Apple iTunes 7 review

Before Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11 is even out of beta, Apple has struck back. Despite its huge popularity, iTunes has remained spartan and heavily text-based throughout its life. The latest version spruces up the interface, with a more sober colour scheme and much-need reorganisation of the Source list along the left-hand side. But Apple has also finally embraced the idea of using album art as an entry point into your music collection, with two new views.

Apple iTunes 7 review

The first groups tracks by album next to the artwork (in the same way as WMP11), but the second, known as Cover Flow, goes further. It creates a virtual carousel of high-resolution cover images to scroll through, complete with moody lighting, transparency and reflections. In visual terms, it’s more impressive than anything currently in WMP11, or even in Vista’s swish new Media Center interface. Funnily enough, it looks like just the sort of application that Microsoft has been showing as proof of concept for some of the new graphics technologies in Vista. Unusually for Apple, it’s actually acquired third-party technology for the job – a sign that it may have been in a bit of a rush.

In practical terms, while it’s great to see artwork in such glorious detail, the first view is more useful unless you have a handful of albums or you’re aimlessly looking for inspiration. This new version also attempts to add missing album artwork (previously a manual job), but it’s limited at this stage. First, you have to be logged into the iTunes Store account for it to work, and then only albums listed there will be addressed – not much help if you’re a Beatles fan. It’s also hit and miss, with a best-fit option often being used. Album art from WMP will be ignored.

Aside from the visual improvements, there’s now, finally, gapless music playback. It’s also good news for iPod owners: a new integrated iPod Summary window handles firmware updates and sync schedules with polished ease, a download manager allows you to pause or reprioritise any purchases, and there’s now a way of transferring purchased tracks from your iPod to a second PC.

The iTunes Music Store has been quietly reorganised and rechristened simply iTunes Store, reflecting the fact that both the online shop and application now handle music, photos, TV programmes and movies. It also sells games, with such favourites as Tetris available to play on 5G iPods (for £4). You can now watch video or TV programmes as they download, and most have also been quietly quadrupled in resolution to 640 x 480 pixels, which can only be welcome. Any purchases (or your whole library and playlists) can now be backed up to optical disc – a potential lifesaver if you decide to buy DRM-protected media.

If you’ve got an iPod, there’s simply no argument – iTunes 7 is the best version yet and you’d be well advised to upgrade. Anyone with another MP3 player will likely be much better served by WMP10 or WMP11 when it’s released later this year. As it’s free, you may as well take a look at iTunes 7 to see if it suits – just be aware that it will try to make its presence felt with sundry software, as well as consume lots of disk space if you let it transcode any WMA files or download album art.

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