You might wonder what anything with “iTunes” in the title is doing on a site called Anything but iPod. Well, iTunes made the leap from DRM to DRM free earlier this year, and suddenly the biggest digital music store was open for use with any MP3 player- not only the iPod. 11 million songs and international (albeit not global) availability sounds like a killer combination, but how well does it work for non-iPod MP3 players?
Software and requirements
To use the store you do need the iTunes application, which is free to download. You also need an account, and like Amazon MP3 you can pay with either a credit card or gift cards. The gift card part means you can register a US account even if you’re not in the US, however the iTunes music store is available in a lot more countries than Amazon MP3 so I doubt you’ll have to.
Downloading music is done within the application and it will download to a location you can specify- an iTunes folder. You can then access the files in explorer or go directly there by right clicking the files. Despite being an iPod application, there really isn’t anything that stops you from using this for other devices.
iTunes does install some background stuff when it installs the main application, mainly an iPod service that detects iPods, Quicktime and iPod drivers (including iPhone drivers for tethering etc). The drivers you don’t need to care about, and Quicktime is needed to make iTunes work, but if you for some reason want to get rid of the iPod service (there isn’t really much point) you can go to the start menu, type “msconfig” in “run”/the searchbox, click the “services” tab in the window that opens, scroll down to “iPod service” and disable it.
You can only access the iTunes store via the iTunes application, which has gotten a lot of bad reputation for being slow. It used to be, and still isn’t the fastest out there, but it’s by no means as bad as it used to be just a year ago. The music store essentially works like a web browser as it fetches all the data online, which means the speed of it will rely on the speed of your connection.
iTunes was recently released as version 9, which included a major UI update for the music store. The main page has some rather flashy graphics showing off the new and “hot” releases as well as lists with other new releases and top seller lists. There are also links to music videos, music movies, movies, videos etc but as only the music and podcasts are DRM free, all the video content will be ignored (since it only works on iPods and in iTunes). There is no direct link to genres on the main page as it’s now hidden as a drop down menu accessible by clicking the arrow beside the music button on top. The genre pages aren’t really any different from the main page, just filtering what to display in the various lists by the genre. If you click further into a list, you get a list of thumbnails. You can always see where you are in relation to the main page by the navigation bar on top, showing you what genre you’re in if you click on an artist etc. This was something I really missed from Amazon MP3.
Artist and album pages
Artist and album pages got serious overhaul in iTunes 9 and as long as the artist is above average famous it will have a customized page and customized pages for the albums. Those that aren’t privileged to such an honor only get the stock pages, which include the same list of songs and customer reviews as the fancy ones, just no special background or layout. If the album or artist you’re looking at has the nice design it’s a real treat to look at, but Amazon’s more conservative artist info+picture design covers far more artists. Each artist page also contains links to add alerts for new releases as well as options to share via a link, Twitter or Facebook.
While iTunes does run some specials from time to time, there’s nothing like the “bargain bins” of Amazon. $9.99 is standard pricing for albums and single tracks cost $0.69, $0.99 or $1.29 depending on the popularity. Let me put it this way: you run into $1.29 songs more often than you run into $0.69 songs. Normally economic principles dictate that the higher the demand, the higher the prices. Amazon ignores this principle in order to keep everything priced the same. Not on iTunes. The more people want the song, the more it will cost. Amazon will therefore be cheaper for most new and popular tracks. iTunes also has a new feature called iTunes LP, which is more or less just normal albums with fancy web pages attached, giving you extra content such as pictures etc- like a bonus CD. These albums are $20 a pop.
iTunes is the world’s largest digital music store by a good margin. Currently it has over 100 million titles, which means you should be able to find pretty much anything. Back in the Amazon review I created a list of 20 artists suggested by myself and others to try to give a brief example of how each store’s selection is. Not completely scientific, but at least it will give you some sense of the differences.
iTunes did have more songs than Amazon for most of the artists (marked green) and about the same on others (marked yellow). However, Amazon did actually have a better selection that iTunes on some artists as well. The two that stand out are Bach and Mozart, but despite what it looks like iTunes doesn’t hate classical music. Any classical composer will of course not have recorded anything themselves, so any listing under their name are recordin
gs of other performers. iTunes handles this differently than Amazon and the result is very low number of songs for the specific artist name. As an example, the search for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart showed over 1000 albums listed as matches for the search, but the artist name itself showed only 194 songs. Bottom line, there is actually classical music on iTunes, but not organized as well as on Amazon (depending on what system you prefer).
Even though iTunes is no DRM free, it’s still AAC. 256kbps CBR AAC packed in an .m4a container, to be exact. All the tags and album art are in place. The problem with it being AAC is that not all MP3 players support this. MP3 is really the only universal format in the audio world, which is a pity. AAC is supported by most Sony and Samsung players along with some other brands, but not all players from any brand will play it- some do, others don’t, so make sure to check your own device. You can of course convert the files, from within iTunes even, but that’s an extra step and might degrade the quality ever so slightly.
As iTunes doesn’t sync players other than iPods it failed to make it into my line of music organization applications, however as the podcatcher is one of the best out there and my personal favorite I thought it worth a mention when I’m covering the software anyways. iTunes has the single biggest podcast library on the Internet, containing basically every single audio or video podcast out there. These are also DRM free, including the video podcasts which are h.264 and can be played on several non-iPod players such as many Samsung players, Sony players (if the format fits perfectly with what the Sony players accept), Zune HD and large “I’ll play anything”-type devices like the Archos 5/Cowon A3.
Like artists and albums get special pages for music, some podcast companies get their own themed podcast pages. These are really nice as you can see all the podcasts from a specific provider such as the BBC. You can browse podcasts by theme, language, most downloaded etc. Bottom line, iTunes has the best podcast library you will get anywhere.
Downloading podcasts is done like with downloading music, and you can select to download a certain amount of episodes, keep the X latest episodes and so on. You can specify global settings for all podcasts or define the rules for single subscriptions. Unfortunately, if you use non-iPod MP3 players you will of course lose the ability to auto-delete listened podcasts, a feature I would very much like to see some non-Apple company copy one of these days. Still, I personally prefer iTunes for podcasts even without this feature as it simply works much better than other software- and trust me, I’ve tried them all.
The biggest drawbacks of using iTunes for music purchases are the prices and the file format. If you have an AAC capable player or don’t mind converting, iTunes will do fine for getting music and if you don’t live in a country with access to Amazon MP3 it’s perhaps your only choice. However, Amazon MP3 is both cheaper in many cases and has a more universally usable file format. The selection is much better in iTunes however, and I’ve personally used iTunes several times to get music I simply couldn’t find anywhere else in any form be it CD, LP, digital downloads or illegal downloads. Using both Amazon and iTunes together would probably be the best solution as you could get your main fix from Amazon and then fill in the missing gaps in the selection with iTunes. If you however use podcasts a lot and maybe even have a device like the Samsung P3 that will both play the AAC music files and the h.264 video podcast files, iTunes has a lot to offer even for non-iPod users. If you want a bit more automation to the process, you could set a media manager like Windows Media Player 12 to monitor the iTunes folder and use that as a conduit to your player. Bottom line, iTunes is no longer just for iPods- but it still has its limitations.