Apple's improvements to iTunes today have garnered the music and video jukebox a full-point jump, although longtime users will only find one major new feature and a few interesting smaller ones. As for addressing the bloat factor, fuggedaboudit. iTunes is the big bad, and it's not about to get any thinner.
Available for Windows and Mac, the best and most useful new feature is the Genius playlist. This analyzes your music collection with an algorithm that compares the structure and the sound of your songs to create playlists that it thinks you'll like. In practice, it works fairly well, but not flawlessly, and it can be activated when playing any song by hitting the atomic symbol at the bottom right of the iTunes windows. Keep in mind, you must have an iTunes Store account for Genius playlists to work.
After starting off with Tom Waits' "Coney Island Baby," the Genius playlist offered up selections from Pavement, Nick Cave, The Magnetic Fields, PJ Harvey, and Nirvana, among others. Although the Pavement song and the Nirvana one seemed a bit incongruous, they made more sense than when the Genius recommended traditional Japanese Taiko.
The Genius playlist has some useful touches that make it more appealing than it would be otherwise. You can save any playlist that it creates, for one. You can also limit the list to 25, 50, 75, or 100 songs. It's not really clear why this can't be a user-determined figure, though.
The Genius will also recommend music to buy from the iTunes Music Store. The recommendations when playing The Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away" earned me two "Top Album" recommendations, Acid Eaters, and Adios Amigos. I was a bit surprised that Acid Eaters was a top Ramones album, since it only has three-and-a-half stars on iTunes compared with Adios Amigos' five stars.
Even less accurate was the "Top Songs You're Missing" list. Of the five offered, I had three in my collection. The Other Artists recommendations, at the bottom of the list, were more sensible, with Iggy Pop, a solo record by Joey Ramone, the Misfits, the Sex Pistols, and the surprisingly smart choice of the New York Dolls, among others.
Just as iTunes itself takes a long time to import music collections--30 minutes for my 50 GB of tracks--the Genius playlist takes even longer to analyze your music. Granted, it's doing a fairly complicated procedure in which it sends your data back to Apple's servers, and provides recommendations based on your likes and on what other iTunes Music Store users like, too. While it's doing all this, you can still use the program to listen to music, which is useful except that the process turns iTunes into an even bigger resource hog than it normally is.
Also new is the grid view, which lets you see your collection of music and videos in a grid of cover art. You can play that album or video straight from the view: when you mouse over the art, a "Play Album" link appears. Just click the arrow to start playback. While navigating the different views, waiting for the Genius playlist to finish up, I did notice that scrolling through my large collection of music was much faster than in version 7.
The new visualizer mode, magnetosphere, was originally developed as an iTunes plug-in. It has a much stronger "flying-through-space" vibe. The old visualizer is still available, now called "classic," for those of you who want to space out, old school. There's also support for HD television shows, and NBC is back with Apple, for those of you who can't bear to torrent or TiVo your TV.