iTunes Needs to Become a Server

27 June 2007

What does this mean? iTunes has not been designed to be a multi-user system. It has a proprietary database that one user can access at a time. This is terribly inefficient. I have almost 15,000 items in all my libraries (music, movies, etc.). The total size of the files is almost 440Gb. The database file is 38.7Mb. This file is the heart of iTunes. It’s where iTunes maps the location of all your files and stores your playlists and audit data, CD tags, etc.

Whenever I make a change in iTunes (change one character in any tag, add album art, sync audit data, delete an item, etc.), the whole database is written every time. If two or three actions are being done at the same time, every action is slowed down dramatically. My machine is getting old and really could do with more memory, but I think when it takes a second or two just to register a mouse click, there is a software performance issue, not simply a hardware one.

To make the database better, iTunes needs to be able to read and write records individually, not as a whole file each time. The performance boost just by this one change would be enormous. Another feature that ties into this is multi-user. If a database can be written to on a record-by-record basis, then more than one user could use it at a time. Users could share a single library, with multiple CDs being ripped at the same time, etc. Multi-user makes it more complicated, but I’m sure Apple could figure it out. Maybe individual profiles on machines that stored different audit data and iTunes Store keys. Luckily, I’m not in that boat but the performance issue is key in any case.

I really hope Apple makes this change. I’ve left them feedback to the effect. If you want a better iTunes database experience, I suggest you do too.

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Free Unlocked 256kbps iTunes AAC Files

26 June 2007

Office Boy (Architecture in Helsinki Remix)
Image © 2007 EMI Music Australia

Got the free song of the week this week (Australian) and a question I had since the iTunes Plus launch was answered. I have activated iTunes Plus so I see all the available 256kbps versions. I had assumed that the free song of the week would remain as the 128kbps protected version but to my surprise, there it was–the high-quality version. Might be a mistake, but if not, that’s a nice bonus.


More YouTube on Apple TV Thoughts

21 June 2007

I’ve read some negative comments about this feature and how stupid it is to watch low-quality video on a large TV. Here are my thoughts.

Sure, a lot of the content looks like crap, but this is not the fault of Apple, Apple TV nor YouTube. Coming from the common user, who is not a quality hound nor necessarily technically proficient, you are going to get a lot of very poor video. I’m sure that this is compounded by the conversion from whatever was uploaded into H.264 (I watched a supposedly high quality clip of Paul Potts and there were a lot of blocky artifacts). Someone said that it’s more about the content than the quality and I think this sums up YouTube most aptly. The content is compelling despite the technical hurdles.

As with a number of Apple releases, it’s all about the potential rather than the actualised. I think the popularity of YouTube, pushed by the behemoth that Apple has become, has the potential to change the whole quality factor and usher in the next stage: higher resolution and hopefully, less compression. I find compression to be a more important factor than resolution in a lot of cases. The current web standard in general still seems to be QVGA (320 x 240). I think it’s inevitable that this will give way to VGA (640 x 480). iTunes could be said to have started this trend. If Apple TV becomes a commercial success, it could be a driving force.

It really is a nice experience to sit on the couch and browse YouTube, much nicer than sitting at a computer. The simplified interface is easier to look at than the somewhat cluttered web version. I’ve used my computer at work to add items to my favourites and then watched them at home instead. Just be aware that you won’t be able to watch everything just yet. This caught me out tonight when I added a video to my favourites and it didn’t show up on Apple TV. Wondered why until I realised that it must be one of the ones that hasn’t been converted.

I’m not a big Web 2.0 guy but I like the very indie nature of a lot of these videos. I’m not interested so much in the music videos and blogs as I am in snippets of events. I did a search for a band but didn’t get anything (obviously not converted yet) but saw an interesting result that was a drum solo. On completion, I was presented with a list of related videos and spent about 20 minutes being entertained by various frenetic drummers. I’ve never, ever browsed YouTube before. My use was limited to viewing embedded video in web pages and clicking links sent to me by friends. This new interface makes it more inviting for me.

For non-US users, it’s possibly even more significant, as it eases the pain that is an absence of movie and TV content on the local iTunes store.

So don’t be down on YouTube on Apple TV. It really is a step up from watching on a computer, even if just for the comfort factor.


YouTube Arrives, with Some Surprises

20 June 2007

Got the Apple TV update tonight. I’ve never had a YouTube account before. Now I’ve got a use for it. I played with it a bit. Good functionality. Not all of the video looks like crap, but you’ve got to expect some poor quality. Some looked quite good.

YouTube isn’t the only new thing. You can now select your country’s iTunes store from a long list. I selected Australia and Top Movies and Top TV Shows disappeared as options in the respective menus. Makes sense. If you’re really keen, you could interpret this as one more step closer to video content on your local iTunes store. You can still view theatrical trailers. It’s also nice to see that iTunes Top Songs and Music Videos are reflecting the Australian store.

There is a new screen saver, which is a simple slideshow of Apple Photos (seems they’ve replaced the flowers) or albums that you’ve synced. Nice update.

Brand new is a parental controls setting, which is a simple four-digit code to control access to YouTube, and possibly future features. There’s enough room in the list for them. If you turn YouTube off, it disappears from the main menu. You can also set it to Ask, in which case clicking YouTube will prompt for the code.

There was a bad cosmetic issue where you would pause on a TV episode, read the description, then play it, after which it would return to the menu and the cursor would still be on that episode. When Apple TV synced, the episode would be removed (set to only new episodes) and the album art and accompanying text would get stuck in the background. If you went up or down the menu, you would always see the old episode behind the other episodes’ details. Moving up out of the menu and back in would clear it. This now seems to have been resolved.

And thankfully that stupid bug where the clock wouldn’t sync and US users would find that anything they played would get time stamped 8 hours in the future (8 hours behind for me) has been fixed.

All in all, a good update. Two annoying bugs stomped, nice YouTube interface and subtle settings adjustments. I’m off to bed now. It’s 2:24 AM. Just had to check it out.


What About Music Video?

18 June 2007

I have mentioned that although I’ve abandoned the iPod with regard to movies and TV shows, I still rip music videos for the iPod, because I do take that content on the road with me. With all the Apple TV evolution that’s been going on recently, I changed movies and TV shows from MPEG4 to H.264. Apple TV can support up to 5000kbps H.264 and 3000kbps MPEG4. This is the reverse capability of the iPod, which can handle 2500kbps MPEG4 but only 1500kbps H.264.

After a bit of tweaking, I abandoned the hope of defining a high-bitrate H.264 standard. The MPEG4 at 2500kbps is much better, so that’s the new standard. 160kbps AAC is the audio setting. The resolution is still 720 x 400 for 16:9 and 640 x 480 for 4:3.

With iPod season approaching (September/October), I don’t feel like sweating too hard over music videos. Hopefully we’ll get our video iPod and one has to assume that it will support higher bitrates, so I’ll feel compelled to do it all over again.

There is a special consideration when ripping music videos from DVD. Often the videos are mixed aspect ratios, i.e., some will be 4:3, others will be 16:9. Rarely will a set of music videos appear as anamorphic 16:9. This means that the widescreen videos will be 4:3 letterboxed and a top and bottom margin will need to be cropped. Also, I’ve noticed that usually the videos will be structured as chapters of an overall title, rather than as separate titles. This is where Handbrake falls down. You can specify a single chapter of a title to be ripped, but the all-important preview, where you crop the image to size, will only give you samples from the entire title. This often means that you won’t get a frame from the video you want to rip and therefore can’t see what you are doing. You can guess but you may have to rerip a specific chapter this way. Another issue with ripping individual chapters is that Handbrake often puts a few frames of the following chapter on the end of the chapter you are ripping, which requires that you trim off the end with a tool like QuickTime Player.

Another approach is to use another application to create a separate .VOB file for each chapter. The best one on Mac OS X is the graphically spare but dependable 0SEx. I then use MPEG Streamclip to output to MPEG4. You can crop and do a lot of other cool things to the video with this application, and it’s available for both Mac and Windows.

So there are some thoughts about ripping music videos. It takes a bit of work. I’m hoping that Handbrake updates bring better support for individual chapters in the future. Until the next iPod arrives, I think I’ll put most music videos on the back burner.


Rotating TV Shows Revisited

15 June 2007

I’ve had some time to road-test my system outlined in my last post. I thought I’d share some insights from real-world testing.

Since I wrote my last post I upgraded to the 160Gb Apple TV. It’s allowed me to tweak the settings of my playlists to include, in most cases, at least 4 episodes instead of one or two. If I dump a new series into iTunes, I have changed the settings to copy 10 or more episodes at a time. Once I’ve watched them all once, I will most likely reduce the amount back to 4.

A minuscule yet appreciated side effect of always having more than 2 episodes at any given time is how the EyeTV episodes stand out. Any TV show with more than one episode is represented as a submenu with an arrow on the right to indicate that selecting it will open the submenu. When there is only one episode, the episode itself appears in the root level of the TV Shows menu. Since I always watch an EyeTV episode before the next one arrives in a week’s time, these are easily identified by both the blue dot that appears to the left of the item and the lack of an arrow.

I didn’t expect to have to alter the playlists once set up, apart from advancing the Play Count figure by one after one complete pass through all episodes, but I find myself tweaking the number of episodes based on how often I would watch a particular show and sometimes the Last Played date to defer the appearance of a show more than others. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s complex in terms of the sheer number of factors that are being defined, but the mechanism is simple. I am starting to think that the nuances are so complex that it would be impractical for Apple to try to automate it. With my system, you can apply blanket policies, or get really specific, so I guess that’s a good thing. My advice is to start with blanket values, then modify if you feel the need.

A factor I didn’t account for was the situation in which you buy a series, watch it once or twice, then at a later date, buy the next series. Now you’ve got series 1 watched, say, 3 times, and series 2 unplayed. Luckily, after watching series 2 for the first time, when you adjust the Play Count to “less than 4”, you can still watch series 1 followed by series 2 just as if the play count for each episode in series 2 were 3. Make sense? Here’s a wrinkle: I bought series 1 of Extras many months ago and watched it 3 times. Then I bought series 2 last month. I’ve now watched it once. Since I’ve seen the first series many more times than the second, I can change the “less than” Play Count to “3” (which is the same number of times as series 1) and the next time the show becomes active (after 2 months), I’ll roll through the second series, skipping the first. That’s a nice, unexpected feature.

I designed a hiatus feature (Last Played is not in the last x months) because while I love my shows, I get saturated with a particular one after getting through all its episodes and so I don’t want to see it for a while. You don’t have to use this feature. If you omit this criterion, your shows will cycle endlessly.

I’m still pretty happy with the system. I’m such a fiddler that I can’t help but tweak my settings, but luckily, it still works without having to do so. I really hope that some Apple TV users are using this system. If you are, please comment. I’d love to hear your feedback.