UK TV on Apple TV

30 August 2007

Okay, so you know that the UK got TV shows on iTunes, right? I’m envious. I noticed with interest that they still don’t have movies. This is the same path that video took on the US iTunes. Ah well, at least they have something.

So what can an iTunes enthusiast check out under the hood? Well, the only thing I could think of was TV ratings. I changed my store to United Kingdom in iTunes Store, then switched to my TV Shows library, where I’ve tagged everything with the Australian ratings using Lostify. I clicked a rating symbol and got this rather sparse page:

iTunes UK Movie Ratings

When set to the US store or my Australian store, I get a long page detailing all the US ratings. Of all the countries mentioned in the Parental tab in iTunes, UK doesn’t have TV ratings, so I guess they only need a blank or an Explicit to get by.

Second thing I did was check for an Apple TV update. I thought that with UK video now out, they might update the ratings labels. Currently only the US ratings graphics are installed. This means that when one of my tagged TV shows is a PG, I get the US graphic, and when a match can’t be made, e.g. Australia’s unique M rating, Apple TV writes the value out literally in plain text. I tested using a UK movie rating and it does the same thing: plain text.

I set my Apple TV iTunes Store setting to United Kingdom and jumped back to the TV Shows menu. Sure enough, as you would expect, an iTunes Top TV Episodes menu is now at the top of the list. Here’s what’s on offer:

UK iTunes Top TV Episodes Menu

Not a lot happening yet. I expect this will get very busy.

Enjoy your new TV shows, UK!

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Improving Overall iTunes Performance

27 August 2007

I’ve been conducting an experiment over the last month in a bid to radically improve the performance of iTunes. The specific issue I was having was incredibly slow response times when doing simple actions such as clicking a playlist, sorting and changing from one view to another. Ripping CDs and syncing were not an issue.

The Configuration:

Computer: PowerMac G5, dual 1.8GHz
RAM: 1Gb
Hard Drive: 2 x 320Gb, RAID-striped on SATA bus (1.5gbps)
iTunes Folder: Approx 450Gb

The Theory:

Before I begin, I’d like to mention that I’m not an expert by any means. I put together this theory based on my general knowledge.

For a G5, 1Gb is not a lot of RAM, especially as this machine is a real workhorse, often ripping a DVD, converting recorded TV and running iTunes all at the same time. The hard drive is also a bottleneck, because the iTunes database, the iTunes media files and the system were all on the same volume. If all three had to be accessed at the same time, the requests would compete. Compound the insufficient RAM which generates a very active virtual RAM file, and performance is severely compromised.

Phase One: Isolate the iTunes Database

My first experiment was to put the iTunes database (contents of ~me/Music/iTunes/ minus the iTunes Music folder) on a USB drive. My reasoning was that isolation of the database itself, which has to be written out in full every time you change the slightest tag, would improve performance because it would no longer compete for access on the main hard drive volume. There were no other files on this drive. The iTunes media files were left on the main volume.

Result: The only performance benefit was slightly faster database load time on launching iTunes. On closing iTunes, sometimes the saving of the database seemed to take longer. The 480mbps bus may have been a factor, as it is more than three times slower than the onboard SATA.

Phase Two: Isolate the iTunes Media Files

I bought an external Western Digital MyBook Pro 1Tb drive. This drive consists of two 500Gb drives, RAID-striped using hardware RAID built into the box. Hardware RAID is always better than software RAID, and if the box does it instead of the computer, even better. The drive is connected via FireWire 800 (800mbps). Only the media files are located on this drive. The database is still on the USB drive.

Result: Still no change in database performance, however, overall system performance seems slightly better.

Phase Three: Move the Database to the External Drive

Frustrated with no real performance boost from the dedicated USB drive, I moved the database to the external FireWire 800 drive to test.

Result: Launch times, save on close and general interface improved, better than in both the original configuration and Phase One.

Phase Four: Increase RAM

I upgraded my RAM to the maximum that the system can take: 8Gb. I didn’t change the location of the database and media files.

Result: Performance about twice as good as that of Phase Three.

Conclusion:

It really does matter where you put your database and your media files. I didn’t expect this much improvement from FireWire 800 as it’s still a lot slower than SATA. However, the computer seems to really like having those files on an external drive. If I had more bays inside the machine I would have used them instead of an external drive.

I was really disappointed that the database-on-USB experiment didn’t yield results. I thought that it would work better because the file isn’t that big (38Mb) and the bus should be fast enough for that one operation.

RAM helps a lot, as expected. I’m not sure how to check, but it seems obvious to me that the virtual RAM file would be smaller and/or less-often accessed.

I am pleased with the performance improvement. I’ve noticed multiple operations that used to choke iTunes seem to be much better handled. An example of this is syncing Apple TV while downloading a podcast while ripping a CD and deleting a song. However, the initial issue that I wanted to eliminate as much as possible–pausing when I click anything (e.g. changing from Music to TV Shows)–is still present, although the pausing is not as long as it used to be. I have concluded that this is due to 2 factors: the age of the machine (4 years old) and the database design. I think the database design is the key factor. I’ve posted earlier that it needs to change.

If you want to improve your own iTunes performance and it still seems a little pokey, as I’ve discovered, please tell Apple about it. If enough of us report this, they will make changes to improve it.


More on How to Split Your iTunes Library

10 August 2007

I realised another aspect to this. My last post on the matter primarily related to adding new content. What if you’ve got content that you want to split? Well, iTunes is very clever at tracking changes in file locations, at least Mac OS X is. I’m not sure if this is as good in Windows.

If you’ve got iTunes open and you go into your music folder in the Finder and move physical files to another location, iTunes notes where you put them. For example, you could move the Movies folder to another drive and iTunes would track the change. Use this technique at your own risk, however, because I’ve seen situations where iTunes didn’t track the change. I was in a hurry so I didn’t debug this at the time. I’ve even seen iTunes find a file’s new location even though it was moved when iTunes was closed, although I haven’t really tested this.

Sorry it’s a bit theoretical but I don’t manage my library this way and I’m unwilling to run tests of this nature on it “to make sure”, because I don’t want to mess it up. These observations, however, could be put to use by users with the need to split their library.

In the long run, my advice is to get bigger drives, either internal or external. Hard drives are astonishingly cheap these days.


Upgrading a Music Library

8 August 2007

I’ve just decided to upgrade my music library to 256kbps AAC. I was using 192kbps, but iTunes Plus has made me re-evaluate. I’ve got plenty of storage on the computer. In fact, I’m just about to buy a fat external hard drive for iTunes media files alone. My 80Gb iPod has 5Gb free to allow for expansion like this and I’m banking on this year’s model having 100Gb or more.

256kbps alleviates more of the worry that compressed audio is a bad idea. I have a good ear but quell my most audiophile urges by allowing some loss of quality in exchange for usability. I don’t like to play CDs any more, especially ones that come in digipaks, slipcases or custom covers, for fear of wear and tear. All my delicates are sealed in plastic.

This is the third iteration of the ripping project. When I first started, I had to use 128kbps because of space limitations on computer and iPod. About a year and a half ago I decided to upgrade to 192kbps. I had more space in both camps and a friend of mine who is much more of a “sound guy” did a number of tests and determined that 192kbps was significantly better than 128. I didn’t notice much difference in the overall sound but the bass seemed to be better, so I went with 192.

Now for phase 3: 256. I am enjoying music more at this bit rate. Much more like a CD.

Here’s a tip: You might think that reripping is a chore, but you can make it a lot easier if you carefully tag your CDs in the first place. iTunes stores all the tags from a CD in the iTunes Library database file, so back this up or you will lose this CD tag data and you’ll have to download all those inaccuracies from CDDB again. If you don’t change any of the tags of the ripped files, then later put the CD in the drive to rerip it, you will be asked if you want to replace the existing files. This obviates the need to delete duplicates. I find that I inevitably have to change some tags over time to eliminate typos, correct genres, etc., so I have to verify the CD before I rip it. If the track name, artist, album, track number and/or disc number are different, iTunes will assume that the CD is a wholly different one from the one you are intending to replace, so check this.

Of course, if you aren’t intending to squeeze your whole library onto an iPod, I think you should get a big hard drive and rip from anywhere between 256kbps to 320kbps (highest bitrate supported by iTunes, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV) or even Lossless.