- Review Date: 04/23/11
- Bottom line:
The preeminent music and video player/organizer now lets iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch's get in on Home Sharing of media. iTunes can organize apps, rent TV show, and stream to Apple TV, AirPlay Wi-Fi devices. Version 10 added a music-centric social network, Ping, and added UI touch-ups in this polished, powerful app.
Huge store of media for sale and video for rent. Pleasing user interface. HD TV program rentals. iPhone and iPad app organization. Ping social network music discovery. Support for iOS 4.2 devices.
No subscription music plan. Ping not available on the Web, not connected with Facebook. HD is only 720p. Some nuisances using iDevices with more than one computer.
Apple's iTunes is the default media player and organizer for the multitudes of iPod, iPhone, and iPad-toting trendsters, but Apple hasn't rested on its laurels, continuing instead to add features and improve the software. Version 10 added Apple TV integration, TV show rentals, better app management, and a few cosmetic changes, but the real new meat was Ping, a Facebook-like music-oriented social network that lives inside the media player software. Version 10.2 adds support for the iOS 4.3 operating system on iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad 2 ($499-$829, 4.5 stars), along with support for Home Sharing's streaming video to those devices. New AirPlay support lets you stream music to compatible audio devices—which are finally showing up. Whether you use an iDevice or not, iTunes is still the media organizer to beat.
iTunes is jam-packed with extra features—far too many to detail in this review. Genius playlists and Genius mixes are a great example of this. They automatically create playlists based on song styles and moods. iTunes LP is another, giving you liner notes, photos, and video to go along with an album. Its DJ feature lets you create a live mix in which friends can make requests and vote on songs. This is in addition to what other players give you—an equalizer, Internet radio, and podcast subscriptions. See our previous reviews of iTunes for more on these features. In this review below, I'll mainly concentrate on iTunes' newer features.
Setup and First Impressions
iTunes is, of course, available for Mac OS X (version 10.5 or later), as well as Windows 7, Vista, and XP. If your PC is running a 64-bit version of Vista or Windows 7, you'll need to download the separate 64-bit installer. By default, the installer makes iTunes your default player for audio files, though you can uncheck this if you prefer Windows Media Player (Free, 4 stars), Winamp (Free, 4 stars), or another player.
After you install the software on a Mac, a setup assistant asks you questions that help it customize your installation. The Windows version asks you whether you want to add all songs, audio, and convert and add Windows Media Audio (WMA) files. You can also have iTunes organize your library by renaming files and moving them to the folders that match. A final privacy check asks if you want the app to download album art.
After you first launch iTunes, you're offered nine tutorials that cover topics ranging from the Ping service to iTunes U; these offer a good, simple way to get you started with unfamiliar features. A recent view in addition to the list, thumbnail, and Cover Flow of previous versions, called "Album List" view, shows the album art instead of repeated album titles, for a more skimmable view on your library.
Apple doesn't add new file format support with this release, and while its companion QuickTime player does offer a good assortment of media files, you're more likely to be able to play that difficult file in the excellent VLC media player (Free, 4 stars) media player, which supports over 20 video formats alone, compared with iTunes' seven.
Ping—The Walled Music Social Network
Ping is a music-oriented social network that lets you follow (in the Twitter sense) performers and other iTunes users, meaning you'll see which songs they "liked, purchased, or commented on." It also lets users indicate concerts they plan to attend, and offers to find you tickets, too. Really, it's just a direct link to TicketMaster's page for the event. The activity stream looks a lot like Facebook's, down to the blue theme.
You're very limited to what you can post to Ping, as compared with Facebook—no photos, links, or videos, and the lack of a Web version means that Ping lives strictly within iTunes' walled garden. Sure, Apple claims over 160 million iTunes users as potential Pingers, but do users want to open a particular app to take part in a vertical social network, when vertical social networks have pretty much fallen by the wayside anyway? Gmail has more users than iTunes, but Google Buzz is still having trouble getting off the ground.
Privacy is well handled in Ping. You can choose to manually designate which actions to share with your followers, require your approval before anyone can follow you, or not allow others to follow you, if you just want to see what other musicians and fans are up to. If someone you want to follow has protected their posts, you'll get a request-to-follow message box.
A few other drawbacks are that you must use your full name on your Ping page, you can't see "friends"' libraries (let alone stream them), and there's no way to find Ping friends from Facebook or Twitter. In the end, Ping seems more of a marketing tool than a social network, with nearly every post including a buy link. Web-based alternatives like Last.fm (Free, 3.5 stars) actually let you listen to your contact's music in full, rather than just the first 30 seconds iTunes' preview restrict you to. That way you can just buy your MP3 from Amazon.com or whatever other online store you like and still have it noted in your social music net. Ping is a decent service—but whether or not it succeeds will depend on the extent to which iTunes' vast pool of users adopts it. For more on Apple's social network, read my Apple iTunes Ping: Hands On.
Apple TV Support
If you buy an Apple TV box, you'll need iTunes running on a Mac or PC so that saved content can play through it. But even if you don't have an Apple TV, you can still take part in the TV show rentals, and even play them on your big-screen TV with the right connectors (preferably HDMI). But when I tried this with a middling power Windows 7 laptop (2.6-GHz Core 2 Duo with 3GB RAM and Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS graphics), the 720p HD size stuttered in playback. On a better desktop machine, the playback was smooth and sharp—though not quite Blu-ray sharp.
The selection of TV shows was pretty rich, including HBO hits like Curb Your Enthusiasm and British imports like Skins. You just can't this depth of content choice in Windows Media Center. And the same goes for music—the iTunes store is well organized and massively stocked. I only wish previews transcended the 30 second limit, as was speculated before this version release. Another ding that we seem to repeat every review is the lack of a subscription music service, like that offered by Zune and Rhapsody.
AirPlay is Apple's answer to Windows 7's Play To feature, which lets you stream music to other compatible audio devices in the home. It's also the feature that will allow WiFi streaming of video from iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad to Apple TV. A few AirPlay devices are finally showing up, though only in audio equipment from brands like B&W and Denon. I tested the feature with a B&W Zeppelin Air after struggling with that excellent speaker's Wi-Fi setup. It's a simple matter of clicking the "Choose which speakers to use" icon at the bottom right of iTune's windows. You can even use a mixer to adjust each playback device's volume. The music did fly through the air and sounded excellent quality-wise, but on our heavily taxed Wi-Fi network, it stuttered occasionally. If your network traffic isn't heavy, you should do fine.
By comparison, over 8,000 devices are on the market compatible with DLNA, the open standard used by Windows Play To. What's more, DLNA can handle streaming video and photos, which require an Apple TV to work with iTunes' AirPlay.
Another recent arrival for iTunes is Home Sharing for iOS devices. This let me see and play my PC's iTunes library on an iPhone I'd logged into with the same Apple ID. I could even watch videos that resided on the PC on the iPhone. Spiffy!
When I synced the iPhone to my MacBook, iTunes 10 did a couple of things better: it displayed a clear bar indicator of how much memory was being used by songs, images, and apps. iTunes let me drag any of my 99 apps to any iPhone screen from within the app, and disable or enable them. It definitely makes iPhone apps more pleasant to work with in iTunes. But I still wish you could simply plug any iDevice into any computer with iTunes and drag a few songs back and forth, especially now that all music you buy is DRM-free. The ability to sync an iDevice with more than one PC and more easily switch users would also be welcome.
iTunes 10 Is Nearly an 11
When it comes to CD ripping, music organization, and playback, Windows Media Player is just as good as iTunes, but iTunes adds goodies like Genius, DJ, and using an iPhone as a remote. Windows Media Player does have the advantage of letting you Play To a lot of existing devices and can make your media accessible over the Internet. And as far as playing the most types of media, don't forget the free VLC media player. But it's really all of iTunes' extras and Apple's enormous content offerings, particularly HD video content, which hurdles it past the competition and earns it our Editors' Choice.