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Play Smart

February 22, 2009
By Dave Hecei,

I think we've all heard the cliche, 'There is no such thing as a free lunch.' However, Apple's iTunes 8 is a free music player and so much more (iTunes 8 is available as a free download from the Apple Web site for Macs and Windows PC). Of course, Apple hopes that by using iTunes you will buy an iPod and purchase music tracks, TV shows, movies, and rentals from the iTunes Store. Even if you don't have an iPod or buy anything from the iTunes Store, iTunes 8 is still a great media tool all on its own.

Last September, Apple held an event to launch new iPods. As part of this event they also demoed the new iTunes version 8. New features added to iTunes 8 included: Grid View, Genius Playlists, Genius Sidebar, and a new visualizer. Version 7 had Cover Flow, a very slick way to flip through album covers. In iTunes 8, Grid View is more like looking at your music CDs as thumbnails, like in iPhoto. Of course the big news was the Genius feature.

The 'Genius' in iTunes 8 works like the recommendation engine in the iTunes Store. If you have purchased music from the iTunes Store before, you may have seen these personalized recommendations, other music you may like based of your purchase. By selecting a single music track in your library, Genius can quickly create a playlist using 'matching' tracks in your own library. Apple is anonymously taking samples of peoples libraries, anonymously is the key phrase here, and using this information to help in creating Genius playlists.

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First you have to turn Genius on. Unfortunately, this means you must have an iTunes Store account. You activate the Genius feature and then log into your account. Information about your library is gathered and sent to Apple. When finished, Apple sends back information to iTunes 8 that it can use in selecting songs for your Genius list.

Creating playlists with the Genius feature allows you to quickly create interesting playlists. To create a Genius Playlist, select a single track from your library and click on the Genius button in the very bottom right of the iTunes window. There are buttons above the column headers for the number of tracks (25, 50, 75, or 100 songs), refresh playlist, or save it.

Another Genius is included in iTunes 8. This is the Genius Sidebar. While the Genius Playlist can help you find new ways to listen to your music, the Genius Sidebar finds new music for you to buy. When you select a track in your music library a list will appear in the Genius Sidebar on the right. This sidebar will give you song recommendations, along with that convenient little buy button for those impulse shoppers.

While the Genius feature is a wonderful addition, allowing you to quickly create new playlists on the fly, you can always create playlists manually or by using the Smart Playlist feature.

The left sidebar in iTunes is where you will find the playlists. If you look closely, smart playlists have a purple icon with a gear on it and the playlists you create are blue with a single musical note on it. In iTunes 8 the default list should contain: Party Shuffle, Genius, then the included smart playlists 90's Music, Music Videos, My Top Rated, Recently Added, Recently Played, and then your own custom playlists.

There are a few ways to manually create your own playlist. Typing Command-N will create a new blank untitled playlist. Name the playlist, like Road Trip or something pertinent, and hit Return. Now you can select a song from your library and drag it to this playlist icon. Don't worry, you are not duplicating songs on your Mac, this is just a list. When you are done, click once on the playlist icon and your songs you chose will appear in the list window. If they are not in the proper order you can now drag tracks up or down the list.

There is a faster way to create a playlist. With your music library selected, you can go through and select the songs you want to add. If you hold down the command key, and keep it held down, you can single click on each track you want to add. As long as you keep the command key down you can go through your entire list and select multiple tracks. Once you have the last one selected, then let go of the command key and then click/drag one of the selected tracks to the playlist column on the bottom left and a new playlist will be created for you. When you click and hold you will see a red dot appear telling you how many tracks you have selected.

If you want to quickly create a playlist of an entire CD, sort your music library by Album, find the first song and click on it once to highlight it. Now find the last song in the CD and hold down the shift key and select it. If done correctly, every track, from first to last, will be selected. Just drag this entire list to the playlist area and let go. A new playlist will be created with the name of the album.

Another way to create a playlist is to use the Smart Playlist feature. This has been part of iTunes for a while, and can help you quickly create your own special playlists. The Smart Playlist is created using a set of rules you select. To start, under the File menu select 'New Smart Playlist' and a dialog box will appear where you can create your set of rules. An example would be to make a playlist with songs that are in the Rock genre, has not been played yet, has a star rating more than 3 stars, and was released in the year 2007 to 2009. The number of combinations of these rules is staggering.

The only thing that can hold you back in making Smart Playlists is if your music is not properly tagged. With MP3 and other audio files, there is data imbedded in the file, usually called ID3 tags, that contains information about the artist, album title, track name, year released, etc. You can select what information is shown in iTunes under the View menu by selecting View Options. Here you can put a check next to each category you want to show. These show up as the different columns in the iTunes music library list. If you purchase your music online, or if you load your own CDs into iTunes using the CDDB feature, then you should have proper tags. If you have gotten music from other sources, it may not have these tags. Also, to use the star ratings, you do have to go through your entire library and rate them yourself. A tedious task if you have a large library of music.

The new Genius system in iTunes 8 is a cool way to quickly create new playlists. No matter how you do it, creating a playlist gives you more control over your growing music library allowing you to play smart.



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