library. I have such a library, and I'm happy to report that the playlists the service creates are quite interesting indeed. However, a number of times, I was told that "Genius is unavailable" for the selected song. This necessitated a lengthy update with Apple, analogous to the wait you experience the first time Genius scans you library and communicates with Apple's servers and online algorithms. (It's an opt-in service.) And even then, sometimes the Genius wizard would fail.

When it does work, the Genius playlists are quite interesting. Running Genius against an Adam and the Ants song came up with a playlist featuring 80's stalwarts like the Cars, Duran Duran, and Kate Bush, which makes some sense. But it also included a 1990's-era Bon Jovi song, which makes no sense at all.

Some Genius playlists get even weirder. Much weirder. Avril Lavigne's cheerleader pop romp "Girlfriend" was paired with songs by Dio, the Doors, John Lennon, and Rush, among others. Huh?

So the word Genius is a bit of a misnomer here, at least right now. (It's supposed to get better over time.) But that's fine, and this certainly isn't the worst example of hyperbole to come out of Apple marketing. The real goal of Genius, after all, is to create playlists that help you rediscover your own music. And on that note, it succeeds: I would never have considered these musical pairings, and that's what makes it fun. Apple should have just called this feature "Jack-FM" and been done with it. (It's a lot like that popular radio station franchise.) It's serendipitous, yes. Genius, not so much. But it's a fun feature.

Genius playlists work a little differently from "normal" playlists and Smart Playlists. First, they're temporary. Unless you manually choose to save one, it will disappear. And you can click a Refresh button to generate a new list. If you do save one of these playlists, it will be saved as a new Genius playlist type, and not as a more traditional playlist type. So it can be refreshed later, and thus changed completely. Genius playlists can contain 25, 50, 75, or 100 songs.

Genius takes the music discovery thing to a logical conclusion by also providing an optional Genius Sidebar that's as much of an iTunes Store marketing tool as was the lame iTunes Mini-Store pane that dogged the last version of this software. When you enable this sidebar and select a song, the sidebar will display top albums and songs you're missing by that artist and a list of related song recommendations from other artists. Note that all of these items are things that aren't in your music library, so this is really an attempt to suck some more money out of your pocket. That's fine, of course, and frankly it answers a complaint I've had about iTunes for years now: that the online store never really offered a good way to discover new music. That said, no one should be purchasing music from iTunes, so use this feature to find new music and then head to the MP3-friendly shores of Amazon MP3 to purchase them. Interoperability and all that.

Overall, Genius is a great feature. It doesn't really work as advertised, but it does create interesting and entertaining playlists. It also end-runs around the problem of playlists in general, that you would have needed to have spent a lot of time previously rating songs and so on to create decent playlists. This does it for you. And it works well.

Grid view

Over its first several revisions, iTunes was widely criticized for its text-list-based UI, which more closely resembled classic MS-DOS databases like dBase III+ than it did a digital media manager. Since that time, Apple has worked to make iTunes more graphically pleasing, and it's done so largely by aping the view styles Microsoft has provided for years in Windows Media Player and Zune. (The one exception to this trend, the cool-looking but useless Cover Flow view, was purchased from a third party.)

Apple continues borrowing from Microsoft in iTunes 8, adding a long-overdue Grid view that displays your entire music (and other content types) libraries by album art, the way God intended. What took them so long we'll never know. But Apple finally gets it right: You can sort different content types in different ways, so with music you'll see Albums, Artists, Genres, and Composers. (Composers? Methinks this will be used solely by that very vocal 1 percent of iTunes users who enjoy classical music.) It looks and works exactly as you'd expect.

Curiously, in moving to this more obvious and more graphical view style, Apple has managed to muck up the now-classic List view as well. There's no spacing between albums with lots of songs, an errant effect that's easier to show than explain:

Of course, Apple being Apple, they've also added pointless but demo-friendly skimming functionality to Grid view. So if you're viewing your music collection by Artist, for example, you can skim over the thumbnail for an artist for which you have multiple albums and watch it animate through each album's album art. This feature is mostly worthless from a functional standpoint. It first appeared in Apple's Mac-only iPhoto application. (Apple also uses it in the Mobile Me photo gallery, among other places.)

Minor changes

Genius and Grid view are the only major changes from previous iTunes versions, but the company has also added a few minor but noteworthy changes.

New visualizer

Not a big deal, but iTunes 8 includes a completely new Visualizer (the old one is available as an option called Classic Visualizer) that appears to involve electrically-charged, gravitationally effected balls, lights, and ... stuff. It's attractive, I guess, but what with being over 16 years old, I don't personally have much use for it. I'm guessing you don't either.

Support for HD TV shows

Apple is moving ever-slowly into the HD content world, first earlier this year with HD movie rentals on Apple TV only and now with iTunes 8 offering, for the first time, HD TV show purchases. (At least Apple is offering HD content, of course. No one else is.) Sadly, since we're only at phase two of what is clearly going to be a 6 or 7 phase rollout, the support for HD in Apple's ecosystem right now is spotty.

Correction: Thanks to a number of readers, I've needed to correct this section of the review, which originally stated that Apple does not include an SD download with each HD TV show purchase. That is not the case. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. --Paul

Here's how it works. If you own an Apple TV, you can rent but not buy HD movies, but they can't be used anywhere but on that one device. You can also buy HD TV shows and sync them back to iTunes. From within iTunes, you can now buy HD TV shows, and sync them out to an Apple TV. Apple also includes a second standard definition download of each HD TV show download, which you can sync to your iPod or iPhone. But you can't rent or watch HD movies from iTunes, let alone sync them to iPods.

Regardless, there's not much HD content available. You can get the second season of "30 Rock," for example, but not the first. You can get season 4 of "Battlestar Galactica," but no others. There's no HBO content available in HD.

That HD content that is available is of decent quality and comes at 1280 x 720 resolution. Sadly, the file sizes are predictably ginormous. A 30 minute TV show episode in HD quality runs about one gigabyte. That's not much less than a typical 2 hour movie in SD. In other words, HD content takes up four times the space of SD content. Suddenly, that 300 GB hard drive doesn't look so voluminous anymore.

Anyhoo, as it now stands, Apple's support for HD is somewhat limited. With iTunes 8 specifically, you can only buy some shows in HD, and then for $2.99 per episode, a $1 premium over SD versions of the same show. That content can't be used anywhere else and, let's be honest here, who the heck watches a TV episode more than once anyway? You shouldn't be buying content like this, let alone paying a premium for it, especially when its use is so limited. Oh, and when Apple finally does ship HD-capable iPods in 2009 ... or 2010 ... you won't want to watch that old episode of Heroes again anyway.

Accessibility improvements

I haven't had a chance to test this, but iTunes 8 now supports screen readers on both Windows and the Mac, making the application more accessible. You can even use a screen reader to purchase content on the iTunes Store, according to Apple.

Other problems

If you upgrade from a previous version of iTunes--and hundreds of millions of people will do just that--you'll discover a new problem that's unique to version 8: It actually loses much of your album art during the transition. (It also fails to correctly identify some music, placing it into a generic Unknown Album). If you have an iTunes Store account, you can use the software's ability to automatically find and replace album art to overcome this issue somewhat. But an amazing number of common albums come up empty. For example, iTunes informed me it couldn't locate album art for Journey's "Raised on Radio" or INXS' "Switch" CDs. Really?

Final thoughts

Overall, iTunes 8 is the same sort of evolutionary update we've come to expect from Apple, and the company's version numbering scheme remains as spurious as ever. Like the iPods it supports, iTunes is a mature and suddenly complex product, overburdened by the multitude of features Apple has added over time. But that maturity has its advantages as well, of course, and iTunes, combined with the iTunes Store, offers access to a far wider range of content than does any other digital media player.  If you're an iTunes user, you pretty much don't have a choice about upgrading, but that's fine as iTunes 8 is a decent upgrade with at least a few worthwhile new features. If you're not an iTunes user, the value equation hasn't really changed at all. That said, I am an iTunes user and I'll be playing around with the Genius feature especially for some time to come. No, it's not the major upgrade its version number suggests. But it's still the most full-featured digital media player on the planet. Recommended.

--Paul Thurrott
September 14, 2008