A look at the new iTunes and Zune Marketplace software

Over the last two weeks, both Apple and Microsoft released new media players and, along with them, new versions of the desktop management software.  Both iTunes and the Zune Marketplace software had new releases and each introduced new features.  iTunes 9 got a visual maker and some incremental feature updates while Zune Marketplace received a few new features like QuickPlay and SmartDJ as well as movie purchases and rental.

itunesStore iTunes was born from an application that Apple PURCHASED, not developed themselves. Called SoundJam MP, Apple purchased the product in 2001, incorporated their own features and rebranded it ‘iTunes’.  Of course, the first three versions were Apple only.  iPod integration came in version two of the product and Windows support was in version four along with the introduction of the iTunes Store.  MacLife has a nice history of the application here.  iTunes 9, the most recent release, introduces a few new features, which are mostly geared toward to the iPhone and iPod Touch devices.

Apple introduced its ‘genius’ feature in iTunes 8.  Genius will analyze your library and based on data in the iTunes Store, various databases and the libraries of the millions of other users,  it will create playlists of music with similar themes, types, etc.  It’s a nice feature, but one that I had not really paid much attention to since I have such an odd taste in music-or, so I am told.  Genius has now been expanded to include applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch.  With thousands of apps in the Store, this feature, no doubt, will be a godsend for users.  It’s ability to return a list of similar apps should make discovery much easier.

Other new features include iPhone and iPod Touch application screen management.  You can arrange your apps in any order you want, in iTunes, and upon your next sync, your apps will be arranged the same way on the device.

iTunes Store also got a visual make over.  Store categories are now buttons along the top of the Store window.  There is a lot black instead of the gray and white theme.  It’s pleasant, but nothing earth shattering. The new arrangement is a bit more difficult to find things but, once you get used to it, it isn’t horrible.  It’s just not all that good either.   They did put your you balance in the same tool bar, next to your login ID. 

Apple did nothing, however, to improve performance of the application.  It seems to take a bit longer to start than the previous versions did.  Switching to the Store is not quick and loading the artwork seems to bog it down a bit.  I’m running it on a quad core machine with 8gb of RAM.  I expected better performance, especially on this machine.  Microsoft, however, didn’t do much better with performance with the Zune 4 software.

The Zune Marketplace, like iTunes, was born from another application.  Unlike Apple, however, the application that served as the Zune Marketplace foundation was developed in house.  More commonly known as Windows Media Player, the Zune 1.0 software was horrendously bad.  Essentially a skin over WMP, Zune 1.0 difficult to manage and not easy on the eyes either.  It had a black and orange theme and, for me, the contrast between the colors was painful.

Zune 2.0 was a major step up.  It was more pleasing on the eyes, easier to use and made shopping the Marketplace a snap.  Performance, however, was just awful.  It only got better with Zune 3.0.  But, only a little better.  Some of the categorization and rating system features that were in the Zune 1.0 software were missing or lacking in Zune 2.0.  Users who had taken advantage of them in the 1.0 software were outraged when the features were removed.  I never quite understood the furor, but if I had used them, I’d probably be upset as well.

Zune 4 is an incremental upgrade.  There’s no major UI changes other than the QuickPlay page.  Subtle changes, here and there, but nothing major.  You can now select the page that displays when the software is started and some of the smaller UI elements now have added functionality. zune4005 For example, hovering over an icon in the Music/Artist page will reveal player controls.  You can start playing the album/song, start the SmartDJ or show the Mix View for the album/artist.  Another nice change to the UI is that it now displays how many free tracks you have remaining if you subscribe to the Zune Pass.  A nice feature.  The software is also supposed to let you know when the billing cycle is nearly over and you still have tracks remaining.  I have not yet seen this work.

Performance wise, as previously stated, the software has not made any significant improvement.  I have seen, though, that the more I use its features, the better it performs. Switching from my music collection to my video collection is, however, much snappier than in the previous releases.  Going to the Marketplace is much quicker as well.  Downloads, still, slow it way, way down.  And one thing that Microsoft did that really annoys me is to NOT allow you to set the affinity for the application.  Previously, you could bring up the task manager, right click on the Zune process and select ‘set affinity’ and assign the process to one or more cores if you had a multicore CPU.  This seemed to help quite a bit.  You can no longer do this.

Overall, both media managers have received decent upgrades.  Apple could make iTunes better by removing some of what it does.  It seems to try to do too much.  Microsoft is headed the same way with Zune as well.  Both companies need to work on improving the performance of the applications. 

Both applications are free for download and neither require that you actually own an iPod or a Zune.  For Windows, the Zune software works very well as a media manager.  I am guessing that the same applies to iTunes on the Mac. 

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