Ecoute, Everplay, and is iTunes really bloated?

Do you think iTunes on OSX is bloated? Some developers do, so they’ve created lightweight alternatives.

Ecoute is a standalone application that reads your iTunes library file and displays the library in a smaller window. It’s kind of like having an iPod for your Mac.

ecoute_playback.png

Everplay does the same thing, but in a different way.

everplay.png

Both Ecoute and Everplay massively cut down on features available in iTunes, but go beyond what iTunes does in some areas. Both provide universal keyboard shortcuts. Both have decent social networking integration, including Last.fm. For power users these are welcome additions.

Yet, I’m skeptical. I don’t really understand what they’re trying to fix. What’s wrong with iTunes?

If you have a decent iTunes controller (like Coversutra, or even Launchbar or Quicksilver) you’ve already got the keyboard shortcuts , and most of these controllers have Last.fm support already. And if you’re an iTunes power user you’ve probably already got a setup like this.

When people say iTunes is bloated are they really talking about CPU cycles? I don’t think so. When running in the background iTunes uses about 11% of my Macbook’s CPU. To put this into perspective, Activity Monitor jumps up to about 20% when I resize its window. iTunes seems to launch about as fast as these iTunes replacements and neither of them appear to use significantly less resources.

It seems that if iTunes is bloated it’s not because it’s eating up CPU cycles and RAM. I think choosing what to listen to is at the center of these frustrations. I think “bloat” is the only word we can think of to describe wading through gigs upon gigs of music and not being able to pick something to listen to.

Somewhere in the past few years iTunes has transitioned from being a place to put your stuff to assisting you in finding your stuff. Smart Playlists are great. Ratings are great. I use both of them all the time, but I don’t believe that most iTunes users actually use them. Coverflow and Grid View help when browsing your library, but there’s only so much scrolling one can do.

Search is fast, but how do you know what to search for if you don’t know the name of a song or the artist who performed it? Perhaps one day Apple will let you hum a few bars into your Mac to search for the song stuck in your head, but until that day you have to find music by browsing through text and album art – just like you always have.

So Apple came up with Genius and Genius Mixes. It’s as if since version 8 the iTunes roadmap has been telling us “Don’t worry so much about browsing your collection. Genius will take care of it.” (Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Apple would use Genius as a way to sell more music.)

Would that be necessary if our collections weren’t so big? Probably not, but we’ve all never had this much music readily available with a few keystrokes. We haven’t owned so much, even if it can’t be legally accounted for. Collections have grown exponentially in the past decade.

If one were to rethink iTunes from the ground up what would it look like? I think that’s what Ecoute and Everplay try to do. On the surface they’re really controllers, but taken a step further. Why make a new controller application for iTunes when the controller application can replace iTunes?

But while their progress is promising, they aren’t really great replacements (which is a tall order). You still need iTunes to update your iPod and iPhone. You still need iTunes to browse through the iTunes Store. You still need iTunes it to add music. Nor do I believe that either Everplay nor Ecoute do a better job than iTunes at helping me pick something to listen to.

Should you still need iTunes to use software that’s meant to keep you from using iTunes?

The HUD, OSX Image Editors, and Floating Windows

Earlier today I complained on Twitter (the number 1 reason for using Twitter) about Pixelmator.

Pixelmator is an excellent low-cost image editor. I don’t want to call it an alternative to Photoshop because Photoshop blows it out of the water for higher end tasks (perspective, things like that). But if you don’t need to do that kind of stuff, Pixelmator, along with Acorn, are excellent choices.

Yet, Pixelmator has a problem. It’s over designed. It makes use of transparent panels, typically called HUD windows, in OSX. They look like this:

coda_hudwindow.png

The above is the Clips window from Coda. This is a good example of proper HUD use. Apple’s developer references state:

A transparent panel gives users a way to make quick adjustments to their content or task without being distracted from their work. Although the behavior of a transparent panel is similar to the behavior of a standard panel, its appearance is designed to complement applications that focus on highly visual content or that provide an immersive experience, such as a full-screen slide show…

Coda uses the HUD view as an auxiliary window for quick edits. Apple’s Keynote does the same, using it when the user wants to quickly edit an image.

keynote_adjustimage.png

Pixelmator uses the HUD for absolutely every window:

pixelmator_huds.jpg

Also from Apple’s references:

It’s important to understand that transparent panels are not intended to replace all panels in every application. In fact, in applications that don’t focus on highly visual content or provide an immersive environment, a transparent panel can be more distracting to users than a standard panel, because there is no logical reason for its presence.

In Pixelmator’s defense, it does deal with highly visual content. But the beauty of Apple’s transparent panels comes at the cost of usability. When every window is a HUD it becomes very easy to get lost in the HUD clutter.

Compare Pixelmator’s windows to Acorn’s:

acorn_view.jpg

It’s not just the HUD look. It’s the amount of windows. Pixelmator has five floating windows. Acorn has only two. What takes Pixelmator 5 floating windows to accomplish takes Acorn only two (although in Acorn 1 it wasn’t quite as consolidated).

Floating windows are the bane of my existence on OSX. I think they’re meant to be used sparingly, but have gotten abused by developers that can’t figure out how to best lay out their applications.

Even Adobe, who is accused of being slow on the upkeep, realizes this. Between CS2 and CS4 they went from floating windows everywhere to an attempt at consolidating these tools into a one-window environment.

Adobe Photoshop CS2

Adobe Photoshop CS3

Adobe Photoshop CS4

Apple also did this transition with floating windows to a one-window workspace with Logic Pro:

Logic Pro Mixing Window in Logic 6

Logic Pro mixing window in Logic 8 underneath the arrange view

Users can still open separate mixing windows in Logic 8/9, but if you have a big enough screen why bother? (I’ll look the other way on dual-display uses.)

I think that’s the key to understanding the decline of floating windows. Display resolutions got larger. Why have a floating window if one window can show you everything at once?

That, and I think floating windows just don’t get along with OSX’s Spaces. Hence the frustrated twote from earlier and the slow but steady trend to one-window applications that use HUDs for support.

With one window the tools you use become one with the document you’re working on. Neither Acorn nor Pixelmator really have that, although Acorn has come close with version 2. This horrible mockup I did of Acorn 1 brings that idea to image editing.

acorn_onewindowmockup.jpg


Adobe Photoshop screenshots used under Creative Commons licenses. Originally by Talking Tree, hooverdust, and Vincent J. Brown.

Logic Pro screenshots used under Creative Commons licenses. Originally by sonicdeviant and rgsproductions2005

Let’s Rethink Genius Recommendations

I think Apple should pay me, but I’ve been sending in suggestions for free anyway – so why bother paying me?

iTunes Genius Podcast Suggestion

Wouldn’t it be great if we could automatically get Genius recommendations?

Apple should consider using all this data it’s collecting for iTunes Genius to serve a custom podcast of new and recommended music.

Genius is nice, but I do not want to disrupt what I’m currently listening to to check out music listed in the sidebar. What I’d rather have is a summation of these recommendations in an enhanced podcast that I could click-through to get on the iTunes Store. Better yet – make it really easy to add that to my wish list.

Even if each new entry is a single song that’s better than having to select something in iTunes, look at the sidebar, and interrupt what I’m currently listening to for something I may not even like.

I think from now on I’m going to begin every suggestion I send to Apple with “Wouldn’t it be great…”

My Powermac G5 Is Dead

Wow, this sucks.

In 2005, rather than jump on the new Intel Mac bandwagon I decided I would get a refurbished G5 to ride onto until there was no choice but to get a new Intel Mac.

I think that time has come.

I thought that time would arrive when my favorite software was only compatible with Intel machines. The last PPC Macs were sold about 3 years ago, so it doesn’t make much sense to support them for much longer.

I never expected that my G5 would just up and die.

Earlier this week my Mac refused to boot up. It would chime, get to the grey Apple screen, and sit. Then the fans would go into high-power, as if something was wrong and it didn’t know what to do.

Sometimes, actually – just once, I can get as far as the desktop, but then this happens:

Weird Kernel Panic - Top

It refused to boot from the Leopard DVD. However, it did boot from the original software restore (only requires one processor?). I ran the Apple Hardware Test on the machine – it told me everything was fine.

Long story short, I’m pretty sure one of my processors is dead – or the Logic board needs to be replaced. Either way, I’m way out of warranty and any repair I need is going to cost about as much as a Macbook – which would outperform my G5 anyway.

What I find odd about it is that there seem to be a lot of reports about this same kind of behavior on Apple’s Powermac G5 Discussion Forums.

One user suggests that G5s are basically experiencing the Xbox 360 Red Ring of Death. It would seem that any G5 is a ticking time bomb, whether it’s in a Mac or an Xbox 360. I already had a problem like this with the iMac G5 at work, but it still had Applecare. The tech replaced the power supply and the mainboard.

I borrowed another G5, put my hard drives in it, and everything appeared to work fine. All my data is safe.

So – things I’ve learned from this.

Your Time Machine backup should be on an external drive.

My G5 has 2 hard drive spaces, so it felt natural to use one for the main OS and the other for backup. That’s a mistake, because now if I want to restore from that Time Machine backup I need to get a SATA > USB adapter. Should have just gotten a USB drive to begin with.

Lots of things are linked to the motherboard

iTunes authorizations and Time Machine sessions, to be precise. Swapping drives got me up and running again, but I had to give this new machine an iTunes authorization and am having problems making Time Machine pick up where it last left off. It wants to start all over again.

As for next steps, I don’t feel good getting a new machine with WWDC so close and Snow Leopard on the horizon. I’d rather get a Macbook this time around, but since my main audio interface works through Firewire, and Macbooks don’t have firewire anymore, I may be looking at a Macbook Pro. Otherwise I’d need a new USB interface.

I will try to coast for another month or two before making any buying decisions.

Lovin’ The Amazon MP3 Store: The AAC/MP3 Fidelity Argument

MP3 vs AAC

I’ve been getting upset that AAC hasn’t gotten as much support as MP3, but the more I think about it the more I realize that MP3 is the smarter choices for these stores. I prefer AAC, but MP3 has wider compatibility and has much larger recognition behind it. MP3 is synonymous with digital music.

The other part of wanting AAC over MP3 is the encoding quality, but things have changed. The codec used to matter when bitrates hovered around 128-192kbps. Now that everything is basically 256kbps it’s a wash. It doesn’t matter anymore.

The file sizes are the same and you’ll have a hard time telling the difference between AAC and MP3 at these bitrates. Don’t even try. Stop worrying about codecs and start listening to more of the music you love.

Lovin’ The Amazon MP3 Store: Intro

Amazon MP3

I’m finding myself eating my own words on the Amazon MP3 store. About a year ago I wrote:

I’d like to see more details on the pricing, but from what the early indications are there is nothing unique about what Amazon is doing.

Meanwhile, I’ve probably used the Amazon MP3 store more in the past year than I’ve used the iTunes Music Store since Apple launched it.

So why the change? What does Amazon have over iTunes? I’ll write about my reasons in the next few posts.

The iTunes “Last Chance” Playlist

If you’ve read the iTunes Zero article you’ll know that I’m very meticulous about everything in my iTunes library – and chances are you probably do the same things.

One of the other problems you may be facing is that there’s SO MUCH STUFF in your iTunes library. How do you handle it all?

Here’s what works for me – the “Last Chance” Playlist.

The Process

Here’s the method I use when I add new music to iTunes and homogenize it into the library:

  1. Everything new goes into a static Process playlist. It’s a holding cell for me to verify the metadata before I’m comfortable unleashing it into the wild. Consider it the GTD inbox for iTunes.
  2. Music that hasn’t been listened to shows up in the Playcount = 0 smart playlist.
  3. 3 months after that first listen, music shows up again in the Only 1 Listen playlist. This is my opportunity to make sure that the assigned rating is what I want it be, because after that it’s banished into the iTunes abyss, until the special day when it arrives in the…
  4. Last Chance playlist.

You’re Up For Review, Tune

Why do this?

The purpose of the Last Chance playlist is to listen to tracks in shuffle mode, out of context, in order to rate each track on its own. Let’s take a look at its properties.

lastchanceplaylist.gif

The Last Chance smart playlist is the last hurrah of a misfit song. If after two years I still don’t like the song enough to give it a 4-star or higher rating, in it goes to the huge library, likely to be skipped over and ignored for the rest of eternity.

But, there’s the chance that after 2 years I’ll suddenly realize the genius in a song, and grant it a 4-star or higher rating and save it from the 82 gig (as of this writing) Rancor pit.

Rancor

And with a 4-star or higher rating, the track enters regular rotation in smart playlists that rely on ratings.

This works for me for the following reasons:

  1. Anything I’ve already rated on the extremes (2 stars or less, or 4 stars or more) doesn’t really change for me – but I’ve still got my eye on those 4-star rated tracks.
  2. 3 listens should be enough for me to know if I like a song or not.
  3. 2 years (or 1 year) is far enough out for a song to be removed from the popular culture of the time to realize I like a song because it’s a good song, and not because it’s in a car insurance commercial or something.

This is what works for me. Storage is cheap these days, so if you set up a system with this and other smart playlists you can keep only the good stuff on your iPod and regular playlist (or Party Shuffle sources) and not have to delete anything based on the idea that you might like it years from now.

Soundtrack Pro Getting a Facelift?

I hope so – Soundtrack Pro looks pretty dated compared to the newest releases of the Pro-Apps.

Take a look at the listing on CocoaDev:

Apple is seeking a senior software engineer to join Apple’s Soundtrack Pro team. Strong experience building end-user applications using Cocoa and Objective-C. Experience developing media applications for professional users.

Apple Selling Off Pro-Apps To Make Room For Adobe? Nah!

Robert Cringely speculates about the future of Apple Pro Apps:

…why, then, was Apple quietly shopping around its entire professional application business to prospective buyers at the recently completed National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas? These include Aperture, Final Cut Pro, Logic, and Shake — applications that are hardly also-rans in their segments and none of which are antiquated in the least. Final Cut, of course, absolutely dominates the video editing business. Why would Apple want to give that up?

The claim is that Apple is trying to avoid antitrust problems for it’s inevitable buyout of Adobe. Adobe has software that does the same tasks as Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack Pro, After Effects –

There is no Adobe equivalent of Logic though…

Plus, Apple just hit one million Final Cut Studio licenses – they want to dump that? Really?