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iTunes 8 Adds Genius; iTunes Store Adds HD TV and NBC

Do you have a friend who always seems plugged in to the latest music? With last week’s release of iTunes 8, Apple wants to be that hip friend, in the form of the new Genius feature.

The iTunes Genius automatically builds a playlist of songs in your library, matching artists and genres according to Apple-developed algorithms that, in theory, result in a collection of songs that sound good together.

When you install and launch iTunes 8 for the first time, the program asks whether you want to enable the Genius feature in a right-hand sidebar. If you agree, you next log into your (required) iTunes account, and Apple gathers information about your iTunes library, sends it to their servers, and then produces results. The process isn’t necessarily quick, depending on the size of your iTunes library. According to Apple, information about your library, including track names, play counts, ratings, and playlists – but no personal data – is sent to the company’s servers and analyzed each week.

Two Genius features become available after this initial process. Select a song in your library and click the new Genius button in the lower-right corner of the window. A Genius playlist is created and appears in the iTunes left-hand sidebar. (The Genius button replaces the Browse button from iTunes 7.) The Genius ties into the iTunes Store using that right-hand sidebar, suggesting other songs and artists you would like based on what’s in your library.

As with the old MiniStore (which is now gone), the Genius sidebar is not automatically enabled by default.

Grid View — An interesting evolution in iTunes is Apple’s work toward making your media library less listy and more visually interactive. The Cover Flow mode replicates the old jukebox approach of flipping panels of albums, but despite its 3D appeal, Cover Flow displays only a handful of items at a time.

So Apple has added Grid View, which displays rows and columns of album art in a grid. (Grid View replaces the list-with-artwork view.) The album covers can be resized; like iPhoto’s event icons, rolling your mouse pointer over an icon in artist, genre, or composer view displays the albums without clicking the icon. Buttons along the top let you display by album, artist, genre, or composer. Double-clicking an icon brings up the old list-with-artwork view.

In a little stylistic touch, the icons sorted by album are square (like an album cover), while the icons for the other view options have rounded corners.

It’s nice to see Apple keeping a focus on album artwork, since the digital era has made album covers almost obsolete.

HD TV Shows and the Return of the Peacock — The update of iTunes also comes with the addition of high-definition television shows through the iTunes Store; previously, only standard-definition TV episodes were available. Apple doesn’t specify the format of its new HD programs (720p, 1080i, etc.) or the bit rate at which shows will be compressed, but just about any high-definition content will look worlds better than the low-resolution TV shows we’ve been buying until now – and those didn’t even look that bad.

HD television programs from the iTunes Store may be purchased and viewed in iTunes. In fact, currently iTunes is the only source for purchasing HD TV shows, as the high-definition versions don’t show up on the Apple TV; we expect that a software update for the Apple TV will be released soon. HD movies, alas, can still be purchased and viewed only using an Apple TV; HD podcasts continue to be available in iTunes and the Apple TV. Watching high-def TV shows requires a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or faster processor (under Mac OS X or Windows), according to the iTunes 8 release notes.

HD programs are initially available from NBC Universal’s networks (such as NBC, USA Network, and Sci-Fi Channel), ABC, and Showtime, for a $1 premium over the $1.99 price for the standard-definition version of each show. (As a bonus, viewers purchasing HD programs also get an iPod-ready version with a smaller file size and resolution suitable for portable devices.)

Yes, we said “NBC Universal.” Last week’s event marked the return of NBCU content to the iTunes Store after its abrupt departure almost exactly a year ago, when, according to Apple, the company declined NBCU’s demand for a much-higher payment per episode sold. (In Macworld’s liveblogging of the event, Associate Editor Dan Moren joked about John Mayer showing up in every Genius playlist; perhaps extra exposure for Mayer, who is a Universal recording artist, was the quid pro quo that got NBCU back to the table.)

Apple says that NBC, back just in time for the fall television season, will be offering a free episode from each of their “top series,” including advance previews of premiere episodes of upcoming shows such as “Knight Rider” and “My Own Worst Enemy,” a week before the broadcast date. Several vintage shows, like “Miami Vice” and the original “Battlestar Galactica,” will also be available for 99 cents an episode.

Other Changes — iTunes 8 adds support for managing the iTunes library using the VoiceOver component of Leopard’s Universal Access preference pane; under Windows XP and Windows Vista, iTunes takes advantage of the Window-Eyes feature. You can also purchase and download media from the iTunes Store using a screen reader.

A new visualizer makes its appearance in iTunes 8, listed simply as iTunes Visualizer from the Visualizer submenu of the View menu. The effect resembles electricity arcing around spheres of dark matter in space. The old visualizer is still available as iTunes Classic Visualizer from the same menu.

iTunes 8 requires the simultaneously released QuickTime 7.5.5, available via Software Update as a 67.5 MB download, to handle the new video options. Also released was Front Row Update 2.1.6 (a 13.1 MB download), which provides iTunes 8 compatibility. Both iTunes 8 and QuickTime 7.5.5 feature security fixes, as well.

iTunes 8 is a 55.9 MB download from Apple’s Web site or via Software Update.

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