The Dork Report Special Edition: My iTunes 7 Nightmare

Apple iTunes 7 icon

As Engadget reports, iTunes 7 may be more than a little flakey, and I have a nightmare story of my own.

First, some background: I use a PowerBook G4 17″, with a very, very large iTunes library of 16,000 plus tracks, stored on an external 250 GB LaCie Firewire hard drive. Perhaps unwisely, I was doing several things at once shortly after downloading the brand new iTunes 7: listening to a smart playlist on shuffle, and batch editing tags in another smart playlist (specifically, editing the Album Artist tags of all my compilations to read “Various Artists” — see The Dork Report for September 13 for more information). To complicate matters, I was running Last.fm in background (itself freshly updated to Version 1.0.6).

After batch editing tags for several minutes, I opening the batch info window for another dozen or so. iTunes suddenly stopped playing a few seconds into Pink Floyd’s “Time” from The Dark Side of the Moon, and then froze. I noticed Last.fm had frozen as well. I waited until it seemed neither would free up on their own, then I force quit both. I relaunched iTunes, but it was noticably sluggish (many spinning psychedelic pizzas of death for me). I selected a song to get info, and nothing happened. I tried another and a tiny exclamation mark appeared next to it (which I know from experience to mean that a track has been manually deleted or moved on your hard drive and iTunes can no longer locate it). I nervously switched to the Finder and clicked on the music folder on my external drive. To my horror, the folder was empty, and the custom icon I had applied long ago had disappeared!

Needless to say, I feared the worst: several gigabytes and years worth of music collecting (not to mention irreplaceable tracks purchased on the iTunes Store) gone. Not knowing what else to do, in fact thinking doing anything else might make matters worse, I quit iTunes and restarted my Powerbook. The external drive took longer to mount than usual (I’ve read that Mac OS X checks disks for errors on startup, so perhaps it sensed a problem and was running a repair). Once everything had started up and settled, I used Disk Utility to verify both my internal and external drives, with no errors reported. Taking the proverbial deep breath, I opened up my external Firewire drive… and the folder was back to normal. I launched iTunes, and again, everything was normal. As if nothing had happened. Thank god, right? But terrifying that several gigabytes of files could disappear and reappear so easily.

Shaken, I ran Backup to bring my Home folder backups up to date, and promptly went to bed to try and calm myself down with a nap.

There are a bevy of other problems being reported on Macintouch, including the very odd case of large chunks of people’s libraries being flagged as “Explicit.” But I think my story wins.

So. Lessons learned:

  1. For crying out loud, buy SuperDuper already! I’ve never properly backed up my music collection for the simple reason that I don’t have another drive big enough to duplicate it. Time, I think, to start deleting crap I never listen to nor wish to keep, and bring it down to a size more easily backed up.
  2. Resist the temptation to download new software as soon as it comes out. At the very least, don’t stress-test it with precious, irreplaceable computer data.

The Dork Report for September 13, 2006

Apple iTunes 7 icon

Time for some obligatory mouthing off about Apple’s latest iFiesta:

  • iPod with Video (such an ungainly name): enhanced with more storage and brighter screen.
  • iPod Nano: totally redesigned. Or rather, it’s just like the retired iPod mini except more mini. Comes in a very confusing array of models, with certain colors only available with certain storage sizes. No doubt black iPods are popular, for that finish is reserved for the top-priced model.
  • iPod Shuffle: totally redesigned. Really small. Really, really small. No, I mean, like, accidentally-inhale-small.
  • iTV: previewed months ahead of planned release, usual for Apple to say the least. I already use Airport Express to wirelessly stream music from my computer to my stereo, a massive improvement oo my computer’s speakers (which don’t suck). So being able to stream video to a real TV will no doubt be really cool. $299 doesn’t seem like so much when an iPod costs about the same.
  • The iTunes Music Store is now simply (and belatedly) just iTunes Store. Feature films and iPod Games join the existing lineup of music, audiobooks, podcasts, TV shows and music videos. Buying single TV shows and music videos makes sense to me (thanks to iTunes, I didn’t miss a single Lost episode last season), but at this point I can’t imagine ever buying a movie as a digital download. It’s a rare movie I see twice, and those that I wish to, I’ll buy the DVD (or just rent it twice through Netflix) for higher-quality picture and surround sound, not to mention bonus material. And digital download prices of $9.99 to $14.99 are absurd; I recently purchased the new 2-disc special edition of Apocalypse Now! from Amazon for about $13.
  • iTunes 7, the first new release in years to include actual new features to enhance listening to and organizing music. Previously releases were almost entirely commerce-related (adding music video and TV content to the iTunes Store), and Apple has apparently been saving up a huge flood of new features, some significant, others troublesome:
    • Toggle between view options: 1. the familiar standard list, 2. grouped by album (with artwork), and 3. Cover Flow. Purchased outright from Steel Skies, Cover Flow is a visually striking new interface that aims to evoke the real-world browsing of albums by their covers. It apparently caches the album cover image files on your hard drive the first time you use it, so if it seems slow at first it should improve. It’s neat; already I think I will continue to use the boring list view when I know specifically what I’m looking for, but Cover Flow is a way to skim through and rediscover dusty old tracks I may have fogotten about.
    • Gapless playback. I haven’t tried this feature yet myself, but it always was annoying to hear a split-second pause between tracks on a live album, so this is welcome. To take advantage of it, however, iTunes must rescan your entire library, which can take forever if you have as huge a collection as me. Then you need to manually tag specific tracks as part of “gapless albums.” I’m not sure what happens then when you listen to stuff on shuffle… when happens when a “gapless” track is randomly cued up to a gappy one?
    • Transfer from iPod, meaning that for the first time, you can legally copy music from your iPod to another computer. However, it is limited to files purchased from the iTunes Store, and the destination computer must also be authorized (the first time you play a purchased file on any computer, you have to log in with your iTunes account info, which registers your computer over the internet to Apple). Apple obviously couldn’t/wouldn’t allow total syncing before because of piracy fears, but since it’s limited to DRM-controlled music, then everything should be kosher with the music rights-holders (99% of the time, not the musicians, but that’s another story).
    • Automatic album cover downloads. Lots of question shere. How accurate is it? I’d rather have no art than the wrong cover. You can request art for specific albums or have it go through your entire library at once (it also searches for art when you rip a cd). I tried it on my work computer with a relatively small libary of about 600 songs. The results were mixed: it correctly grabbed Talking Heads’ 77 (albeit of horrendously poor JPG quality), but couldn’t find such a popular and distinctively named album as Gorillaz’ Demon Days. I only noticed one error: iTunes mistook Suzanne Vega’s Sessions at West 54th EP for the compilation The Best of Sessions at West 54th.
    • A troublesome new meta tag: Album Artist. As I understand it, this is for the rare instance in which a single artist’s album features a few tracks by different artists, but is not a compilation. So, Jane Doe’s album may be by “Jane Doe” overall, but have one track by “Jane Doe feat. John Doe.” Now you can use the tag “Artist” for individual tracks and “Album Artist” to group together an entire album under a single name. OK fine, but much much more common (at least in my collection) are compilations of various artists. There’s already a tag to flag certain albums as compilations, but now iTunes 7 groups them by artist if you don’t manually specify something like “Various Artists” in the Album Artist tag. If you have only one track from a compilation, iTunes thinks it’s an album by that artist, even if it’s tagged as a compilation! So the end result is a lot of busy work for me so iTunes can go back to recognizing compilations. For someone as anal retentive as I with a meticulously managed music library, this is annoying to say the least!
    • More metadata: skipped count and date. Now you can track how often you choose not to listen to something.
    • And now for more complaints: when you purchase anything or a podcast updates itself, it appears in a “Downloads” sort-of playlist, instead of at the top. So now you need to manually click over to that playlist to see what’s going on.
    • Various interface changes, including non-glossy buttons and… heinous scrollbars! WTF? Icky grey-blue blobs that look like nothing else on a Mac anywhere! I’m not sure, but if these same scrollbars appear on the Windows version, then perhaps Apple wanted to make the user experience more uniform, and so they can advertise with images of iTunes that anybody will recognize as theirs. Dsandler.org has a great overview of the graphical user interface design nightmare and links to many others (spotted on Daring Fireball).
    • iTunes (and iPods) still can’t alphabetize properly. I am totally strident on this point, so thus begins my rant: alphabetizing song, artist, and album names should have been in iTunes 1.0, and it’s insane that six revisions later it still can’t handle it. Artists beginning with “The” are alphebetized correctly, but songs and albums aren’t. So, The Beatles correctly appear under “B”, but “The Long and Winding Road” shows up under “T” and where’s John Lennon? That’s right, filed under “J” of course! Any brick & mortar music store organized like this would go out of business before you can run through your ABCs. If Apple will introduce a whole complex new system to handle relatively rare cases where you need an Album Artist, why won’t they address something as utterly basic as this? I predict that in the future there will be even more musicians who go by one name, if for no reason other than people being able to find their music on their iPod. OK, rant over.