When Apple upgrades its flagship iTunes media application, people take notice. The new version, iTunes 8, adds a tiled album-cover view, a custom playlist-generation feature called Genius, a Visualizer update, and some accessibility enhancements. It also brings high-definition TV episodes to the iTunes Store for the first time, and it marks the return of NBC content after a protracted battle over royalty rates. In addition, at MacWorld on January 6th, 2009, Apple made three key changes to the iTunes Store. First, it announced that it has finally removed DRM from all but two million of the ten million songs in its catalog (the DRM on the rest will disappear by the end of March). It also announced three tiers of pricing for tracks, in a nod to the major record labels' demands; tracks will now cost $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29 each. Finally, iPhone owners will be able to buy music tracks over 3G cellular networks, not just over Wi-Fi—putting Apple in direct competition with Sprint Music, Verizon V CAST Music, and other cellular services. These long-awaited improvements put Apple over the top; it finally takes the Editors' Choice from long-time favorite Rhapsody.

That said, iTunes 8 still doesn't do everything. It still lacks a music-subscription option, and Apple still prefers that you play within its walled-garden ecosystem of iPods, iPhones, Apple TV devices, and iTunes Store purchases—particularly when it comes to video. But there's no denying that iTunes 8 remains a formidable choice in media suites for both Mac and PC computers, even if most of the flaws we noted in our last review of version 7.7 remain.

I tested iTunes 8, using a MacBook Pro 2.2 GHz Merom Core 2 Duo machine with 2GB of RAM. I also put together a test library of 581 tracks, including music purchased from the iTunes Store, music purchased from Amazon's DRM-free MP3 store, and unprotected MP3 and AAC tracks ripped from CDs. Finally, I re-ran tests on a separate 24-inch aluminum iMac and a Core 2 Duo HP Pavilion laptop running Windows Vista, each with a different music library, to check stability. All three were stable in operation, but the iTunes 8 installer crashed the aluminum iMac hard, forcing a reboot and a second attempt before it worked. (full Story)

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