Itunes 7

I installed itunes 7 with some mixed feelings yesterday: I was fully aware that it was not working as advertised for some people. Prior to installing I read about various issues people were having with disappearing files, crashes and sound quality. I had a good reason for upgrading anyway: version 6 never really worked well for me. Just yesterday I just couldn’t launch it. The process would start and then claim 100% of one of my cpu cores but no UI would appear. Not even after waiting 15 minutes. This happened several times to me already. Probably it is some weird conflict between quicktime and my hardware/drivers.
So I figured version 7 probably wasn’t as bad or at least couldn’t get much worse. So, I fired up my backup script that syncs my music library with an external HD. After that I killed the itunes processes and fired up the installer. Pleasant surprise: everything worked. I was sort of bracing myself for random crashes but there weren’t any. Lucky me. If it wouldn’t have worked, I would have been able to roll back to version 6 (several posts in the forums explain how).
So on to the review. Itunes 7, unlike version 6, is a major upgrade with several nice new features and small adjustments to the user interface. I like the changes. My favorite one is album art fetching from itunes (I signed up just for this feature) and the ability to flip through your albums graphically is just real nice. It just works ™. Other nice touches include gapless playback (great for listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon), the new ipod screen which is selectable if you plug your ipod in, integration of podcast settings when you select the podcast screen.

One thing I would like is to be able to exclude compilations from the album view for the obvious reason that they are not albums (hence, no artwork or the wrong artwork!). Also I have a lot of shit there that I almost never listen to and which I don’t want to see when browsing my carefully collected albums (all properly tagged, naturally).

But overall I can’t think of anything negative and it didn’t eat my mp3s either! The latter seems to have to do more with luck than anything else. The Apple forums are full of stories of not so lucky people. But once apple fixes the bugs this is definitely a release to look forward to. If you install it, do it like me with a plan B.

fun with rendezvous

One of the innovative features in Mac OS X is support for DNS-SD, a.k.a. rendezvous. I was reading about the Java API for this by apple on onJava. Then I wondered if there was a pure Java implementation, because I dislike using native stuff in Java (complicates deployment).

That’s why I like google: “+rendezvous apple pure java” -> this link, right at the top. So two minutes after getting this idea, I’m doing a “jmdns-1.0>java -jar lib\jmdns.jar -browse” as the readme of JmDNS suggests, to launch the swing based dns-sd browser. JmDNS is a 100% pure java implementation of dns-sd that claims to be compatible with the real thing from Apple.

Now the reason I’m posting. I was expecting zero or at most a handful of dns-ds services on my network. I was absolutely shocked by the number of people publicizing these services on the same cable network as I am. There’s dozens of different services, each with multiple devices offering them. It seems the default settings of Apple cause their devices to happily announce all sorts of details about themselves on the lan. The nature of cable networks of course is that the entire neighbourhood is one big lan. So effectively, I’m getting access to all Rendezvous capable devices in my neighbourhood.

Right now, I’m listening to a some AC-DC tracks of one of these users who has kindly shared his music in iTunes, which means my iTunes magically finds this music (courtesy of dns-sd) :-).

Speaking of iTunes. I’m thinking of abandoning it. I like the UI but it crashes way too often. Just now it crashed twice. Yamipod aledgedly is very nice and capable of syncing with my ipod.

ubuntu: debian still sucks, nothing to see here

One of the nice things of buying a new pc is that you have an old pc to mess with. Having backed up the most important stuff, my old machine now is the victim of some random linux installer abuse. Right now I’m installing ubuntu, a debian derived linux distribution. It’s been a few years since I ran linux outside of vmware (basically when I bought the machine I am now using for my linux install). I used to have more time to mess with trying out this kind of stuff. I know from experience that getting linux to work is easy and getting it to work properly is very difficult. Presumably, ubuntu should make this more easy but lets see what we end up with. I actually typed most of this review during the install, plenty of time for that.

If you came here to read how beautiful ubuntu is, move on because the stuff below is probably a bit painful for you.

The download.

I opted for the bittorrent release of th 5.10 release. It’s a 2.8GB download so bittorrent is mandatory. Burned it to a dvd with my new drive

Booting.

Insert the dvd in the drive, make sure bios is configured to boot from cd (on most systems the default is wrong) and reset.

The installer.

Here it gets interesting. I can select install, server and live dvd. Install seems a good plan. Up comes the text based installer. I was half expecting a graphical installer so that is disappointing. Worse, the installer seems of the intimidating, piss off end user variety. Luckily, I’ve seen worse (I installed slackware on 486 SX 25 mhz once). Navigating is pretty straightforward if you’ve dealt with ms dos or similarly clumsy uis in the past. The only severe usability issue is going back. There’s a back option on some screens but you can’t get to it using the arrow keys. You have to use the backspace, doh!

Progress bars or lack thereoff.

Another odd thing in the installer is that in between the screens where you are supposed to select stuff you get these nice blue screens without any content whatsoever. For example, I’m currently running the disk partition tool and the screen has been very blue for the past ten minutes (of the ms bsod variety). I mean, at least display some text telling me that everything is fine and I should be patient.

Hardware detection.

My network cards are detected and configured using dhcp. Bonus points for that, nothing worse than trying to fix linux problems offline. The usb mouse seems to work (led is on) as well but I can’t use it in commandline ui.

Disk partitioning.

This tool, aside from the before mentioned HUGE usability problem, seems to behave rather nice. The default is resize my hdb1 partition which supposedly makes it possible to leave my windows partitions alone. That’s nice but it takes a loooooong time. A warning might have been nice. Anyway I remember the old days of manually partitioning using all sorts of obscure tools including the commandline fdisk tools of both windows and linux. Again usability rears its ugly head. After resizing the UI reappears with some worrying information about new partitions it is about to write on the (supposedly?) freed space. What’s worrying is that it doesn’t say how large each partition will be and what happened to the resized partition. Some confirmation that resizing worked as expected would have been nice. After some hesitation I select yes to indicate that it can do its thing. Had there been any important stuff on the partition I would probably have ejected the ubuntu disc at this point. This is bad. This is a crucial phase in the installation and if something goes wrong, it will likely be here. Bonus points for functionality but the usability totally sucks here. Partitioning is scary, especially with a tool you’ve never used before. I’ve seen it go wrong in the past.

Installing the base systems and copying remaining packages.

Finally some scrollbars. But no package selection at this point. That’s probably good as debian package selection is not something you want to put in front of users at this point. More on this later.

Timezone and user configuration, configuring apt.

I suppose this is necessary but I’d prefer a real user interface. Also there’s some odd stuff here. Like having to know if the hardware clock is gmt or not (it’s not, I happen to know this). Ntp + me telling what timezone I’m in provides the same information. Finally it offers to configure a bootloader (grub) so I can choose to boot into linux or windows xp. That’s a nice touch. Debian got this wrong last time I tried it and I had to fix LILO manually to get back to windows.

Time for a reboot.

The boot screen. Pretty, if you like brown. And then back to the commandline UI in stylish bsod blue. It’s now doing its post installation routine which appears to involve configuring a user (no root, ubuntu has no root!), installing all the debian packages, downloading a few new ones. I know how debian works so not unexpected but definately not very user friendly. It involves lots of cryptic messages about various obscure pacakages being prepared, configured etc.

It comes up with a question about screen size halfway. I select 1280×1024. I can’t select refreshrate and indeed this proves to be configured wrong after the installation (60Hz instead of 85hz) Then the install continues, no more questions.

Done!

Then suddenly it is done and the login screen appears. This is linux, no further reboots necessary the installer finished without much ceremony and X was launched. The bootscreen is nice, if you like brown. I log in with my user/password. Gnome appears to be configured apple style (menu bar at the top, taskbar at the button) a popup informs me that 48 updates are available. Install seems to work fine which proves that the network is indeed configured properly.

Configuring the screen properly.

60 hz will give me a headache so that needs to be changed. Upfront I’m not very hopeful that tools have improved to the point where this can be done without manually editing X configuration files. But lets see how things have improved in the past few years.

Not much apparently. The good news is that there is a resolution tool in the system->preferences. It even has a dropdown for the refreshrate. Only one item is in it: 60HZ. Doh!

This is linux at its worst. It’s not working and the provided tools are too crappy to solve the problem at hand. A search on the ubuntu site confirms that monitor configuration is undocumented. In other words, I’m on my own. Google brings up the solution which indeed involves the commandline and hoping that the autorecognition will magically work when tried again.

Of course it doesn’t. Worse, I now understand why the installer tries to hide the inevitable sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg. This basically is the good old XF86Config wizard. I have fond memories of toying with it in 1995 (slackware). It has gotten worse since. At the time it asked a few difficult but straightforward questions. The modern version of this tool presents you with a whole array of bullshit features and autorecognition features which half work. Lets face it, if they worked you wouldn’t be running the reconfigure. Forget about autoconfiguration. Everything the installer figured out is now forgotten (with no obvious way to redo that part other than placing the backup back).

Essentially this is horrible tool brings together everything that sucks about X in one convenient tool. Mere mortals are guaranteed to be totally confused by this beautiful piece of shit that after all these years still survives in linux. The inability of the linux community to fix this once and for all is illustrative of the hopelessness of the whole concept of desktop linux. The linux solution to display configuration is to hide this tool instead of implement an alternative. On the first go I did not manage to get the optimal refreshrate. On the second go I screwed up the display configuration. Copying back the backed up configuration did not fix the problem.

Ahem, reboot seems to ‘magically’ fix the problem. At least, I’m back where I started (1280×1024 @ 60 Hz).

Ok, so much for wizards. I knew in advance that I was going to end up manually editing the display settings. For the record, this is where normal users either go back to windows or accept the headache. I know from experience that editing X configuration is a matter of trial and error. In my case five reboots and the documentation for my plug and play m990 monitor did the trick. Ubuntu failed to setup my monitor’s horizontal and vertical refreshrates, something it should have figured out from the plug and play information. OK shit happens. The next problem was that the tool to fix this problem is reconfiguring the package. Doing this undos most of the good work the ubuntu installer did (so it makes things worse). Solution: copy the backup of the ubuntu configuration and edit it manually to fix the refreshrates (30-96 and 50-160 in my case). Then reboot because misconfiguring X really screws things up to the point that a reboot is required to make X start again after you fix the configuration. Been there, done that before. At least the bloody wheel mouse works out of the box nowadays.

Conclusions for the installer

Usability sucks but the installer gets the job done anyway except for configuring the screen (important). However there are several majr pitfalls you have to know how to avoid. The installer is not particularly informative about what it is doing and needlessly verbose at the same time. However, the defaults are sane and a strategy of going with the obvious choices will work most of the time (if in doubt, hit enter).

The default theme is ugly. There’s no other word for it. It looks like
shit. Damn this is ugly. Yes you can fix it. There’s hundreds of shitty
themes to select from. but the default is unbelievably ugly. It leaves no other conclusion than that the the ubuntu people are (color) blind. Menu layout seems ok. I have the feeling stuff is being hidden from me.

Configuring the screen properly is back to the commandline. There is no excuse for this in 2006 and I knew this was going to happen. The provided (ubuntu forum, the official documentation is of no use here) solution corrupted my configuration to the point where X just wouldn’t start anymore. Unbelievable, inexcusable.

It’s 2006, ten years after my first slackware install and I’m still messing
with the X configuration the same way as ten years ago. X continues to
suck.

And of course the installer fails to install the commercial nvidia driver (or even point me in the right direction). Amusingly the documentation is full of helpful stuff you can do manually that IMHO the installer should do for me. What the fuck do I care about ideological issues with commercial stuff? I’m not a GPL communist. Give me the choice to install the driver that I likely want. Why would I spend 400 euro on a video card and then opt not to run the software that is required to access the more interesting features of this card? Exactly, that’s very rare user.

OK on to the rest of the system.

Read only ntfs has been possible for years and even some experimental rw capabilities are possible these days. Not in ubuntu. Both my ntfs partitions are nowhere to be found. The system->administration->disks tool is as useless as the resolution tool. It fails to ‘enable’ the partitions. Yes I know how to mount stuff from the commandline. But as for Joe average, he can’t get to his ntfs files with ubuntu. Bad but I can probably fix this.

Lets see about the sound card. It’s soundblaster audigy. But there’s also a motherboard sound card (I actually uses both under windows). Pleasant surprise, ubuntus seems to have configured this correctly. Succeeding where, so far, every version of knoppix has failed.

Good. So far I’ve been sceptical but lets be positive. I have a working system, ubuntu has configured itself properly my windows install still works and I have not lost any data.

Installing kde using synaptec.

Wow, this is easy. There’s a separate distribution called kubuntu which is just ubuntu with kde instead of gnome. If you install ubuntu, like I did, you get only Gnome. Installing kde is as simple as installing the kubuntu-desktop package. This involves installing more pacakages from the dvd and downloading a few new ones. Alltogether, including the downloading this takes about 20 minutes (120 KB/seconds). I don’t understand why the kde packages are not on the dvd though, there’s plenty of room. Anyway, I now have the latest kde and gnome on one machine. The KDE theme looks much better even though it is not the default KDE theme.

The menus in both kde and gnome are a mess. This is a linux problem in general and it’s not fair to blame this on ubuntu. But still, 90% of the crap in the menus probably shouldn’t be there.

Conclusions

The installer has lots of usability issues. Aside from not being graphical, it is confusing, misguiding and asks a lot of stupid stuff. The partitioning tool has good functionality but also does a good job of scaring you with some misleading information.

Configuring X still is an issue. Probably it’s slightly better if you have an LCD screen (60 hz is ok then).

Hardware support is pretty decent, it failed to detect the monitor but the rest seems to work fine. It doesn’t install the commercial nvidia driver that most users will want to use.

The ubuntu gnome theme is ugly
.
Kde install went smooth and the ubuntu kde theme is not that bad.

New PC & moving itunes library

Update 30/07/2009I just bought an imac and moved the same, but now consolidated, library over to it. Check out the instructions here.

Whoohoo! My new hardware has arrived, last week. I’ve been busy playing with it so that explains the small delay in posting.

Right now I am still going through the tedious procedure of getting everything the way I want it. I have a local network so I can access my old PC. However, dragging my external HD between the two machines is much faster.
Tediousness includes copying my itunes library. Tricking itunes into accepting the old library is somewhat of a challenge. But that’s what’s google is for. Since I found google’s answers a bit disappointing (lots of drag this folder there type of stuff from Apple users), I’ll post some detailed instructions for real users who do not “consolidate” to the itunes folder but choose to keep their music organized manually. To add some difficulty, my new machine has no second harddrive so the paths are different after copying.

If all goes well everything is moved (music, playlists, play statistics, ratings) AND I can sync my ipod with the new pc without that requiring it to be wiped and refilled with the moved library. I’m moving the library, not recreating it.

The Itunes library consists of only two files, its own itunes music folder and whatever external directories you imported (two in my case). One of the two files is a binary file, the other one is an xml file with data on all your songs, including path names, statistics, ratings, etc. Essentially, the xml file contains everything we want to migrate except for the mp3s. Unfortunately, moving the itunes library is not as simple as copying the files to the new machine. Sadly, Apple deliberately made it hard to do what you are about to do. So here’s a step by step guide (windows specific though Apple probably is about the same):

  1. At all times, keep at least one intact backup of all files mentioned in this post. Never work on the originals. Preferably, leave the original library untouched, you can always go back to that.
  2. Start by copying your mp3 folders to your new machine. That may take a
    while. Make sure they are where you want them to be. It took 20 minutes for my folders using an external HD, not
    counting the time it took to create the backup from scratch on
    the external hd (basically I used my incremental backup). Also copy both Itunes files (xml and itl) and the itunes mp3 folder (if not empty)
    onto the external hd.
  3. Now dowload, install, run & close itunes. It will create an itunes
    directory for you the first time it starts, that’s where it will look for its files. Replace the stuff inside this directory (My Documents\My Music\iTunes) with the
    backups on your external hd (including the itunes music folder). Now here comes the tricky part. Thanks for
    this post for putting me on the right track! DO NOT start itunes again until after the steps below.
  4. First fix the pathnames in the xml file. They still point to the old location. Open the file in a capable editor, the thing to look for is search and replace functionality. Search and replace the parts of the path names that are now different: your itunes music folder and any other folders you imported in your old library. Save the file.
  5. Now this is important: iTunes will ignore whatever path info is in the xml file! Unless the itl file becomes corrupted. We can fix that! Open the itl file in an editor, delete the gibberish inside, save. Your itl file is now corrupted, normally this is a bad thing. You still have the xml file though (and a backup of the itl).
  6. Start itunes, it will ‘import’ your music and afterwards complain that the itl file is corrupted, let it fix it.
  7. Check if everything is there. In my case I messed up with the search and replace and some files were missing. Just go back a few steps, copy your backups and retry.
  8. Done. Everything now is on the new PC. What about the ipod? Just plug it in!. You already installed iTunes on the new machine so you have the drivers for your ipod. The key or whatever itunes uses to recognize you ipod is in the xml file. And now also in the recreated itl. Apparently the xml file is sort of a backup of the itl. I suspect the itl is a bit more efficient to manipulate programmatically. I have no idea if this preserves any itunes store stuff you purchased. Presumably, this involves deauthorizing your old machine and authorizing the new one. I never used the itunes store so it’s not an issue for me.

The only thing I lost in the transition is some iTunes preferences that are easy to restore. For example I had some of my playlists set to shuffle. The imported playlists no longer had the shuffle enabled. Big deal. The preferences probably aren’t part of the library. I noticed that the shuffle settings do not sync to the ipod either. This is annoying actually because the shuffle settings is deep down in some menu on the ipod and I only want to shuffle playlists. I like my album songs served up in the order that they were put on the album.

I’ve used winamp for most of the past decade (I think from 1996?). Only when I got my ipod a few months ago, I started using iTunes, by choice. There is an excellent winamp plugin which will allow you to sync winamp with your ipod. Presumably, moving a winamp library is a lot more easy since winamp uses a file based library rather than a database. However, the main developer has left AOL, so winamp development seems a lot less interesting these days. AOL seems to just pile on commercial crap with every release. So I’ve given up on it for now.

The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting

The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting
The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting

This article comments on Apple’s latest move to offer video content through their iTunes and how this is a logical and inevitable move with some far ranging effects.

In this blog post I abstract from this and apply it to the whole telecommunications, media and IT industry. Some things are about to change in this economically important sector.

It’s understandable they put up a fight. The telecommunications sector is built on the notion that exchanging information (in any form) costs money. The media industry is built on the notion that media needs to be distributed (physically) and that they can charge dollars for that. And finally the IT industry is used to steady income from license fees from software. All these industries may lose a lot of revenue if the rules are changed.

And that’s what’s going on. Apple just changed the rules for the Media industry. This will have a snowball effect. Right now if you want to watch something (movie, the news, tv series, documentary) you need to turn to one of the industry controlled and closely guarded media: cinema, a tv channel, a dvd, etc. Each of these things is a source of revenue to the industry and you pay directly or indirectly for it in all sorts of ways. There’s nothing against that in principle they offer access to scarce resources and people pay a market price for access.

Their problem is that Apple just made these resources a lot less scarce. Distribution through the internet of content is cheap and will become even cheaper. Technology will gradually erode the cost to close to 0$. There’s plenty of bandwidth available and an increasing amount of people has what I call a critical amount of bandwith: enough bandwidth to make streaming high definition audio and video feasible & desirable.

Apple is tapping into this by letting their users access content over the internet through their iTunes store and by providing the necessary hardware and software to them. That’s a small change and not at all revolutionary. But it will teach people an important lesson: hey I can watch desperate housewives (one of the offerings used to commercialize the new itunes ability) whenever I want, wherever I want and I don’t need to buy the dvd, I don’t need to turn on the tv on a specific time and I don’t need to watch the commercial blocks. The next steps are obvious and imminent: why store the desperate housewives episode on an ipod when you can just stream it? Mobile networks will soon mature enough to reach the same critical bandwidth as home users are currently enjoying on their home networks.

That means that anytime, anywhere you can start streaming anything to your mobile phone, your pda, your ipod, your tv that anyone bothers to put online. Inevitably this will replace all existing forms of content distributions. Why tune to a channel to view some program when you can just start streaming the program whenever you want, skip to any part you want and pause it whenever you want, etc?

Apple just gave the industry a little reality check, just like they did when they kick started online music sales a few years ago: if the industry doesn’t move, somebody else will. Over the next few months, one after the other media company will either join apple or similar iniatives from e.g. microsoft. Once this happens the pressure will be on and the market will do its work. Better content leads to more online revenue, at the cost of traditional revenue. The huge gap between cost of content production and content distribution and the market price (which is obscene) will start to come under pressure as well. At some point in the near future the market model will change from paid downloads to paid streams (subscription, per view, etc).

This will put an end to tv networks as we know them. They are content distributers and we don’t need them anymore.

The same is going on in the telecommunications sector where revenue used to come from telephony and related services. IP telephony has eliminated the need for paid telephone services since it works just fine over a modest internet connection. If you have umts phone, it is technically possible to use the internet for IP telephony so why exactly are we paying 30 cents per minute for a local phone call? Some mobile networks already offer fixed price bandwidth (expensive though). The operators on these networks get their revenue from a number of services, all of which with the exception of the network connection are technically possible with already available software packages that use the connection. People think it’s normal to pay 25 cent for the delivery of a 160 character message to a cell phone (SMS). If those two cellphones are umts phones and run msn, icq, aim, jabber or any of the other IM network clients you can send unlimited messages to anyone freely. Surprisingly few people have figured this out but they will. These changes are already happening and will kill much of the telecom industry as we know it. A mobile phone is nothing else than a general purpose computer with a umts modem or similar wireless connection and some general purpose software. The form factor is irrelevant.

Which brings us to the software industry because nothing of the above requires software with a pricetag greater than 0$. All of the services mentioned above can be implemented using existing, open source software. In fact oss developers have already done most of the work and created OSS media centers, video & audio codecs, communication software, real time operating systems and any other kind of software component you could possibly need to implement any of the services mentioned in this document. It’s just a matter of putting together the components.

So what remains is bandwidth, hardware and intellectual property. Any revenue not coming directly from these, will vaporize in the next few decades. The remaining revenue will still be sizable but probably less than the industry is used today. 50$ for a dvd now is considered normal today. I’d be surprised and disappointed if I was unable to watch star wars III on my mobile phone anywhere, anytime for over 5$ in about ten years. And no way am I going to watch that shit ten times.

My impression is that the whole proces will be slow thanks to the industry resisting any form of progress. It will take some outsiders, like Apple, to change the rules gradually. These outsiders exist and are already changing the rules.

iPod

As posted earlier, since a few days, I am the proud owner of a 60GB color iPod, which as of today is already obsolete. Nevertheless a few impressions.

My previous mp3 player was a shitty Philips 128 MB memory stick with even worse software (tip, don’t install it at all). The only nice thing about it (at least conceptually) was the fact that the volume controls were integrated into the flat chord you use to hang the thing (or yourself) from the neck. That was a slightly geeky, cool thing. Of course 128MB was way too little and the insistence of the thing to not keep track of what song you were playing and to play the first song of an album last was especially shitty.

The iPod on the other hand lives up to its reputation as a genuinely cool thing. What I was worried about most (the menu system) turns out to be a well designed, easy to use tool that does exactly what I want: expose my music which is organized on artist and albums as such and allow me to play albums from start to finish, the way the artist intended them to be played.

It came in some well designed packaging. Everything about it just looks cool. No cheap plastic but nice minimalistic, elegant design. Everything about the package screams: this is an expensive designer thingy and you know you just gotto have it. Once you open it the experience continues. The contents of the box are well designed. No styrofoam in here but nice white cardboard and again functional use of the available space in the box. Packaging is something you throw away but this packaging had me impressed as being elegant, beautiful and almost a waste to open and discard. If Apple understands one thing it is that the first experience matters.

The hardware itself looks really nice. It has a shiny chrome body with a nice white front. Except from a lock button on the top, right of the headphone connector the only controls are the disc in the center. The disc is a touch sensitive control with a round button in the middle and four buttons under it north, east, south and west. The north button is the menu/back button, the center button is the ‘ok’ button, east and west are next and previous and south is play/pause.

Navigating the menus works like this you stroke the dial clockwise to scroll down and counter clockwise to scroll up. The center menu ‘selects’ an option, the menu button backs you out of nested menus. So you stroke down to artist, ok, the pixies, ok, doolittle, debaser, ok and you are listening to one of my favorite albums. While it is playing you can go back to the menu by clicking menu four times and then navigate to settings, eq and adjust the sound.

Now one thing had me puzzled for a while: where’s the volume control? It took a manual to figure it out: while the song is playing, stroke the wheel to change the volume (clockwise for up, counter clockwise for down), easy and intuitive but people won’t figure this out by themselves the first time.

That’s the good part. Now the bad part: the photo feature of the color ipod sucks. I have a nice photoalbum at photos.jillesvangurp.com. Mirroring this to the ipod seemed like a good idea so I pointed iTunes to the root of my photo directory which contains well over a thousand large jpeg photos.
Problem #1: the photos take up more space on the ipod than on my harddrive. Apparently everything is copied full resolution to the ipod + some thumbnails.
Problem #2: the iPod screen is tiny and not very suitable for viewing photos. The screen on my camera is smaller and much better for this.
Problem #3: the ipod is incapable of recursive directory structures characteristic of well organized photoalbums. The first time I tried this, all my photos ended up one huge folder. Navigating from 1999 to 2005 took quite a while ‘stroking’ the disc.
Problem #4: it doesn’t use the meta information attached to the photos.

Clearly the first generation color iPod is a missed opportunity in doing anything useful with the color screen. Other than that, I am really happy with it. The sound quality is good, the head phones are decent. I connected my sennheiser headphone to get a better impression: excellent, clear sound.

iTunes review

After about a day of intensive use of iTunes (5.0.1.4, win32) I have decided to stick with it for a while. However, I’m not entirely happy with it yet and I’ll list my detailed criticism here.

1) It looks nice but it is not very responsive. Especially not when managing the amounts of music the ipod is intended for. I am talking about the noticable lag when switching from one view to another, the lack of feedback what is doing when, apparently, it can’t respond right away to any mouse clicks.

2). I am used to winamp which has a nerdy interface but gets several things right in the media library that iTunes doesn’t. The most important thing, the notion of a currently playing list of songs, is missing. That means that if you are navigating your songs, you are also editing the list of songs that is currently playing (unless you are playing a playlist in a seperate window). This is extremely annoying because this means you can’t play albums and browse your other music at the same time which is the way I prefer to listen to my music.

Steps to reproduce: put the library in browse mode (so you can select artist and than album), select one of your albums, start playing the first song. Browse to some other album, click the next button. Instead of playing track 2 of the album you were listening to (IMHO the one and only desired behavior) you were playing the music stops because by now a different set of files is selected.

A solution (or rather workaround) to this would be to create playlists for each album and play those. This cannot be done automatically. I have 300+ albums. You can drag m3u files (a common playlist format that simply lists the files in the order they should be played) to itunes (good) but if you drag more than one it merges them into one big playlist (bad).

3) So if you have m3u files for your albums or other playlists, you still need to import them one by one. That sucks.

An alternative solution would be to treat albums as playlists when clicked upon.

The best solution is of course to do it like winamp. Until you start to play something new the player plays whatever is in its current playlist. If you click an album, that becomes the current playlist. So simple, intuitive and yet missing. Of course it contradicts with the misguided notion of putting checkboxes in a list of 5000 files. The browse mode sort of covers up for this design error by automatically unchecking everything hidden by the browser. That’s why your album is unchecked when you select another album.

I can guess why apple chooses to not fix this issue. It requires changing the user interface to add a list of currently selected songs. This product is for novice users and adding user interface elements makes it more complex. Incidently the ipod is much smarter! It doesn’t change the current selection until you select something new and browsing is not the same as selecting!

4) Double clicking a playlist opens a new window! The idea of a playlist is to play one song after another (like I want to do with my albums). Effectively the playlist becomes the active list once you start playing it. However, as discussed above, iTunes does not have a concept of a current playlist so they ‘fixed’ it by opening a new window. IMHO this is needlessly confusing (for windows users, I understand multiple application windows is something mac users are more used to).

5) Of course this conflicts with the minimize to traybar option which only works for the main window. You can also play playlists like albums but then you encounter issue number 2 again. Conclusion Apple’s fix for issue number 2 is a direct cause for number 4 (serious usability issue) and this issue.

6) A separate issue is album art. Many users have file based mp3 players like winamp which store album art as a separate folder.jpg file in the directory the album mp3s are in. iTunes has an album art feature but will ignore those files. Worse the only way to add album art is to add the image to each individual music file (so if your album is fifteen tracks, the same image must be added to fifteen files). Aside from the waste of diskspace (or worse flash drive space), this is just to cumbersome to manage. I found a neat tool that can automate fetching and adding album art for albums.

7) Finally some issues with the help system. I normally do not refer to help files unless I need them. A day of using iTunes has forced me to do this several times because the user interface has a lot of obscure buttons and options that are not always self explaining. For example the menu option “consolidate library” sounds rather scary and, as I found out by reading the help file, you probably don’t want to click it. Another beautiful option is “group compilations when browsing”. This is a bit harder to figure out because the help search feature returns one result for ‘compilation’ which is a huge list of tips.

The problem: the help information is not organized around the userinterface like it should be. Task based documentation is nice to have but not if you are looking for information on button X in dialog Y.

So why do I still continue to use it: it is integrated in a clever way with my ipod 🙂 and I hope to find some solutions to the problems above using 3rd party tools. Ipod integration seems to work rather nicely, just plug it in and it synchronizes. I have the big version with plenty of space so I just want everything I have to be sycnhronized to it and this seems to work well. Except for one thing:

8) Apparently I have songs that the ipod can’t play that itunes can play. The synchronization process warns of this by telling me it can’t play some songs but fails to inform me which ones (so I can’t fix it)! The obvious solution would be to translate these songs to something it can play when copying them to the ipod (and keep the original in itunes). All the tools to do this are available so it should just do this, no questions asked.

UPDATE

I’ve found some more serious issues with drag and drop:
9) You can drag albums to the sidebar to create a playlist and you can drag playlists to a folder but you cannot drag albums to folders to create a playlist there.

10) Dragging multiple albums sadly creates only one playlist so this is no solution for problem 2 and probably shares the same cause as problem 3.

Music

I was thinking about buying an mp3 player lately. I knew I wanted one. Not a shitty 512MB samsung but the real deal. Nor some shitty wannabe ipod from Philips with crappy software but the real thing. Inevitably this drew to the conclusion that I just had to buy me an ipod with 60 GB 🙂 and a nice color screen. Yes they are expensive but I don’t care.

Right now it is charging. Except from a minor conflict with my usb extension cable, the installation went fine. The installer barfed out with an ‘assertion failed error’ that should never be displayed to users. After I connected the ipod directly to the pc the installation completed without further errors.

Right now it is charging and copying my mp3s and a few thousand photos to its disk. In a few hours it will be done and then I can enjoy some music :-).

iTunes on the other hand will take some getting used to. I’ll give it a try but I’ll likely go back to winamp unless it is really neat.