This version's improvements are mostly in the iTunes Music Store, the successful online store that users can reach only through iTunes. The iTunes Music Store now offers video for purchase in the form of TV shows, short films, and music videos. Focusing on TV instead of full-length movies and fixing the price at an affordable $1.99 per show will likely prove as groundbreaking as the store's 99-cent-per-track music downloads were. The store also gains an important community feature with a new ratings option, and it lets you send particular songs or playlists as gifts, instead of simply sending a gift certificate. Also, the new Just For You recommendation service, still in beta, offers shoppers a useful way to discover new music.
As a music organizer and player, iTunes compares extremely well to its serious competition: Windows Media Player 10, Musicmatch, and JetAudio. It's far easier to use and offers nearly identical feature sets for basic music tasks. Plus, it and the iTunes Music Store have shown great innovation in adding audiobooks from Audible.com, podcasts, and now video. If you're using any portable player except the iPod, then iTunes probably isn't for you, since it autosyncs with only the iPod. But if you haven't bought a player yet, consider iTunes one more reason why the iPod is a solid choice.Getting started with iTunes is a simple matter of downloading and installing the latest version; it's always free, so unlike Musicmatch, it will never badger you with pop-ups asking you to upgrade. Once the program is installed, you can start ripping your CDs and browsing the iTunes Music Store for digital downloads.
The interface is clean, friendly, and intuitive, even for beginners, though the Mac interface is a bit more polished than the Windows version. The left-hand Source column is a directory to the app's major areas, including your library of music tracks, podcasts, and now video. This column also allows access to the online streaming radio stations (non-Apple content organized into genres), the iTunes Music Store, and any playlists or smart lists you create. The larger area to the right shows your files or the Music Store. While in the Library view, you can easily add and arrange columns. Choose a song and select Get Info from the File menu to edit its ID3 tags.
Providing you have an online connection--broadband recommended--you can click the green Music Store icon on the left to access the iTunes Music Store, which is organized in much the same way as the player itself. The store's major areas are listed on the left (Browse, Power Search, Podcasts, Audiobooks, and so on), while content is highlighted in the middle. To quickly find a particular artist or song, use the search box in the upper right. Changes in version 5 help you find search results faster. After a search, you'll see a gray bar running across the top of the screen; with a click, you can narrow down the type of results you see, such as music, audiobooks, or podcasts. Also, preview 30-second song samples in the store, or watch 20-second previews of the video content. The store currently contains more than 2 million music tracks from all five major labels and more than 1,000 independents; 20,000 podcasts; 11,000 audiobooks; 2,000 music videos; and 75 TV show episodes--here's hoping that last one grows quickly.
At launch, the store carried only five television shows, all from ABC/Disney: Lost, Night Stalker, Desperate Housewives, That's So Raven, and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Episodes are available the day after broadcast. We're betting the number of shows will grow quickly when TV execs see that this is a useful revenue stream that doesn't encourage piracy. (Confidential to Fox: Please consider this, because we're always forgetting when Arrested Development is on.) Music videos used to be free on iTunes, although unorganized and not downloadable; now they're downloadable and well organized but cost $1.99 each. Personally, we preferred it when they were free.
The store gains an important community feature in this version with the introduction of a ratings system. Now, any user with an iTunes account can rate an album or comment on the usefulness of another user's rating, similar to the system Amazon.com has offered for many years. We're thrilled that Apple added this because previously iTunes' only community feature was the ho-hum iMix, which allows you to post a song mix and rate other people's mixes--boring! Napster still beats the iTunes store on community features, though, as it offers the ability to see what other users have in their playlists.
Two other online features round out version 6's improvements: a gifting feature and a recommendation engine. You can now send a friend a particular song, album, playlist, video, or audiobook with the gifting service, instead of sending an impersonal gift certificate. If you really want a friend to hear a particular song, find the album within the iTunes Music Store and click the Gift This option from the top of the screen. You'll then get a nearly identical screen with a green background, from which you can select the song. Recipients get an e-mail notification and, in order to download the song, need to have an iTunes account--which is free but might be challenging to set up for less tech-savvy users.