By Dustin Sklavos
The newest version of iTunes includes 99-cent TV episode rentals, a new music-centric social network called Ping, and the latest media management interface from Apple. So why do so many people hate it? We break it down in this review.
If you own an iPod, iPad, or iPhone, you’re stuck with iTunes. I actually owned an iPod a few years ago before upgrading (and believe me, at the time it was an upgrade) to an 80GB Zune. I came from a bad place, where iTunes was bloated, slow, unresponsive, and a tool for vendor lock-in. Now, in 2010, I can report that iTunes 10 — at least on Windows 7 — is bloated, slow, unresponsive, buggy, and a tool for vendor lock-in.
Let’s be fair: I’d heard good things about iTunes 10 from friends that were using it. Ping is a fairly compelling idea, and if 99-cent television episode rentals were going to get the panties of the entertainment industry in a bunch, that’s fine by me and worth exploring. Apple promises one of the best content selections in the business, too. So what went wrong?
Ordinarily I don’t disclose what hardware I test software on because typically it’s really only relevant if the software runs dog slow. For basic tasks, honestly just about anything from the Athlon X2 onward should be plenty. Overall processor performance has gone up fairly dramatically over the past five years, but the bar for basic usage has actually remained pretty level.
For testing I used my Media Center PC, a custom rig outfitted with 2GB of DDR2, an AMD Athlon II X2 240 (2.8 GHz dual core), an ATI Radeon HD 4670, a 500GB 7200-RPM Seagate hard drive, and a combination Blu-ray/HD-DVD reader. This is connected to a 42″, 1080p, 120Hz Toshiba HDTV. My setup isn’t a powerhouse and it’s not going to knock your socks off, but it’s reasonably current and has thus far served my needs wonderfully.
First, the big word on everyone’s lips, at least if Apple has their way, is Ping, the new social networking feature of iTunes 10. It’s fundamentally a distillation of one of the biggest selling points of MySpace: music. MySpace has been fantastic as a vehicle for smaller bands to get heard and recognized, and it’s allowed them to develop communities and fan bases where they simply wouldn’t have been able to before. So whatever you think of the typical MySpace user and their gaudy, animated-GIF-prone page, know that it has done a good job of taking the RIAA out of the equation for smaller bands and musicians.
It may be because Ping is young, but I just don’t see it supplanting MySpace. Why? Well, my friends will probably tell you I’m a hipster d-bag and I wouldn’t dispute them that much, but simply put, most of the bands I listen to are smaller, local, and/or have cult followings, so I’m not that familiar with the mainstream. Hoping to find pages for my favorite artists, I ran searches for Stripmall Architecture (a local and Mac-obsessed band, naturally) and Claire Voyant (another local band), and both came up empty. I spread out a little. The Birthday Massacre isn’t that well known but they have a strong enough following to prevent me from showing up on their leaderboards on Audiosurf, they’re fairly well networked, and they don’t have a page on Ping. I went bigger. Orbital wasn’t on there either. In fact the only band I searched for that had a page was Underworld. But Apple was all too happy to recommend Katy Perry to me. If Ping is supposed to supplant MySpace as the go-to spot for musicians, it’s doing a lousy job of it. Mainstream musicians don’t need that exposure; their labels already own the radio.
One of the other big deals with iTunes 10 is the 99-cent rental price for television episodes, but one visit to the iTunes store will reveal much ado about nothing. The majority of shows I found there were between $1.99-$3.99 per episode to rent or buy, which is frankly a bit much. There are also “free episodes” available by the truckload, but these are actually just recaps or promotional videos, with very few actual television episodes available for free.
I figured that with my newfound access to the iTunes store I could check out their selection, and maybe even check out the movie Paranormal Activity. I’d been meaning to see it for a while, this seemed like a good opportunity. Lo and behold, it’s available on the iTunes store, but you’ll be paying $9.99 for the standard definition version and $19.99 for the high definition: no rental available.
The pricing I’ve seen for visual media on the iTunes store is ridiculous. You’re dealing in digital goods which have virtually no overhead compared to physical media, yet the prices are often in line with or higher than just going to a retail store like Fry’s or Best Buy and buying the hard copies. Either way you may still be looking at a DRM-infected mess, but at least DVD’s can be ripped with relative ease, and my DVD’s and Blu-ray’s aren’t tied to an account on a piece of software: I can bring the physical disc to a friend’s house and watch it.
But the best part? The store barely works. To test out video playback quality, I tried to download the Family Guy Season 7 promo. Instead, I check my download handler and find iTunes downloading a promo for Modern Family. I have a friend who likes Grey’s Anatomy so I figure I’ll check out the promo for that. I’m now downloading two promos for Modern Family. What the hell? When I finally did get the Grey’s Anatomy promo downloaded (the Family Guy one having vanished into the ether), well…