iPod: Sort Your Albums by Year of Release

daft punk sorted by album title
The iPod’s default behavior is to sort alphabetically.
Here’s Daft Punk’s albums:
Discovery (2001), Homework (1997) and Human After All (2005).

Not that long ago, I was asked by a commenter if I had any suggestions for getting the iPod to sort albums chronologically. By default, the iPod’s behavior is to sort albums alphabetically by title. In iTunes, there’s the option to sort “Album By Year” but the iPod features no such function.

At the time, I didn’t have much of an answer for him other than to put the albums in a playlist and just listen to the songs in chronological order. But in an interesting twist, the pixels in that reply were barely dry before Apple released version 1.3 of the firmware for 5G iPods. After some further discussion, this trick was discovered:

The most noticeable change in firmware 1.3 is the application of iTunes’ “smart sorting” (ignoring “a” “an” and “the”), including recognition of iTunes’ custom “Sort Fields” (Sort Album, Sort Composer), for Album and Composer. The Sort fields allow you to enter any text that you want and iTunes/iPod will use that to order the list of items, while displaying the text from the actual field.

Using the Sort Album field, you can easily put albums in whatever order you like. For example, you could put the Halo number of Nine Inch Nails releases in the Sort Album field to have all items, including singles and remix albums, displayed in the order they were released.

For basic chronological sorting, just put the year in the Sort Album field and voila, the iPod will show the album title, but they will be ordered by the year.

UPDATE: The previous version of this post recommended putting the year of the album in the Sort Album field. This, however, effectively changes the name of the album within iTunes’ logic, making it group all albums of the same year together.

The revised method is to simply prepend the year to the album name in the Sort Album field. This way, each album gets a unique identifier that still sorts by year.

Additional caveat: this tip has the potential (there have been mixed reports) to reorder the listings of the “Album” browser, as the Sort Album field may be applied to it. So if you ever use the iPod’s Album View, keep this in mind. See the discussion in the comments for effects and solutions.

For this demonstration, I’ve selected Daft Punk’s three studio albums:

  • Homework (1997)
  • Discovery (2001)
  • Human After All (2005)

As you can see in the image at top, the default behavior is to display the albums in alphabetical order, with Discovery as the first. How do we fix that?

add a year to Sort Album to sort by release date
click to enlarge

  1. In iTunes, get info on the first song of the album.
  2. Click the Sorting tab.
  3. Enter the year of the album then the album name into Sort Album field
  4. Click OK.
  5. Select all the songs on the album
  6. Right-click/Control-click and select Apply Sort Field > Same Album
  7. Repeat for as many albums as you care to customize

When you next update your iPod, the new data will take effect and the albums will be sorted by release date.

daft punk sorted by year
Daft Punk albums sorted chronologically.

This process works for any 5G iPod that has been updated to firmware version 1.3 (and I assume iPods/iPhones released subsequently) So if you haven’t updated yours, hop to it and then get customizing.

UPDATE 2: As mentioned in the comments, if you have an artist who released two or more albums in the same year, there are two options you can use to sort them appropriately:

  1. If you know the more specific album release date, you can prepend that to the album name.
    Example: If one album was released in March and another in October, use 2008-03 and 2008-10 .
  2. If you don’t know the date, you can order them with a number.
    Ex: 2008-1 , 2008-2 and so on.

AirTunes returns to casa tunequest

airport express by Jared C. Benedict (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Apple_airport_express.jpg)

After more than two years offline, the sweet sounds of AirTunes once again bless the tunequest abode. AirTunes, of course, is the technology that allows wireless music streaming from iTunes to Apple’s Airport Express wireless router.

A few years ago, shortly after the Airport Express was introduced, I picked one up for my apartment when I first moved to Atlanta. I was fortunate that my DSL modem hookup and stereo system sat near each other: the proximity made it simple to share my Internet among my computers as well as play my iTunes library from the office on the other end of the building. But when I later bought a house and moved out of that apartment, the stereo and Internet turned out to not be so conveniently located.

The Airport Express was repurposed exclusively for networking, leaving the stereo woefully underused (for some reason, iPods never quite sounded right with it). And so it remained, collecting dust until yesterday.

After putting off the purchase for quite some time, I bought a new wireless router to take over the networking duties (a Netgear Rangemax WPN824v2), and for nearly half price thanks to “Black Friday” deals. Set up of the new device was rather straightforward. Though not as elegant as the Airport solution, the Netgear offers a handful more features that are suited to a dedicated router, such as site blocking and dynamic DNS services.

Needless to say, after making sure the network was up and running, the Express found a new home under the stereo system. A quick reset and some relatively quick reconfiguration (the AX couldn’t “see” the Netgear network, so I had to manually type its name), and I am once again able to seamlessly play my iTunes library in the living room and entertain the whole house if I want to.

Color me bliss.

airtunes multiple speakers

One thing that has changed with AirTunes since I last used it is the ability to stream to multiple locations simultaneously. Until iTunes 6.0.2 (01/2006), streaming was limited to one destination, either the computer or a single Express. Since then however, it is possible to play music from the desktop as well as up to six Airport Expresses on the same network (depending on network conditions) at the same time. I find that very cool as I can be working in the office, pick up my PowerBook and move to the den and not have any interruption in the music.

With OS X Leopard’s Screen Sharing/VNC, I can quickly and easily control iTunes from my PowerBook as though I were sitting at my iMac. Plus, Party Shuffle suddenly got a lot more useful.

Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.

eMusic

Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.

Selection

Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use

iTunes

In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.

eMusic

eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead: site:emusic.com.

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.

Pricing

The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.

::

In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Thoughts on an iPod Shuffle

Orange iPod Shuffle in Dock (photo by tunequest)
Thinking of an iPod Shuffle? Find one on Amazon.

Birthday season is in effect around the tunequest compound and themodernista kicked off the festivities by presenting me with my long-desired orange iPod Shuffle (2G) (which I have dubbed “Shuffleupagus”). I had been struck by the orange model since they were announced this past January, but despite its relative inexpensiveness, I could never justify purchasing one; I’m a fairly austere guy when it comes to material goods and all my iPod needs have been handled quite nicely by my 5G. Still, the gift is not unappreciated, though I am somewhat abashed to admit that it makes the seventh iPod in six years for a family of two.

After palling around with the device for couple days, I’ve made some observations. Overall, the iPod Shuffle is pretty sweet and the vibrant orange casing is quite the eye-catcher. Straightforward and easy to use, it provides no-thinking audio entertainment. I love my 5G-pod, but its daily use often involves effort, whether its assessing new music, adding star ratings, absorbing dense material such as audiobooks and podcasts or just plain searching for something I’m in the mood to hear. The Shuffle, with a suitable playlist, provides a worry-free, effortless and enjoyable experience and the one gigabyte capacity provides ample music for daily jaunts, commutes and errands.

That experience, however, does come with some caveats.

The iPod Shuffle’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: the lack of a screen. The same brain-dead simplicity that allows for simple recreation also can be a hindrance in some situations. On my 5G, whenever I run into a track that might be corrupted or otherwise malformed, I mark it with two stars as a way to pull it out of rotation and set it aside for reevaluation at a later date. On the Shuffle, that’s just not possible. And of course, when I can’t quite place the name/artist/album of the song I’m listening to, I’m just out of luck trying to identify it.

Also, the unit provides no visual indicator for volume. It’s hard to know exactly how loud the Shuffle is set without any visual feedback. I had it plugged into the tape adapter in my car and nearly blew out the speakers when a quiet classical piece transitioned to some bombastic Primus bass. Gave me quite the jolt too. In iTunes, however, you can set a maximum volume with a volume limiting slider.

Also, there’s no internal clock. The vast majority of my listening habits rely on the heavy use of iTunes’ Last Played Date. As a condition on my Smart Playlists, I use it to automatically refresh my listening selections, rotating recently played songs for those that haven’t been played in a while. The first-generation Shuffle was noted for its lack of a clock and, unfortunately, its successor is no different. Without a clock, the Shuffle has no way to know when you’ve finished playing a song and thus can’t update iTunes the next time you sync up. Instead, iTunes sets the Last Played Date to the time at which you perform the sync. While not quite as precise as I’d prefer, I tend to update my Pods frequently enough that it shouldn’t disrupt my schemes significantly.

Then there’s the size again. The thing is wicked small and keeping track of its whereabouts has proven bit elusive. A couple times already, I thought I had misplaced it or lost it under some paperwork when it was actually still clipped to my pocket. That’s definitely a behavioral change that I’ll have to adjust to.

Despite these minor inconveniences, and that’s really what they are, inconveniences, the iPod Shuffle is a solid product. In the few days I’ve had it, I’ve already found myself reaching for it more often than my 5G when I want to sit back and relax. In fact, once I get going, I find myself hesitant to turn it off. The only thing I need to figure out now is how to shuffle-by-album (if that’s even possible) rather than default shuffle-by-song.

iTunes Store fact check: The Largest Selection?

via iLounge.

Apple today announced the expansion of its DRM-free iTunes Plus catalogue. The press release claims that the iTunes Store now offers the largest selection of non-rights-managed tracks in the world, with “more than two million” available.

I welcome news of the expansion, as well as the accompanying drop in price to $0.99 a track, but I have to question that superlative claim.

Apple doesn’t say how many more than two million the selection is. 2.1? 2.5? If it were larger than that, I’d expect Apple to claim “nearly three million songs.”

It’s worth pointing out though that emusic also claims to have offer more than two million songs, all in un-DRM-able MP3 format. Playlistmag goes so far as to say that emusic offers 2.7 million songs for download, from more than 20,000 labels.

So the question is, who really has the world’s largest non-DRM music download catalogue?

no, the answer is not bittorrent

iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior

Part of the iTunes Sorting Debacle Series

  1. iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior
  2. iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central
  3. iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

Apple unleashed iTunes 7.4.2 today, mostly to cripple efforts by the iPhone community to customize their ringtones without having to pay an additional $.99 to do so. On that topic, one could argue that users are well within their Fair Use rights to repurpose (format shift) into a ringtone the music they’ve already paid for. I’m not an iPhone user nor do I intend to be, so it’s purely an academic observation in my case.

My slightly modified Motorola E815 lets me copy mp3s over Bluetooth and use those as ringtones. it’s quite convenient. But I digress.

The important news is that 7.4.2 in no way fixes the asinine sorting problems introduced in version 7.3. iLounge offers up some polite criticism in addition to my own.

Unfortunately, this “numbers-last” sorting order is counter-intuitive to how most other software applications function. Other media players, be they portable devices or computer software applications, have always taken a numbers-first approach, as do standard sorting algorithms in Word Processing and Spreadsheet applications. In short, this new behavior is extremely counter-intuitive to what most experienced users would expect, and as a result is a rather odd change on the part of iTunes.

This is going to be a hot topic around here until the day it gets resolved. If you’re as sick of hearing about it as I am of complaining about it, let’s encourage Apple to mend its ways.

Managing a Two iPod workflow is just too difficult

(or, Initial Thoughts on the iPod Touch)

iPods shuffle nano video classic and touch

Weeeee… new toys from Apple! iPods iPods iPods, including shuffles in drab new colors (gimme orange), a new iPod NanoVideo (aka iPod Squat), an all-metal iPod Classic (the form we all know and love––now up to 160GB!) and a phoneless iPhone (aka iPod Touch).

Upon the availing of the line up this afternoon, I was immediately torn. In my mind, the iPod brand is essentially “a bajillion songs in your freakin’ pocket––more songs than you could ever practically listen to but who cares because it’s a bajillion songs! In your pocket!!” and the upgraded 160GB model is encoding a lot of digital saliva in tunequestland. The iPod has finally caught up to the point where I could realize the dream of fitting my entire library (all bajillion songs of it) onto a single portable device and that sounds like a lot of fun.

But Apple had to go ahead and simultaneously release that little portable wi-fi web browsing internet communication device, didn’t they? More than anything since the iPhone was announced in January, the prospect of in-your-pocket internet has been very appealing. But of course, I already have a phone that does everything I need a phone to do, so I wasn’t (and still am not) about to plunk down for the device. At the time I thought that if Apple wanted to unbundle the phone from the package, great, I’d look at it then.

And Apple has done just that with the iPod Touch and that is the source of my quandary.

The storage capacity of the iPod Touch’s models is 8GB and 16GB, a major step down from what I’m used to. While I did fine for years with a 15GB model, I’ve gotten accustomed to lugging around roughly 40-50 gigs of music, podcasts, audiobooks, courses from iTunes U, videos, photos and data at any given time. The thought of having to cram all that back to 16GB or gasp!, 8GB, is anathema to my idea of what an iPod is.

Then a thought occurred to me…

I’m still quite happy with my 80GB 5.5G model. I’ve had it for almost a year and the only major disappointment I have with it is my recently discovered long audiobook problem. I’ve been especially surprised by the durability of its screen. It’s not had any kind of protector and there’s nary a sign of a scratch or mark. While the idea of a 160GB iPod Classic is a very compelling dream, I’m more than happy to continue using my existing hardware as my workhorse iPod.

But… what if I were to simply use an iPod Touch almost exclusively as an internet device, saving most of the traditional iPod functions for my 80GB? That would be the ticket.

And for a moment, with the Reality Distortion Field set to maximum capacity, I seriously considered that option. Then I quickly came to my senses. I’ve tried managing multiple iPods for different purposes and it’s just too much effort. For a while, I tried to divvy up music and spoken audio (podcasts, books, etc) between two devices and invariably, I’d find that I didn’t have the one I wanted at the moment I wanted it. Then there was the hassle of keeping them both synced, updated and charged. Before too long, I abandoned that idea. Besides, when one device can do most or all of what you want it to, there’s really not much point to segregating the duties.

And the more I think about it, the less certain I become that I’d actually find a significant use for an iPod Touch. My multimedia needs are already handled by my 80GB and the vast majority of my wi-fi usage is done in my house, where there are four computers I have access to. Furthermore, based on the images at apple.com, I don’t see icons for some of the traditional “Extras” provided on the iPod’s interface, like Games and Notes (though I wouldn’t imagine that they’ve actual been removed). And where’s the note taking program to make use of that famous multi-touch interface? Other than for novelty, I can’t really see myself getting one, that is, until the storage is increased. Though that might change if it turns out the the Touch has inherited the iPhone’s PDF-reading capabilities. I’ve been wanting to make those portable documents truly portable.

But for now, the bottom line: I’m happy with what I got.

Of course, for me, this all a moot discussion unless iTunes 7.4 fixes 7.3’s horrible sorting problems, which, at first glance it doesn’t.

::

PS- Did anyone else notice that Music and iTunes are separate selectors on the Touch? I realize that using the term “iTunes” is Apple’s way of differentiating pre-loaded music from on-the-go purchasing, but it strikes me that that this could be a subtle shift in the iTunes branding away from the “your personal jukebox” function and toward the store aspects. If you look at Apple’s various iTunes pages, you’ll see that the money-making features are more prominently displayed.

iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central

Part of the iTunes Sorting Debacle Series

  1. iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior
  2. iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central
  3. iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

Apple has really screwed up with the new sorting behaviors introduced in iTunes 7.3 and it’s making a lot of people seriously unhappy. And, honestly, I’ve NEVER been mad at Apple for anything in my 25+ years of history with the company (annoyed at times, but never mad), but the more I think about this the more pissed I get. For those just joining the story, Apple released version 7.3 to accompany the launch of the iPhone. Included in that release was a new, completely arbitrary rule set for sorting Artist, Album, Composer, Genre, etc tags.

Quoting myself:

Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!! after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!

*snip*

iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they have nothing typed in at all. And guess what else? It passes that behavior to the iPod.

At first, it seemed that the issue was a bug, but as revisions came out, it became clear that this new behavior was intentional. Indeed, an Apple support document created July 11, 2007, explains the new scheme as if everything is hunky-dory. The odd thing about this is that there is no rational explanation for it. Before 7.3, iTunes used case-insensitive ACSII as its basis. It’s a decades old standard that all electronic devices use.

Symbols > Numbers > Letters. That’s the order the entire Western world has been using for all of modern memory. Look on any computer’s desktop and that’s how you’ll see files arranged. Hell, even the 131-years-old Dewey Decimal System sorts numbers before letters. Perhaps more bizarrely though, is that this behavior only appears to affect the first character in the music tags. Playlists and second character sorting (unless the whole field is made of punctuation) still seem to use the ASCII method. Say whaa? If you’re going to screw up a standard, you might as well be consistent with your screwery.

Seriously, this abrupt abandoning of established convention brings Apple closer to Microsoft’s behavior regarding standards. Could you imagine if, on a whim, Apple suddenly changed the way Safari renders web pages to its own specifications, rather than W3C standards, perhaps in order to accommodate the iPhone? That’s how bad this is.

So far, the suggested workaround is to use the Apply Sort Field command to manually restore normal sorting, a process that is cumbersome, tedious, counter-intuitive and shouldn’t even be necessary. In my case, I’d have to apply it to 150-200 albums and gobs of composers and I’m not about to waste my time doing so. Alternately, you can downgrade to iTunes 7.2.

I am not alone in my ire. Others in the passionate-about-iTunes community are equally upset at this development. Here’s some choice reactions from several threads around the net.

Code Monkey at iLounge forums:

It’s not just a “strange” decision, but a downright moronic one. First off, anybody bright enough to use a computer knows that symbols and numbers sort before alphabetical characters. Second off, what was the whole point of introducing the ability to customize sorting in 7.2 if they were just going to turn around and bork it with 7.3?

GadgetGuru72 on the Apple Discussion boards:

Thanks. I am familiar with all the suggested workarounds.

However, I shouldn’t have to use a “workaround” to get a “1” or a “?” to sort before the letter “a” any more than I should have to use a “workaround” to get the letter “a” to sort before the letter “b.”

Amen to that.

Andrew Wiggins in the comments to another iLounge article:

I’m extremely irritated that the numbers vs. letters order has changed. This has messed up with my established order for albums that I was very pleased with.

Comment at engadget: (sic)

WHAT ON EARTH, HOW ANNOYING

they have changed the Digit order, when you sort column be accending, so all those people who had there music sorted by Artist with bands like +44, 65 Days of Static and 30 seconds to Mars ect… will now find that in that mode they are liseted at the bottom after your XY and Z’s (if you have any) Thats just annoying, why the change?

The rampaging horde at Digg:

The sorting in iTunes 7.3 is totaly screwed. Apparently numbers now come after letters.

This was by far the most annoying thing in the update. Brackets and parentheses are ignored in sorting, too!

WTF are they thinking?

well, I did notice that the sorting on the iPod is the same way. Numbers come after letters.

In any case, stupid.

The numbers after letters thing is what really gets me. It’s completely f’ed my entire library.

Comment at Neowin forums:

I really dislike what they did to the artist ordering. That alone makes me want to downgrade

Comment at MacRumors forums:

The 7.3 update is what caused the error in sorting (numbers and symbols after z.) I was hoping the 7.3.1 update would fix it, but it sounds like it doesn’t.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ryry919 View Post
not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but when I opened iTunes back up after the update I noticed that all of my artists that are a # (IE: 311, 3 Doors Down) are all now at the end of the iTunes artist sort rather than being at the top, before the A’s like it used to be.

anyone know of a way to change this back? is there anything like how you can either view you contacts in address book for first, last or last, first? just wondering.

I downgraded my iTunes to 7.2 for the time being.

Someone’s LiveJournal

Dear $deity why? Why would they do that?

Everybody knows its punctuation->[0-9]->[Aa-Zz], anything else is heresy!

And so on. I’ll add more as I run across them.

For now, the only way to get “standards compliant” sorting back is to downgrade to iTunes 7.2. I’ve done this already and until I see a version that restores standard procedure (or at the very least offers the option of using either scheme), I will not be upgrading to any future version of the software. That basically means I’ll never buy an iPhone or any other product that requires a subsequent version of iTunes. I’ll probably save myself some money that way. If you don’t have an iPhone, I suggest that you do the same. Download for Mac. Download for Windows.

In the meantime, though Apple’s traditionally not very responsive to customer feature complaints, it never hurts to try: http://www.apple.com/feedback/itunesapp.html

Yeah, What They Said 8/25

Links to interesting stories. This edition is long overdue.

Medialoper: 5 Ways to Improve eMusic
I love eMusic. At ~$0.25 per song, it’s easily one of the best values in the digital download arena. While generally functional, parts of the site could use some overhauling. Medialoper leads the discussion on how.

Cognitive Daily: Even the musically untrained respond differently to new symphonic movements
“A new study of brain responses to music has found a striking difference in brain activity when a symphonic movement ends and the next one begins, compared to other parts of the musical work.”

Fredflare: Rad Chat with Ratatat
Fredflare talks it up with Evan Mast of Ratatat, one of the greatest bands of the current millennium. Amongst other things, he explains the origin of the band’s name:

The band was originally called Cherry, but there was conflict with other bands using the same name so we had to change it. We just sat down and brainstormed for a few days. It was slow going, but then the name just popped into my head and it was the first idea we’d had that we didn’t absolutely hate. After a while we even started to LIKE it. Now I really like the name Ratatat and I don’t like Cherry much anymore. Cherry” made us sound like sissies! “Ratatat” makes us sound tough, right?

Hollywood Reporter: Unique stories lie behind every licensing deal
A series of anecdotes about the various licensing deals a number of artists have entered into and the effect those deals have had on their careers.

A lot of people claim that they can’t hear the difference between a 128kbps file and a 256kbps file. This video proves that there is indeed a difference.

I think every English speaking person in the world should read this story all the way to the end. It’s a life-changing experience. After you’ve finished, you’ll probably want to die, or kill, or both.

Have a non-iPhone phone or PDA with audio capabilities? Out-of-the-box, iTunes doesn’t offer much in the way of getting audio files onto them. SyncTunes however, might be your savior.

::

And finally, a RatingQuest update: As of 8/25 6:30PM EDT, I have rated 8,050 out of the 15,865 songs in my iTunes library. That’s 50.7% completion, a 2.6% increase from when I started.