10 Tips That Let You Take Control of iTunes

iTunes 10 does so much—acquire a multitude of content, organize and play back content, sync content with a variety of devices… just for a start—that a "best tips" list could stretch into the hundreds. This article tries to strike a balance between basic and advanced tips while covering a variety of different functions. My hope is that everyone will find something useful.

An overview of iTunes main window

iTunesTip4aBefore diving in, let's start with an overview of a few of the major areas in iTunes that we will refer to. The Header bar at the top contains 5 control areas. Starting from left to right:

  • iTunes OverviewThe rewind, play/pause and fast forward buttons.

  • The slider bar that controls the volume.

  • The Status Pane that displays the currently playing media, the time played, time elapsed, and other information.

  • The four view buttons which control how media is displayed in the List Pane below.

  • The Search field.

The Source Panel in the left hand pane lists the available media sources. Below the Source Panel (on the Mac version of iTunes) is the Artwork Pane which can be toggled on or off with the Show/Hide Artwork widget.

The middle of the screen is dominated by the List Pane, which shows the list of items that can be played. What is listed here is controlled by the selection in the Source Pane on the left (click on Music and you see songs, click on Movies and you see movies, etc.). How it is listed in this section is controlled by the view buttons and by the view columns.

The right-most pane contains the Ping and Genius Side bars (more on those later.)

Tip 1: Return to the iTunes 9 icon and colorized menu (Macs only)

iTunesTip1This tip is sadly still necessary because Apple continues to release updates to iTunes 10 with interface choices that are questionable at best. The vertical close/minimize/maximize buttons, the monochromic sidebar, the new iTunes icon, and other more subtle changes have met with mixed reviews at best. Users found a variety of ways to undo some of these changes, but most of them required the user to enter obscure Unix commands in Terminal or replace resources inside of iTunes itself.

The monochromic, left-hand sidebar of the iTunes 10 interface (left) is dull and boring compared to the more colorful from iTunes 9 (right).Mac users can simply and safely restore all of the interface changes by using Damien Erambert's "iTunes 109" which can be downloaded from his website (erambert.me/itunes-109). They can also use the DockArt plug-in (homepage.mac.com/gweston/dockart/index.html), which changes the iTunes icon in your dock with the cover art of the song you are listening to.

Tip 2: Control what appears in your Source Pane

iTunesTip2Can't see the Radio icon in your iTunes Source Pane? Want to remove "Podcasts" from the pane because you never listen to them? Simply open iTunes Preferences (Mac: iTunes > Preferences; PC: iTune >Edit >Preferences), select General, and select the sources you want to appear in the Source Pane.

Chose from 11 different sources to view in your Source Pane.

Tip 3: Hide source items by hovering over them

iTunesTip3Want to temporarily hide a source? Apple replaced the arrows that previously hide the Devices, Shared, Genius, and Playlist source items with a hidden "hide" option. Hover your cursor over the source item in the iTunes Source Panel and the hide option appears. Click on Hide to remove the source items and click Show to display them.

Hide and Show source items in iTunes sidebar.

Tip 4: Control iTunes from within Album Art Player

iTunesTip4bClicking on the album cover in the lower left hand corner of iTunes opens a new, resizable window that displayed the cover of the selected track. (If you don't see the Album Art Player, click on the Show/Hide Artwork icon on the bottom left of the iTunes screen.)

Turn on the Album Art Player by clicking on the Show/Hide Artwork icon.

In addition, iTunes 10 added the ability to control the song or video that is playing. Hover near the bottom and pop-up controls appear that allow you to change the volume, fast forward, rewind, pause, skip forward and skip back.

Control iTunes from within the Album Art Player, which works with music, videos, and movies.

Tip 5: Save screen real estate by using the Mini Player

iTunesTip4bSave valuable screen space while controlling iTunes by using the Mini Player. Click the green zoom button near the top left corner of the iTunes window (or hold Crtl+M on a PC). iTunes morphs into a smaller, rectangular window that you can stow on the side of your monitor for quick access. You can have Mini Player float over all other windows by checking the box that says, "Keep Mini Player on top of all other windows" from the Preferences >Advanced menu.

Activate the Mini Player by clicking the green zoom button (or clicking ctrl+M on a PC). Clicking it again restores iTunes to a full-sized window.

Tip 6: Control your columns

iTunesTip6bBy default iTunes displays a paltry half dozen columns in the List Pane, but you are free to add a total of 39 columns. To change the columns displayed in a library or playlist, select View > View Options (or Command J), and you will open the View Options dialog box. Simply check an entry to include it and uncheck an entry to remove it.

Add up to 39 columns to your iTunes list view.

A quicker way to manage columns is to Control-click (right-click on PC) on a column header and choose a column name. Columns can be moved by dragging them to the left or right. A final nifty column trick: Control-click or right-click on any column header and choose either Auto Size Column or Auto Size All Columns. iTunes determines the longest value for a column and sets the column size to that length!

Auto-size list view columns with a couple of clicks.

Tip 7: Rate your songs (and your albums!) to build awesome playlists

iTunesTip7aInitially I thought rating songs was a waste of time; what use was there in adding one to five stars to individual songs? In fact, rating your songs and albums allows you to use one of the most powerful features of iTunes: Smart Lists. You can rate individual tracks by Control-clicking (right-clicking on a PC) on the item and then selecting from one to five stars (select zero stars if you would like to remove a rating). Alternatively, if you included the rating column in your list view (see Tip 7) then just click one of the stars in the rating column. Now you are ready to build some powerful smart playlists!

iTunes supports regular and "smart" playlist. Create a regular playlist by selecting File >New Playlist. Give your empty playlist a name and then drag songs from your list view to the playlist. A regular playlist is static, meaning the contents of the playlist remain the same unless you manually add or remove tracks from the playlist.

Smart playlists are much more powerful because they are dynamic. Create a smart playlist by selecting File >New Smart Playlist. Immediately you are presented with a dialog box with various choices. Select the item you want to qualify from the drop down box on the left, then the "verb" (examples include "is" "is greater than", "is less than" etc.) and finally the values. The second and third columns will depend on what you chose in the first column, e.g. if you chose rating, like I have in the first line in the next figure, then the values will be stars. In the second line I chose "Year," so the possible values in the third column are years.

Create dynamic Smart Playlists like the one shown. It includes all songs by the band Radiohead or their lead singer, Thom Yorke that have at least one star and were recorded after 1999.

iTunesTip7bSmart Playlists are ideal for creating "Best of" playlists. Choose an artist and you can create a personalized "Best of" list. Choose genre and you can create a "Best of Reggae" playlist. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Certain CDs genres—Soundtracks, Classical, Jazz, and Rock concept albums—don't lend themselves to being rated by individual tracks. They are listened to in their entirety. iTunes has a little known gem that allows you to rate a CD as a whole (see screenshot labeled "Rate albums in their entirety"). Why would you want to rate CDs instead of tracks? To create smart playlists of CDs, of course! I like to listen to soundtracks and classical CDs during the day. I want to listen to the entire CD, not just some of my favorite tracks from it. By rating CDs, I can easily build smart lists of my favorite soundtrack or classical CDs!

Rate albums in their entirety. If you don't explicitly give an album a rating, then it receives a weighted average of all the songs you did rate (signified by the hollow stars).

Tip 8: Get missing album art for a single CD

iTunesTip8Select Get Album Artwork from the Advanced menu, and iTunes will search your entire Music Library for songs with missing artwork. This is a very useful feature, but what if you need Album Artwork for only one album. You might think that selecting a single track from that album and then choosing Get Album Artwork would accomplish that task. Unfortunately, iTunes still searches your entire Music Library no matter what tracks are selected. To download artwork for a limited group of songs, don't use the Advanced menu option. Instead, right-click the selected song(s) and choose Get Album Artwork from the pop-up contextual menu that appears.

To download Album Artwork for a selected set of songs, right-click on the tracks and select "Get Album Artwork" from the contextual menu.

Tip 9: Share media with the 2nd generation Apple TV

iTunesTip9The second generation Apple TV no longer offers the option of syncing the content of your iTunes library. Your only option is streaming. Enable home sharing (Advanced> Turn on Home Sharing) in iTunes and on the Apple TV using the same iTunes account, and all of your content—excluding rentals—will now be available on your Apple TV. But what about your photos? Apple put that option in the Advanced menu, where menu options that don't fit in anywhere else go to live.

Now that you know where to find it, sharing the content of your iPhoto or Aperture library is easy. Select Choose Photos to Share… from the Advanced menu. Then select the content you want to stream to the Apple TV.

Stream photos from iPhoto or Aperture to the Apple TV (2nd generation only) through the Choose Photos to Share… feature.

Select photos, album, events, faces or all content to stream to your 2nd Generation Apple TV.

Tip 10: Speed up iTunes on Windows

iTunes on Windows can be much slower than on a Mac with comparable specs. I don't know why this is so, but the kind folks at How to Geek have put together a list of tips for speeding up iTunes on Windows. Check out their advice at howtogeek.com.

Stay tuned for more iTunes tips!

We are committed to bringing you the best iTunes news and information in every issue. Don't miss our next issue with even more tips about Apple's media player.

May-June 2011
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