Tuesday, March 21, 2006

iTunes frustration

I am months late to the debate sparked by Dave Winer when he railed against iTunes back in December but I'm a shitty blogger like that. I myself have been wondering why I dislike iTunes so much and this weekend when my wife complained about how hard it was to load music onto her iPod when her mother, one of most computer-challenged individuals we know, finds it so simple to use. Thus I have been thinking that there is something wrong with me and how complex I have made our home setup that my wife is unable to easily use iTunes.

Here is what we do with music in my apartment. I download MP3s from various sources or rip my own CDs and store them in a directory structure where it is vaguely categorized by genre and then artist - album name. I make sure that the music is tagged properly and includes album pictures by using the awesome Tag & Rename. For many years I have made playlists out of this music in Winamp, and this is what I've tended to use as a home stereo and synchronize to my iPod via ephPod. I never used iTunes because when I got my first iPod ("for Windows") in 2002 you had to use MusicMatch, which sucked, and I never tried iTunes when it came out. ephPod worked great because you could load the playlist, it would load all the songs if they were not already on the iPod, and then they would appear in the Playlists section of the iPod. So this was how I grew accustomed to using my iPod, and when my wife got one, I taught her to do the same as well.

I had always backed up my MP3s to a machine called NEMESIS (which, since we're talking about music, is named after a song on the High on Fire album "Surrounded by Thieves" -- in fact, all my machines are named after songs on this album except the Media Center PC, which is named HESSIAN after the song "Cometh Down The Hessian" on the "Blessed Black Wings" album). Before I had HESSIAN, NEMESIS was supposed to be the media/backup server for the apartment with its whopping 60GB RAID1 array. (I later added a single 120GB drive to it.) So I set up a lot of scripts to back up MP3s, My Documents, digital pictures, and my Outlook PST to this box. It happens to have an LTO2 tape drive in it now, but for whatever reason I cannot get it to consistently back up without throwing a million event log errors (I think mostly related to the ancient Compaq PCI SCSI card and/or the fact that it's a 400MHz PII that I bought in 1998). Anyway, when HESSIAN showed up on the scene, it became clear that I should also be storing MP3s and pictures on it to play or show in my living room, so thus it has come to pass that I have three copies of all my MP3s and digital pictures.

So for my wife, I had always figured that whatever solution she used to load MP3s onto her iPod would cleverly whichever of the stored MP3s on the network she wanted. This scheme had worked well when she was using my original iPod for Windows (5GB 1st gen), as all I had to do was make sure my M3U playlists were non-locational (e.g. they referred to relative directory paths rather than absolute like d:\mp3\ or whatever) and she could just load them with ephPod. However, when she got an iPod Mini, ephPod no longer recognized its directory structure, so we had no choice but to go with iTunes.

Having no desire to make it so that every computer in the house had its own copy of my 30GB MP3 collection, I assumed I could easily add songs from their network location to her iTunes library, and then she could sync them. However, this was not quite as easy as I would have hoped:

1) Her computer is connected to the wireless network. 802.11g, 54Mbit "Excellent" connection, but it's really only about 5Mbit in practice. iTunes chews on the songs for about 15 minutes every time you sync because of this. It just really sucks when the songs are remote. Not Apple's fault that my wireless network uses a repeater and also has to compete with 12 other visible networks in my building and the one across the back yard, but I would think that it does not need to exhaustively examine files that are already added to the library.

2) How do you add an album as a playlist in one easy step with iTunes? You cannot do this. The easiest way I've found is to create the playlist manually, name it, copy the directory locally, and then drag the directory from Explorer onto the playlist. This is what you'd think File-->Import Playlist, or dragging an M3U file to the playlist area, would do, but that's not the case.

3) I find the synchronization process to be somewhat random and annoying. I know I'm the only fool who knows that the "bing-bong" of the New Device sound and appearance of the system tray icon means that my device is recognized and I can now (manually) sync it, but it seems that it takes a long time for iTunes to recognize this. Further, I can see that, for less technically savvy individuals, nothing is simpler than connecting the iPod to the computer, which launches iTunes, synchs, and disconnects the iPod. Maybe I'm just used to my prior (manual) process and because ephPod only works when the iPod is connected, but usually I connect my iPod because I want to add music to it, and I don't think to launch iTunes (or whatever) beforehand to add the music. So inevitably I connect my wife's iPod to her computer in order to begin the process of adding some music, and then it starts synching really slowly over the wireless network, and I have to sync it again when it finally completes. If she wanted something on it quickly before running out to the gym, well, that isn't going to happen unless we remember to launch iTunes first.

4) In an optimistic attempt to have the Media Center PC be the center of our living room entertainment system (and also to not have to sync everything wirelessly), I had switched my wife to sync using iTunes on that PC. However, the DRM stuff on purchased iTunes quickly became a pain in the ass. (And I think that, as DRM goes, iTunes is fairly benign.) Here's the deal: my wife wanted to use her computer, with her mouse and her monitor, to buy music rather than the Media Center PC at couch distance with an HP remote keyboard/trackball combo. So the problem with that was that I couldn't come up with a good way to copy from her My Documents\My Music\iTunes\ directory to that of the Media Center PC easily without doing security stuff, and then having her click to play every song she purchased (or doing a "Re-download all my purchased music") before every sync. So her newly purchased music often wouldn't be available after syncing her iPod with the MCE PC. I gave up and went back to wireless access to remote MP3s on her own computer, and am copying new MP3s that she wants to her computer. Yep, the beginnings of a fourth copy of all my MP3s.

All these add up to having it be a big pain for us to use iTunes, whereas everyone else in the world thinks iTunes is really easy to use. I agree. I am willing to admit that perhaps I have lost sight of how complicated my setup is, and/or how simple everyone else in the world's setup may be. At some point, I will wire my apartment for Ethernet, and the slow sync issues will presumably disappear. But this is just one of these things where everyone in the world thinks something is great, and I just can't imagine it. All I want is a fairly simple way to share MP3s with my wife while allowing her to buy music that she can sync to her iPod. And it's not like we're entirely small potatoes Apple customers -- I owned a 5GB "iPod for Windows", a 15GB G3, and now a 30GB Video, and my wife has a 4GB Mini and has her eye on a 4GB Nano. That's like $1700 in iPod purchases throughout the years, so that's no joke. I like the devices very much, and I also like my method of synching with ephPod. So if somehow you could purchase music through ephPod, maybe that would be the best option overall…

--sbreck

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