iTunes 8 – Not quite a Genius but shows potential

September 10, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Posted in iTunes | 2 Comments

Against my better judgement I downloaded and installed iTunes 8 today. I have this theory that any major new release of iTunes, especially one that coincides with new iPod or iPhone hardware is going to be a lot less stable than the previous version. Therefore I tend to wait for a couple of dot release to appear, usually in the same week before doing an upgrade.

Today however I threw caution to the wind and was pleasantly surprised. The download and install proceeded smoothly and I was up and running again in no time.

The most innovative new feature is the ‘Genius’ feature. This uses information in your current music library to do two things.
iTunes 8 Genius sidebar

  1. When you click on any song in your library, a list of recommended albums and songs that are similar to your selection are displayed in the Genius sidebar. These can then be purchased from the iTunes store. You can preview recommended songs in the sidebar by clicking on the music symbol next to each song. Playback is instant and seamless, although not with high quality audio. The selection pictured is for Jack Johnson’s ‘If I Had Eyes’. You can see it’s recommended a couple of albums I don’t have, including their ratings. This is nice but not truly revolutionary. The more interesting selection is the songs from other artist that it recommends. For this particular song, it’s worked really well. When I listened to the previews, they all had a very similar sound, falling into an easy listening, tuneful, predominately acoustic style. This feature promises to be a very easy way of growing your music library.
  2. The other feature of Genius, which won’t cost you anything to use is it’s ability to create a Genius playlist. Again you start by clicking on a song in your library but this time if you click on the ‘Genius’ button located in the status bar at the bottom right of iTunes, it will create a playlist containing a selection of similar sounding songs from your own music collection. Again it does quite a good job of picking similar songs. One thing that wasn’t obvious was how to transfer the Genius playlist to your iPod. It turns out that you don’t. Instead you can save the current contents into a new playlist (using the ‘Save Playlist’ button in the Genius playlist titlebar). By default it’s given the name of the song used to seed the playlist. Once created, sync your iPod and it will appear just like any other.

According to Apple, the Genius feature will learn over time as more and more people start using the feature and it collects more information about the makeup of everyones music collections.

The other major change in iTunes 8 is a visual one. The album display has been revamped to remove the wasted space that was present in the previous version of iTunes. One thing that caught my eye was the flashy new genre display.

Nice, but what does it do when it encounters an unknown genre, like the Text2Go genre that Text2Go uses to classify all the text to speech tracks that it produces. Of course, it just displays the standard grey music symbol, as it does when an album doesn’t have any associated album art.

I wasn’t very happy about this, so I thought I’d look under the covers and see if I could add my own graphics to iTunes genre display. As you can see from the screenshot, you can and it’s not very difficult.

First you need to create a 256 x 256 pixel jpg image and save it into the following folder.

C:\Program Files\iTunes\iTunes.Resources

The existing genre image files are present in this folder and are named as follows:

 e.g.

genre-dance.jpg
genre-hiphop.jpg
genre-pop.jpg
genre-vocal.jpg

etc.

The final step is to add an entry to the file genres.plist, also found in this folder. The file is in xml format, so it’s very easy to understand and edit. Here is the entry I added for the Text2Go genre. The matchString is used to specify the genre name and the resourceFile specifies the image file to use.

<dict>
   <key>matchString</key><string>Text2Go</string>
   <key>resourceFile</key><string>genre-Text2Go.jpg</string>
</dict>

Save your changes, restart iTunes and your image will be used for the genre.

Overall I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the new features in iTunes 8, especially the ability of Genius to create a playlist to match any song in your music library.

Text2Go users can download an image for the Text2Go genre and follow the above instructions now. I’ll add an extra step to the installation script in the next version of Text2Go to do this automatically.

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8 Ways to iPod your car – from ultra-cheap to ultra-sophisticated

September 3, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Posted in Commuting, iPhone, iPod | 31 Comments

Pioneer DEH-P400UB with direct iPod controlToday I’m going to describe various ways to connect your iPod to your car stereo, so you can blast music from your iPod through your car speakers while driving around town.

The beauty of using your iPod is you can transport a huge music collection on a very small device. There is no need to continually change CDs or tapes (does anyone still use these?).  You can clear out your glove box, center console, or boot and get rid of that CD sleeve you’ve strapped to your sunvisor. When you park, it’s easy to pickup your music collection and take it with you, eliminating one of the most common targets for thieves.

I’m going to start with the least sophisticated (read cheapest) and work up to the most sophisticated (costs more than your iPod). Feel free to skip over options you’re not interested in.

1. No Integration (free)

The cheapest way of listening to your iPod in the car is simply to place it on the seat beside you and use the earbuds. If you use the standard Apple earbuds, you’ll still be able to hear plenty of road noise, horns, sirens, etc to make this a safe option.

Pros

  • Costs nothing
  • Excellent sound quality

Cons

  • Only one occupant can listen
  • Not easy to control playback while driving
  • Earbud cable often pulls and can get tangled with the seatbelt when exiting the vehicle
  • Not convenient if you’re frequently getting in and out of the vehicle

2. Connection with an existing radio cassette player ($19.95)

If you have an old car stereo that plays tapes, you can purchase a special connector that fits into your cassette deck. It looks exactly like a regular cassette, except that it’s got an audio cable coming out one end that you can plug into your iPod or MP3 player headphone jack. Your car stereo thinks it’s playing a cassette but it’s actually receiving the audio signal from your iPod rather than magnetic tape. All control of the audio playback is done via your iPod. Don’t expect to be able to fast forward the cassette and have the iPod recognize this command.
iPod cassette adapter

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Easy Setup
  • Reliable

Cons

  • Average audio quality
  • All playback control must be done through your iPod
  • iPod in plain sight and needs to be removed every time you park your car
  • Requiring a mechanical device to playback digital audio just seems wrong

3. FM transmitters ($80-$120)

Griffin RoadTrip iPod FM TransmitterFor existing car stereos that don’t have a cassette deck, an AUX-in port (see option 4) or a CD changer port (see option 5), this is your only option short of chucking out your old car stereo and replacing it with something designed this century. These devices integrate your iPod with your car stereo using its FM tuner. They contain a very weak FM transmitter that will broadcast the sound from your iPod on a free FM channel. You tune your car radio to this channel and hey presto, you can hear your iPod. The biggest problem with these units is finding a free FM channel. This can be a real problem in some cities. There are a huge number of these devices on the market. They plug into your car cigarette lighter for power. The better ones will also charge your iPod at the same time. There are a couple of models available (Griffin RoadTrip ($29.99 on special now) pictured, MediaGate iKit for example) that include an integrated iPod holder, making for a very tidy solution. The better ones also allow you to set up to 3 channel presets. This makes it quick to find a free channel for your current location, helping overcome the problem of congested FM channels.

Pros

  • Low cost
  • Easy Setup
  • Charges your iPod

Cons

  • Average audio quality
  • All playback control must be done through your iPod
  • iPod in plain sight and needs to be removed every time you park your car

4. Connection via AUX-in ($90+)

Car stereo with Aux-in jack Most modern car stereos will offer at least an AUX-in jack on the front face designed specifically for accepting audio from an external source such as an iPod or MP3 player.

Belkin mini stereo cable To connect your iPod is dead easy. You just need a stereo audio cable ($8-$20) that runs between the AUX-in jack on your car stereo and the headphone jack on your iPod. Cables come in different lengths and some have retractable mechanisms. If you’re buying a retractable cable, make sure you get a quality one or the retractor is likely to fail very quickly. If you have a first generation iPhone you will need a mini cable like the one from Belkin pictured, as the iPhone’s headphone jack is slightly recessed (this has been fixed in the iPhone 3G so you can use any stereo cable). This method will give you very good sound quality at very low cost.

Some car stereos have an AUX-in jack but it will be located on the back, hidden out of site. For these models you will need to run a cable to the front.

With entry level car stereos sporting AUX-in jacks starting at around $90, you may be better to completely replace your existing stereo, rather than going for an FM-transmitter or cassette adapter solution. You’ll end up with much better sound quality. Just remember that the new car stereo will need to be fitted. If you’re technically adept, you can do this yourself. There are a number of sites that offer step by step instructions on removing and fitting car stereos for most makes and models of car. Some are free and others charge around $5 for the instructions. To have it professionally installed will usually set you back around $80-$100 depending on your car. Try to negotiate a reduced installation fee when purchasing your stereo.

Griffin Tuneflex AuxYour iPod obviously won’t be able to draw any power from the AUX-in jack, so you may want to invest in a car charger if you’re going to be in the car for long periods of time. The Griffin TuneFlex Aux  ($49.99) doubles as a charger and holder (very similar to their FM transmitter product but without the transmitter). Note the way the audio cable neatly plugs into the cigarette lighter connector, keeping it out of the way.

Pros

  • Good quality audio
  • Low cost if existing stereo has AUX-in

Cons

  • All playback control through the iPod
  • iPod in plain sight and needs to be removed every time you park your car

5. Connection via CD-changer port (69.98£)

Xcarlink iPod CD Changer AdapterMany stereos have a port on the back that’s used to connect an external CD-changer, located under a seat or in the boot. This is the case for both factory-fitted and after-market models. Xcarlink make an adapter that allows you to connect your iPod through this port. Not only does it provide great audio quality, but you can control your iPod through your stereo and steering wheel controls. You can select tracks, rewind, fast forward and adjust the volume. You can even select playlists using your steering wheel buttons. It does all this without disabling the controls on your iPod.

One of the things I particularly like is that it will automatically pause playback when you switch to another source. Great when you’re in the middle of a podcast and want to switch to the radio to hear the news.

Finally it charges your iPod and provides a pass-through port so you can still use your CD-changer.

The biggest drawback for iPod owners is this unit doesn’t support Apple’s AAC music format. It does support MP3 and WMA music formats but if you already have a huge collection of music in AAC format it’s something to consider.

Pros

  • Great quality audio
  • Playback control via your stereo and steering wheel buttons
  • Works with many existing stereos
  • iPod can be stored out of sight
  • Charges as you go

Cons

  • Does not support Apple’s AAC music format, only MP3 and WMA.
  • Only works with stereo’s that have a CD-changer port

6. Bluetooth-enabled car stereos ($260+)

Sony MEX-BT2600 Car Stereo with Bluetooth ConnectivityThere are a number of car stereos appearing with built-in bluetooth connectivity. Not only does bluetooth allow your to make and receive hands-free phone calls through your stereo, you can also use it to stream audio from your MP3 player.

With the iPhone’s built-in bluetooth this would seem like an ideal option for iPhone owners. Alas the iPhone doesn’t support A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), the protocol that makes streaming audio possible. Frustratingly, Apple hasn’t rectified this limitation in the new iPhone 3G. There is a purported workaround but it’s hardly ideal – it’s a mono signal and the sound is also played through the iPhone’s external speaker at the same time.

BD-905 iPod bluetooth adapter
You can however bluetooth-enable your iPod (and iPhone) by purchasing a bluetooth adapter ($75) that plugs into the docking port of your iPod from 8bananas.com, a Sydney-based company.

This device works by converting the audio signal from your iPod to a bluetooth wireless stream that your bluetooth-enabled car stereo can receive and play. This approach has a couple of distinct advantages. Firstly it allows you to play Apple’s AAC audio format, including DRM-protected tracks. Secondly as it’s your iPod doing the playback, features such as shuffle, repeat and the ability to remember the current position in a podcast or audiobook are also supported. Sound quality is a lot better than that provided by FM transmitters as bluetooth doesn’t suffer the same interference problems. Expect to get similar audio quality to that provided by an AUX-in solution.

Finally you can also control playback wirelessly using your car stereo controls, thanks to AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Protocol). You can select the next/prev song, pause/resume and start/stop playback.

Bluetooth is a good option if you’re looking for a solution that supports both hands-free phone calls and music playback. You can even use this unit with a set of wireless bluetooth headphones.

  • Supports hands-free calling and music playback
  • No cables
  • Easy setup (if bluetooth enabled stereo already installed)
  • Control playback from your car stereo

Cons

  • Moderately Expensive (if you don’t already have a bluetooth enabled stereo)
  • Can’t charge your iPod while travelling as the bluetooth adapter plugs into the iPod docking connector (in fact as the bluetooth adapter is powered from the iPod, the battery will run down quicker)

7. Car stereos with direct iPod control ($278+)

Made for iPodMost car stereo manufacturers now offer models that support direct integration with your iPod using either a standard USB cable or a dedicated iPod cable. They are designed so that all control of your iPod is done using the car stereo controls. They usually have a rotary knob that doubles as a traditional volume control and provides the equivalent of the iPod click wheel.  Using the knob you can scroll through your music library by playlist, artist, album, song, etc, just as you would on your iPod. Functions such as repeat, shuffle, fast forward, rewind, pause are also supported.

Direct control units disable your iPod controls while it’s plugged into the car stereo. However Pioneer do provide a Passenger Control Mode so that a passenger can switch control back to the iPod in order to control playback using the iPod itself.

Varying amounts of information about the currently playing track is displayed, depending on the size and sophistication of the stereo’s display. The top of the range model from Alpine (pictured below) will even display album art on it’s full colour LCD display.

Alpine iDA x001 iPod enabled car stereo

Audio quality should be excellent as information is transferred digitally to your car stereo. Pioneer even use a technology they call ‘Advanced Sound Retriever’ which they claim helps restore the high frequencies lost during digital audio compression.

These units will happily play Apple’s AAC encoded music but not DRM-protected AAC. This is the downside of running digital all the way to the head unit itself and just serves to illustrate why DRM is such a bad idea.

Like the AUX-in jack, the iPod connector may be located on the front or back of the unit. USB connectors tend to be on the front and dedicated iPod connectors on the back.

Unlike the AUX-in jack, you’re much better off having the iPod connector located on the back and having the cable running to your glove box. The glove box provides a good place to hold your iPod while travelling and also means it’s safely out of sight. Great if you’re in and out of the car all day. You don’t need to be able to reach your iPod anymore as all control is done through your car stereo. Having the connector on the front means you have an untidy cable sticking out of your stereo and you still need to find a place on the console to store your iPod. The exception to the above is when you have an iPhone. You’re going to want to take this with you whenever you leave your car, so you want it to be easy to plug in and remove.

Popular Brands with Direct iPod Control

Alpine
Kenwood
Pioneer
Sony

Pros

  • Excellent audio quality
  • Great control via your car stereo
  • Practical, tidy, out of sight solution (for models with cable running to the glove box)

Cons

  • Moderately Expensive (if you don’t already have an iPod enabled stereo)
  • Will not play DRM-protected AAC tracks

8. Cars with built-in iPod integration ($15,000+, includes car)

Car manufacturers are uniquely placed to offer thoroughly integrated iPod support. They have the power to alter the form and layout of the dash and console to give the driver easy access to playback controls and position large, well placed displays to ensure the driver’s eyes never leave the road. Sadly most have done little if any such design, while still claiming to offer full iPod integration.

Full iPod integration often ends up meaning the new car buyer has the option of purchasing an overpriced ‘integration kit’ so they can connect their iPod to the inferior model car stereo that comes factory-fitted with their new car. This kit provides nothing more than that provided by after-market stereo solutions (see 7 above).

If you’re considering purchasing an integration kit from your car manufacturer, think again. You’re almost certainly better off ripping out your existing unit and purchasing a decent after-market stereo that includes iPod integration as standard. It will be cheaper, you’ll have more choice and end up with a better sound system.

If you are looking to purchase a new car, make sure the dealer includes full iPod integration at no extra cost. It’ll cost them almost nothing and keep in mind that even to you it’s only worth $278 – $350 depending on whether you can install an after-market car stereo yourself.

Some car manufacturers have taken iPod integration seriously. Unfortunately this comes at a price. Still it’s nice to dream. Take a look at this offering from BMW to give you an idea of what can be done (click on the picture to see an interactive flash demo).

BMW iPod integration

Note the dedicated controls on the steering wheel, the rotary wheel below the gearstick and the large, eye-level display clearly showing a list of songs.

Pros

  • Excellent audio quality
  • Great control via your car stereo
  • Practical, tidy, solution

Cons

  • Inflated price if not part of the initial car purchase
  • Most manufacturers do the bare minimum. They could be so much better.

Conclusion

As you can see there are many ways to integrate  your iPod with your car stereo. The only solutions I don’t recommend are the cassette adapter and FM transmitters.

Stereos with an AUX-in jack are a very cost effective solution and provide good audio quality.

The Xcarlink adapter is worth investigating, especially if you have a factory-fitted stereo you don’t want to throw out. It’s disappointing however that this unit doesn’t support AAC encoded music.

You can’t beat a bluetooth enabled car stereo and the bluetooth adapter from 8bananas.com if you need to make hands-free calls too.

Direct iPod control units give you great sound and control and make for a very tidy solution.  Unfortunately they don’t play DRM-protected AAC tracks but hopefully DRM-protected audio is becoming a thing of the past.

Finally, please leave a comment and tell me which solution has or hasn’t worked for you.

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