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.

I’m addicted to iTunes updates!

May 6, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Posted in iPod, iTunes | 1 Comment

A new version of iTunes is available. Do you want to update?I haven’t run iTunes today.

I wonder if I’m still running the latest version?

Open iTunes.

Voila! A new version of iTunes (7.6.8.3) is available. Would you like to download it now?

Shock horror. I’m only running 7.6.8.2.

I must have those performance and stability enhancements now.

Please, Apple hit me with another 50MB.

Please throw in a copy of Quicktime while you’re at it. Never mind that I’ve downloaded the same version 20 times before.

30 minutes later, install and run the new version.

iTunes version 7.6.8.3 may look exactly the same as 7.6.8.2 but it does feel a little more stable and a little more responsive.

Just to be safe, I’d better check for new updates that may have come in while I was doing my update.

No new updates available.

Ah! Calm has been restored.

I love my iPod/iTunes but seriously Apple, for a company that prides itself on useability your iTunes update technology is a joke. I’m all for regular updates but surely you’ve heard of patch technology? Why on earth do you insist on bundling in Quicktime as well?

Here are the changes I’d like to see.

1. Use patch technology so that I only have to download the differences between my current version and the new version.

2. Don’t ask me. Just do it silently in the background. This includes both the download and the install.

3. The next time I open iTunes, let me know about new features that I can use. Don’t tell me about performance and stability enhancements. While it’s great that you’re continually improving the quality of your software, I really don’t want to know about every little bug fix.

Perhaps you could update your update technology in the next update? I’ll keep feeding my update addiction in the hope that you do!

 

How to Choose the Perfect iPod Gift this Christmas

December 12, 2007 at 9:08 pm | Posted in iPhone, iPod, iTunes, MP3 Player | 3 Comments

The iPod Family (from left to right) - touch, classic, nano, shuffleWith a new range of iPods released this year, there has never been a better time to give an iPod. Use this guide to find the perfect iPod for your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or family member.

Firstly, here are a few situations where an iPod is not an appropriate gift:

They already own an iPhone or iPod. Remember an iPhone is actually an iPod + a mobile phone. Don’t despair, there are a huge range of iPod accessories out there.

They work for Microsoft. Considering that Microsoft sell a competing MP3 player, the Zune, it’s probably bad form for Microsoft employees to be caught with an iPod. In the same vein, stay away from the Playstation and all software (especially web-based services).

They run Linux. The proprietary, commercial nature of Apple and the iPod make them the antithesis of Linux and the open source movement. To give a Linux user an iPod is to insult their belief system. If you must give an iPod, it’s imperative that you erase the original firmware, install at least two Linux distros that can be accessed from a boot menu and cover up all Apple logos with ‘Linux Inside’ stickers.

They’re a super-geek. A super-geek will never be happy with an iPod because it’s feature-poor (no built-in radio tuner, voice recorder, digital camera, blue-tooth, email client, paint program, web server, or nostril tweezers), has less storage capacity per dollar than other competing products, is not upgradeable (hell you can’t even change the battery yourself), can’t be overclocked, has a distinct lack of buttons (none of which are back-lit) and doesn’t come standard with full-sized headphones / earmuffs.

If none of the above apply then choose your recipient from the list below and we’ll have you sorted in no time.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Girlfriend

Don’t even think about a Shuffle. You’ll appear cheap or worse still, send the message that your girlfriend is also bottom of the range.

Instead go for a new iPod Nano. It’s small size and range of colours make it an ideal fashion accessory. For bonus points, buy the Product RED version and Apple will donate a portion of the purchase price to fight AIDS in Africa. Just make sure that your girlfriend can wear red.

If you’re really unsure about what colour to choose, go for grey and let your girlfriend choose an appropriately coloured case or arm band.

Buy direct from the Apple store and you can have a personal message engraved on the back. If you’re unsure who you’ll be with come Christmas day, use a pet name. Then if circumstances change, it’s just a matter of getting your new girlfriend used to her pet name.

The Nano comes in 4GB and 8GB versions. You can probably get away with 4GB but if you’re in trouble, go for the 8GB.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Wife

Don’t even think about a Shuffle. She knows you’re cheap by now but you still don’t want to send the message that you think she’s bottom of the range.

Again go for a Nano but by now you better know exactly which colour suits your wife. Be prepared to back up your decision on Christmas morning. For example if you wife grills you on why you went for red when she doesn’t own a single red outfit, don’t blurt out “It matches your eyes”. Instead remind her of the good you’re doing in Africa.

Make sure you have a personalized message engraved. Make it a good one, and it won’t matter if you get the colour wrong.

Buy the 8GB version because lets face it, if you’re not already in trouble, you will be by Christmas.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Husband

Don’t even think about a Shuffle. Although he’ll appreciate the price if you’re spending his money, it’s too small and not high tech enough.

Size matters and the Nano is also too small. The only exception is if your husband is a keen runner (or thinks he is), in which case an 8GB black Nano is perfect.

This leaves the Classic, the Touch and the iPhone.

If he needs a mobile phone and the iPhone is available in your country, go for an iPhone. It’s the coolest, most high tech phone around.

The choice between the Classic and the Touch comes down to how sophisticated your husband thinks he is (important distinction – not how sophisticated you think he is).

If you’re husband always has to have the biggest of everything (for example if his mates have 4 burner BBQs, he has a 12 burner with roasting hood & dedicated wok burner) then go for a Classic. It’s the biggest iPod in both physical size and storage capacity. It’s imperative that you buy the 160GB version. If you only buy the 80GB version then it will always be referred to as the mistake made by the wife “It’s only 80GB, the wife gave it to me as a gift. It’s inconvenient but I manage. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.” Don’t be practical and think that because his entire music collection fits into 10GB, he will never need more than 80GB.

If your husband is more sophisticated and prefers refinement over brute strength and size ( for example whereas his mates own 100-inch rear-projection TVs, he owns a 42-inch true high definition LCD) then you need to choose the Touch. He’ll love the revolutionary multi-touch interface, built-in wifi, web browser, YouTube browser, and cover flow effect. He may even listen to some music on it.

Personalized engraving sounds like a good idea and if you ask your husband about it, he’ll say he loves it. However this sort of thing fills any husband with dread. He knows that from any time now until the end of his natural life you will be able to hit him with a pop quiz at random intervals ranging from 1 to 10 years. To pass this test he will be forced not only to remember that there was a personalized message engraved on the back but be able to recite it word perfect.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Boyfriend

Think of the Boyfriend as a naive, romantic version of the Husband. All the same rules apply, except when it comes to engraving the personalized message. Go ahead and use up every square inch of available space. Having never experienced the pop quiz he will have no idea of the danger that lies ahead. Then in a year’s time when you need a bit of leverage (in truth any time after 4 weeks will be just as effective), hit him with his first pop quiz and watch him squirm.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Younger Brother or Sister

When buying an iPod for a younger sibling, it’s important to maintain your natural pecking order. Never buy an iPod of equal or greater capability than your own. This is where the smaller storage capacities come in handy. For example if you have a 8Gb Nano, then buy them the 4Gb model and thank Apple that iPods are not upgradeable.

The Shuffle makes an excellent first iPod. It’s simple, rugged and there’s no question that it’s the smallest and least capable in the range.

The Touch and Classic are clearly big brothers of the Shuffle and Nano but it’s a little ambiguous as to which is more senior between the Touch and Classic. Therefore if you own a Touch, don’t buy your younger sibling a Classic or vice versa. If you do, you’ll be in for hours of tedious arguments as to which model is better.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Older Brother or Sister

Your first instinct will be to rush out and buy them a Shuffle. But stop and ask yourself this ‘Why don’t they already have an iPod?’ Is it perhaps because they don’t have a use for one? Don’t let this put you off. Instead the question is not so much which model will suit them best but which model you would most like to borrow?

A good option would be the Classic with its high storage capacity of 80 or 160GB. This will allow you to fit both your music collection and theirs on the device at the same time. Convenient for those rare occasions when they will want to borrow it back.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for your Child

 If they’re under the age of 8 then you will get away with a Shuffle.

You can’t go wrong with a Nano for any age group or gender and can easily get away with the 4 GB model.

The Touch will appeal more to boys as they are easily impressed by technology for technology’s sake.

The Classic will appeal to the child who wants the biggest of everything (e.g. when other children were asking for a pony, yours wanted a horse).

Stay away from the iPhone unless they have a well-paid job or you’re prepared to pay their monthly phone bills.

Choosing the Perfect iPod for a Parent or Grandparent

They may be gen-B or C but they still appreciate music, and decent music at that.

The Shuffle is again a poor choice. With fading memories and dimming eyesight, they will spend more time looking for the darn thing than listening to it. Add to this the fact that they’ve spent all their life trying to gain control of the universe, it’s a fair bet they won’t appreciate the randomness of the Shuffle. The final nail in the coffin is the limited storage, requiring them to have enough technical aptitude to resync different parts of their music collection to the device.

The Nano is similarly too small. Not only will it get lost but video playback on that tiny screen will be viewed as an insult rather than a feature.

 The Touch is also not an appropriate device. With fingers swollen to the size of bananas by hard, physical work and arthritis, the multi-touch interface will appear to be designed to torment them.

The Classic on the other hand is perfect. It’s easy to hold in the hand and control, it’s solid, dependable, has been around the longest and has enough storage space to hold their entire music collection, assuming of course that you can find a way to rip vinyl. Even the name is perfect.

Adjusting the iTunes Equalizer for Voice Playback

November 19, 2007 at 8:29 pm | Posted in iTunes, text to speech, Text2Go | 2 Comments

If you find that when you play an audio track using iTunes it sounds different to when played through another player such as MediaPlayer, you’re probably experiencing the effects of iTune’s equalizer. A Text2Go user recently asked why the spoken audio (text to speech) tracks sounded tinny and had a ringing sound to them when played through iTunes but sounded fine when the same text was spoken aloud.

How to view the equalizer in iTunesI had experienced the same effect in the past and had tracked it down to the iTunes equalizer. The equalizer is hidden away as a single item in the iTunes View menu and many people don’t know it exists. 

When you select View-> Show Equalizer, a graphic equalizer will appear. The graphic equalizer comes with a large number of presets suitable for different music types. You can also create and save your own presets or use the manual setting to endlessly tweak the sound levels to your taste.

When I first discovered the equalizer it was set to Manual with the following settings. You can see that the 4K and 8K frequencies have been cranked right up. This produced the tinny, ringing sound as described above.

Manual settings in the iTunes Equalizer

The solution is to adjust these levels down to a more normal range. Equalizer presets in iTunesApple have very thoughtfully included a ‘Spoken Word’ preset in iTunes that is perfect for listening to text to speech tracks. Once this preset has been selected, spoken audio will sound much better and all traces of tinnyness will be gone. Here is the equalizer setting for the ‘Spoken Word’ preset.itunes-spoken-word-equalizer-preset.jpg

iPod touch-down in Australia

October 3, 2007 at 11:12 pm | Posted in iPod, iTunes | 3 Comments

iPod touch main menuThe iPod touch went on sale yesterday throughout Australia. I popped down to my local tricky-dicky’s and picked up an 8GB model. I had been ringing my local store once a week since Apple announced the new lineup on the 5th September. The woman who I spoke to offered to put one aside for me as they had been selling fast that morning. The iPod touch is particularly sort after in Australia as we have yet to get the iPhone here.

I really want to see the how the new display looked and try out first hand (literally) the new touchscreen interface. When I got it home, I plugged it in via the standard USB adapter. iTunes immediately began synching my music collection. I was a little surprised that it didn’t start downloading a multitude of firmware patches and security updates, given that it’s been released for over 3 weeks now. I don’t know what could have conditioned me into expecting that sort of behaviour.

The first thing to try was the cover flow display. This looks the same as in iTunes but is much more compelling when you’re using your fingers to shuffle through the album covers.
iPod touch cover flowGo to the start or end of your collection and give your finger an extra flick to see the display hit the end and bounce back a couple of albums. Find an album you like, tap it and it flips over to display a list of tracks. Use you finger to scroll the list of tracks up and down. Tap a track and it begins to play. Tap the top right corner and the album flips back to display the cover again.

I had a couple of little helpers (3.5 and 5 years) who also had no trouble in mastering the interface. All in all, cover flow is intuitive, looks stunning, feels great,  and is way cool.

The next feature of the iPod touch to try out was internet surfing using the built in Safari browser and the wifi connection. The first thing to do was to configure my ADSL modem/wireless router for wireless. Plug in the aerial, turn on wireless, enable WPA2 security.

Now to see up the iPod. Select Settings -> Wifi. The iPod automatically starts looking for wireless networks. It found 3, my own and a couple of others in the neighbourhood. Two had little padlocks beside their entries indicating encrypted networks but what do you know, one of my neighbours has a completely open network. Select this network, launch the Safari web browser and I’m surfing the Internet on my iPod touch using my neighbour’s wireless network. This weekend I’ll have to walk around the garden and use the signal strength indicator to work out exactly which neighbour is providing free internet access. I’m sure they’re not aware of the community service they’re providing.

iPod touch web browserThe browsing experience itself is surprisingly useable. Entering URLs via the onscreen keyboard requires a precise touch as the keys are not all that large. However pressing a key does provide satisfying feedback. In addition to a nice click, the key will briefly zoom out and back again. Rendering of web pages on the display is very nice. Zooming in and out and panning is very easy using the touch screen. Text is large and clear once you’ve zoomed in. You can view a page in portrait or landscape mode just by swivelling the iPod. The built in accelerometer detects which way you are holding your iPod and adjusts the display accordingly.

I then tried viewing a YouTube video. What I didn’t realize is that a dedicated YouTube interface is built right in. I expected that you would just use the Safari web brower to navigate to YouTube. Instead when you select the YouTube icon you are taken to a screen where you can browse Featured and Most Viewed clips for Today, This Week or All. You can also Search or select previously bookmarked clips. The display is easily capable of handling the low quality YouTube clips. I found download times to be a little slow but then that’s probably just due to my internet connection (perhaps I should see if I get better performance using the neighbour’s).

To really test the display, I synched a selection of photos. I use Adobe Photoshop Elements to manage my photo albums and iTunes will directly import albums from Photoshop Elements. Once on the iPod, you can choose to view individual photos from a thumbnail view or you can simply view all as a slideshow. The iPod touch’s widescreen 320 x 480 pixel display is perfect for displaying photos. They look like a digital version of 6″ x 4″ prints. The touch’s screen really does make a very capable photo browser.

I’ve only touched on a few of the highlights here today. I’ll be giving it it’s first road test tomorrow during my daily commute. It will be interested to see over the next few weeks which features I use on a regular basis.

How to Claim your New iPod as a Business Expense

September 17, 2007 at 10:03 pm | Posted in iPod, iTunes, text to speech, Text2Go | Comments Off on How to Claim your New iPod as a Business Expense

The New iPod RangeIf you’re like me, you’re currently deciding which of the new iPods you just must have. Should you go for the ultra thin profile of a nano, the huge storage capacity of a classis or the beautiful display of a touch?

While weighing up these options, I thought I’d see if it was possible to claim an iPod as a business expense. The key to doing this is to turn your iPod into an indispensible business tool.

If you live in the US, you could just go out and buy an iPhone but for those who live in the rest of the world or don’t want to be locked into a phone contract, it’s a little more difficult.

If the iPod had a built-in microphone,  you could use it as a very expensive voice recorder. e.g.

Memo to self “Must chase up Peter for those TPS reports.”

Or you could  purchase Text2Go, a Windows application that will convert any text from the web to speech and transfer it to your iPod.

Text2Go will turn your iPod into an indispensible business tool that will transform your daily commute from a tedious, frustrating, complete waste of time into a highly productive session for listening to news, reports (including TPS), research papers, study courses, blogs and any other information you can find on the web.

So don’t delay, give Text2Go a try today and claim your next iPod as a business expense.

Now back to the original question, which new iPod? The iPod touch is looking very tempting.

Disclaimer: This information was provided by my accountant for my personal tax situation. Your local tax laws may vary, so please seek the advise of your own tax professional.

iTunes Cover Flow and Text2Go

June 19, 2007 at 11:12 pm | Posted in iPod, iTunes, text to speech, Text2Go | 1 Comment

Cover Flow has been present in iTunes since version 7, released in September 2006. Cover Flow allows you to flip through your digital music collection album by album using a neat 3D graphical interface. When I first discovered this feature, it brought back memories of the countless hours I’d spent as a student flipping through the bargain bins at Real Groovy Records. Most searches were a complete waste of time but occasionally I’d encounter a gem of an album at a bargain price, which kept me hooked. I’m sure that Real Groovy purposefully seeded the bargain bins with the odd decent album for just this reason.

It’s not all that obvious how to display Cover Flow in iTunes, unless you know what you’re looking for. However it is very logical once discovered. You can either select it from the View menu or by clicking on the right-most view icon (marked by the red arrows below). Once visible, you can adjust the size of the Cover Flow window by dragging the window up and down using the control marked with the green arrow below. For the ultimate experience you can display Cover Flow in full screen mode by clicking on the control marked with the purple arrow below.

How to show Cover Flow in iTunes

Cover Flow looks and feels right and it’s because of the details. For example, the albums are reflected on an imaginary shiny surface to enhance the 3D effect. The albums to either side of the currently album are dimmed slightly so they don’t compete for attention. When you flip through your collection, there is a nice acceleration, deceleration effect that makes the motion seem more natural. You can flip through your collection using a single click per album or you can use the mouse wheel to flip through them at a faster rate. You can also drag the horizontal scroll bar backwards and forwards to rapidly move to a position within your collection, although this is equivalent to scrolling through a normal list, reducing the Cover Flow technology to eye-candy.

Once I’d discovered Cover Flow I couldn’t wait to see how it displayed the artwork that is automatically captured by Text2Go when you convert a web page from text to speech. As part of the conversion process, Text2Go will take a screenshot of the original web page, import it into iTunes and attach it to the Text2Go track. This screenshot will then be used as cover art for the track, both in iTunes and on your iPod. Here is an example of a few Text2Go tracks displayed in iTunes using the Cover Flow view.

Text2Go tracks displayed using iTunes Cover Flow view

Changing the cover art resolution in Text2GoIt’s quite easy to get a good idea of what the original web pages look like. One thing I did do to improve the image quality when displayed in full screen mode was to change the resolution of the screenshot captured by Text2Go. By default it will capture screenshots at a resolution of 300 x 300 pixels, which is fine for display on your iPod or in the other iTunes views. However you can change this in the Text2Go Options. I cranked it up to 900 x 900 which improved the look of the cover art significantly.

Cover Flow is one of those features that seems really cool when first discovered. Only time will tell whether the novelty will wear off and I’ll go back to using plain old text lists.

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