iTunes 8 and Large Libraries: Faster, Much Faster

I’ve complained about iTunes being slow with large libraries, but I’m happy to say that with Apple’s release of iTunes 8, this problem is greatly attenuated. Tagging, ripping, even checking and unchecking items is much quicker. There’s still a tiny lag, but very short, when I check or uncheck an item. When tagging, things go really fast: whereas before, it could take 30 seconds to change tags for a single album (say adding a comment tag or changing a name in the tags), now it’s instantaneous. I tried changing tags on hundreds of files at once, and that is fast as well; you see the progress, but it’s no longer 5 seconds per file as it was before.

I’m very happy that Apple resolved this issue, as more and more people have been complaining about it. It seems that iTunes is no longer writing the library file for each change; in the past, you could see the file being rewritten, and see temp files being written as well. I suspect that they now write the changes only once after they have finished and increment them with the library file in memory. Whatever they’ve done under the hood, though it works.

One oddity with the new version of iTunes: my Album Artwork folder is more than 600 MB. This folder is used locally for iTunes to display your album art; it’s a sort of cache folder. Before, this folder was about half that size, but the way iTunes parses artwork must have changed. Looking at some of the files, it seems that they are caching files of different sizes for different uses, hence the increase in size. If you back up your home folder regularly, you could exclude this folder (or at least its Cache subfolder, which contains most of the files); iTunes will recreate this if necessary.

Should You Re-Rip Your Music?

This is not an existential question, but a very practical one. While it won’t apply to all your music, you might want to consider doing so for certain CDs.

Here’s what happened to me. I was listening to a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Robert Hill this morning, and noticed that there was a tiny hiccup between the tracks. With iTunes playing music gapless, since version 7.0, this shouldn’t have happened. But I suspected that it might have had something to do with the ripping: I had originally imported this CD under iTunes 5, a couple of years ago.

I thought the problem might have been in the original ripping, so I tried importing it again, and it plays fine. So, for some reason, even though iTunes “updated gapless playback information” for these tracks when version 7 came along, it didn’t do so correctly; or the actual rip was different back then. In any case, if you notice any problems like this, you might want to rerip the CDs that don’t sound perfect.

iTunes and Large Libraries: Still Slow, Slow, Slow

I have a lot of music: my iTunes library currently contains about 40,000 tracks. I buy a lot of CDs, buy music from the iTunes Store, listen to audiobooks, and download podcasts. This library increases in size as I rip more music, and it has gotten to the point where performance is very, very poor.

I have a Mac Pro (with four cores) that has 4 GB RAM and plenty of hard disk space, so I’m clearly near the high end of potential performance. But as iTunes has progressed, it has not improved its performance; whenever I make any changes in my library (change tags, add tracks, download podcasts), it takes about 5 seconds for the program to become responsive. I get a spinning beach-ball and the program simply pauses (though, to be fair, in most cases it continues playing music if I’m listening to something with iTunes).

I first saw performance problems when ripping CDs, a bit more than a year ago when I bought my Mac Pro. I had hoped it would be faster than my previous computer, a G5 iMac, but it was only marginally more rapid. So I bought a second optical drive: a 52x CD-only drive (the Mac Pro has a superdrive which reads CDs slower than that). This improved ripping speeds a bit, but I finally got fast rips when I created a second iTunes library just for ripping – this proves that the problem is the library size, not the program itself, my optical drive, or my Mac. I can get up to 40x rips now, at the ends of CDs, compared to a max of around 22x with the superdrive.

My iTunes Library file is large: 68 MB. My guess is that iTunes, when working with a file this size, has to write the file anew each time there is a change, and that this is what slows down the program. I see 5-second delays when I simply download a podcast (at the end of the download, when, I assume, the file’s information is written to the library file), or when I uncheck tracks from smart playlists that contain only checked tracks. Any operation that leads to changes in the library file seem to cause the program to hang for five seconds.

I don’t see any solution, other than Apple improving the performance of iTunes and its library files. As people use iTunes more, they are likely to increase the number of tracks they have, and their performance will degrade, so more users will be seeing these problems, especially with slower computers.

At each release of an iTunes update, I hope that Apple will resolve this problem. Alas, after yet another update today (7.7.1) it seems to be even worse when ripping CDs.

UPDATE: When Apple release iTunes 8, responsiveness improved greatly, but there are still lags when tagging files and when importing. It is better, but it’s still far from perfect.

The MacBook Air: What a Laptop Should Be

I mentioned a few weeks ago , after the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, that I was planning to buy a MacBook Air. Well, my Air finally arrived yesterday, and, after unboxing, getting the “oohs” and “aahs” from my son, the fanboy (well, he actually said, “Dude!” several times), I took some time to sit down with the computer and try it out. I’m pretty amazed by this computer, and I can safely say that it’s the most impressive Mac I’ve ever owned (my Mac experience dates back to the PowerBook 100, in 1991). Frankly, the MacBook Air is what a portable computer should be.

First, the weight. You can’t imagine unless you’ve actually held it in your hands, but the Air is really, really light. This Mac is replacing a 14″ iBook, and I’d say that it’s about half the weight of the iBook. (That’s a guesstimate, based on how it feels in my hards.) When picking up the Air, there is no feeling that one could drop it if only holding it in one hand, and there’s no heft to it at all. It’s about as heavy as an average-sized hardcover book; but the size and thickness make it feel even lighter.

As to the thickness – or, as Apple says, the “thinness”, it is impressive, but much less so than the weight. When you do put it on your lap, though, you start to notice just how thin it is. If you put your hand on the edge, you can feel that there is little space between the open part of the Air and your lap. But I don’t think the thickness is as big a revolution as the weight, even though the two go hand in hand.Now, as Apple has said, compromises are always made with laptops, and one that sub-notebooks make is using a small keyboard. The full-size keyboard on the Air is essential, especially because I have large hands. I only fiddled with a 10″ sub-notebook once, and couldn’t type on it with any speed. Since I touch-type, I want a machine that I can use, not one on which I have to hunt and peck. And the touch of this keyboard is brilliant; it reminds me of the early iBooks, which had a keyboard where the keys didn’t move much, and had a good, solid stop to them, not a mushy feeling. This keyboard is very close to Apple’s new full-size keyboards.

So I’m writing this article on my Air, sitting in a comfortable chair next to my office window. I can type as fast and as comfortably as on any full-size keyboard, and do so comfortably (even though I generally prefer ergonomic keyboards, and use one with my Mac Pro). There are some things to get used to: there is no Enter key on this keyboard, so I keep pressing the right Command key when I want to press Enter; I’ll get used to that soon. And you do have to be slightly careful to not rest your thumbs on the large trackpad. That trackpad is, however, brilliant for tracking. Not only does it give a bigger target, but the trackpad gestures are quite intuitive, especially scrolling and using a three-finger “swipe” to go back and forward when browsing. All in all, the usability of the device for typing and tracking is excellent.

Did I say that the Air is light? I just picked it up again, and remain amazed each time I do so…

On to the display. I was a bit hesitant about the glossy screen, not having had any Macs with this type of screen before. (Though my son has a glossy iMac.) It’s actually quite good, as long as you can be in positions here you don’t suffer from reflections. The screen is crisp, very bright (thanks to its LED back-lighting), and the size of the screen is fine. I moved from a 14″ screen in 4:3 ration to this wide screen, and, given the quality of the screen which offsets the size, it’s a good trade-off. I’m not one for tiny pixels, but this screen is so sharp that even my middle-aged eyes are more than content.

Now, I have the MacBook Air with the SSD (solid-state disk). One thing this offers is almost instant wake-from-sleep, and very fast application launching. Tests show that it’s somewhat slower writing data, but when I was setting up my Air, I copied about 30 GB of data from a USB hard disk, and had the impression that the copy went very quickly. This isn’t scientific, but nothing suggested that the SSD is slow. Note that I didn’t use the wireless migration assistant – I had read enough about how slow it was to plan ahead, copying the data from my iBook to an external disk beforehand.

While I can’t judge the quality of the wireless migration assistant, I can talk about using Remote Disk to install software on the Air. I had to install iWork from a CD, so dumped it into my Mac Pro (after turning on CD/DVD sharing in the Sharing preferences), then ran the installer. It was transparent. Relatively fast, painless, and, frankly, brilliant. I truly cannot see when I’d need an optical drive for the Air, since I make backups to an external disk, and, especially, since it’s not my main computer. I can understand that anyone who uses the Air exclusively will need the external SuperDrive, but it’s just so good to have a small, light computer, that I can do without the optical disc drive.

One thing I was concerned about with the Air was its heat level, and, by extension, its noise level. When setting it up, the fan went on after a few minutes, and it’s pretty noisy. But that only lasted as long as I was taxing the processor by copying lots of files. Since then, it’s been totally quiet, and very cool. I’m typing this with the Air on my lap, and I don’t notice its heat. Granted, typing a few thousand words is not processor-intensive, and I haven’t tested it with anything more serious than surfing and writing, but it’s clear that, for such limited activities, the Air won’t heat up much. My guess is that the aluminum dissipates the heat efficiently during light usage, but that the Air is designed to not be hot. Currently – and, remember, I’m not hitting the processor very hard – the CPU sensor is 50° C and the bottom enclosure temperate is 38° C, just a tad higher than skin temperature. Doing some heavy surfing (opening a dozen pages in tabs) gets the CPU temperature up to 60° C almost immediately, so sustained surfing will get the Air much warmer. But in my experience, with non-intensive usage, this is one cool laptop (Tests performed with Marcel Bresink’s Temperature Monitor http://www.bresink.de/osx/TemperatureMonitor.html)

Naturally, your usage will be different, especially if this is your main Mac. Gaming – which is probably not very efficient on the Air, given its on-board video RAM – would tax the machine, and serious number crunching or graphic work would certainly get the temperature up.

I mentioned how the GPU would not be sufficient for gaming, and I’m suggesting that based on tests I’ve read. I’m not a gamer (though I play go), so I won’t be able to test that. However, in regular usage, the graphics are snappy and clean – for example, scrolling web pages is very fast and smooth – so that limited VRAM is no hindrance to the Air’s performance.

There’s not a lot of negatives I can say about the Air, other than it’s price: yes, it’s a pricey computer, especially compared to the MacBook, which offers better performance. But it is so well designed that it makes portable computing a joy. Every other laptop is clunky compared to the Air; once you’ve held the Air in your hards, you won’t want to use any other laptop. I discussed this with several friends yesterday, one of whom had already held the Air at the Macworld Expo; he says it’s too big; he wants a real sub-notebook, and doesn’t mind a small keyboard. Another uses spreadsheets a lot, and he wants a bigger screen; he wondered if Apple wouldn’t expand the Air line to include a 15″ model, something that might make sense if the 13″ is popular enough. No, the Air is not for everyone, but it’s exactly what I need: a small, light computer to do the work I do (writing), and to use for general computing activities. I have a Mac Pro for everything else, and the Air is the perfect compliment. As I said above, the MacBook Air is what a portable computer should be.

Spotlight’s Secret Search Syntax

With the release of Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard, Apple has greatly improved its search technology, called Spotlight. Introduced with the previous version of Mac OS X (Tiger), Spotlight was both brilliant and stunted; brilliant because it can work so well in certain situations, but stunted because it was so limited. It didn’t offer Boolean searches (AND, NOT, OR), which meant all your searches were, like Google searches, based on every word you entered. So if you typed King and Lear, you’d find anything with both words, but not with King or Lear alone. And there was no way to find a file containing Kind and NOT Lear. All that’s changed.

Boolean searches, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Tiger had a couple of operators you could use with keywords, that most people didn’t know about. They were the kind: and date: keywords. You could type, say, kind:pdf to find PDF files; or kind:music to narrow a spotlight search down to music files. And you could use date:today to find files modified today, and date:tomorrow to find appointments scheduled for tomorrow. (You can use both these keywords in the Spotlight menu, or in the Finder’s Search field.)These two keywords still exist in Leopard, but are greatly expanded. Let me begin with the date: keyword, since it’s the simpler one. To start with, Apple has added operators that you can use with this keyword: they are >, <, and -.

Here are some examples:

date:>1/1/07 will find any file modified after January 1, 2007. (The dates you enter must correspond to the short date format you have set in your International preferences.)

date:<12/31/07 will find any file modified before December 31, 2007.

date:1/1/07-12/31/07 will find files modified between those two dates.

But things get interesting when you look at the kind: keyword. Apple has expanded this to dozens of new kinds, and made it potentially limitless. There is no list of kinds, but you can get an idea by doing the following. In the Finder, type the letter “a” in the search field. Choose List View (click the List view icon, or press Command-2). Then click the Kind column to sort by kind in alphabetical order. You’ll see a wide range of kinds: from Alias and Application to ZIP Archive, by way of MP3 Audio Files, Folders, JPEG Images and much more. Now try a Spotlight search, either from the Spotlight menu or the Finder: type, say, kind:word, if you have Microsoft Word documents on your Mac; if not, try kind:text. The former will show you all your word documents, and the latter will show you all your text files, at least those created by TextEdit and some other applications.

This is especially useful when tracking down files you made with specific applications. For example, I’m writing this article in BBEdit; I can search for all BBEdit files by typing kind:bb (you don’t always need to type out the entire kind to get hits; two or three letters may be enough).

Well, you may think that’s powerful, but you haven’t seen anything yet. In addition to these expanded operators, Spotlight now has a limitless set of other operators. Not only are there kind: and date: keywords, but there are dozens of new keywords. None of this is documented yet, but you can get a glimpse of what’s available by selecting the Other attribute in the Finder’s search bar, or by checking the following file:

/System/Library/Frameworks/CoreServices.framework/Frameworks
/Metadata.framework/Resources/English.lproj/schema.string

The former gives you names and explanations, and the latter shows you exactly how to type the operators. For example, to use Audio Bit Rate, you’ll see in the latter file that you have to type either audiobitrate: or bitrate:.

Here are some examples of the new operators:

Find a file by searching for the person who created it (in programs that store this information) by typing author:. For example, I’ll find files I’ve created with author:kirk. For now, the only programs I have that come up are Word, Pages, Mail and iChat (chat logs). There are also some PDF’s I’ve created from Word or Pages files. (You can also use from:, with: or by: to find the same information.)

Find files created using the AAC codec with codec:aac. This finds both music and video files.

Find files with comments using the comment: operator. This applies to comments made to iTunes files as to Spotlight comments added in the Finder; other programs may also support this.

Find files with an audio bit rate of 32 kpbs by typing audiobitrate:32, or bitrate:32.

Find music files where Bach is listed as composer: composer:bach.

Find pictures taken at an ISO speed of 400 by typing iso:400; find photos taken at an ISO speed higher than that by typing iso:>400.

I’ll stop here, but you can see that the possibilities are quite extensive. In addition, third party programs can add their own attributes that can be searched. One way to find what they can do is to take a file and run the mdls command in it in Terminal (mdls <filename>). This will display all the file’s metadata, and will allow you to discover which attributes it is using. You’ll also see this information in the Finder, when you choose the Other search attribute as explained above.

As yet, Apple hasn’t documented this, so let’s hope they do so soon with a complete list containing explanations. (For some of these operators it’s not clear exactly how to use them; however, if you have files that they can find, some trial and error should help you discover the answer.) These operators are likely not something you’ll use daily, but when you’re trying to find that lost file on your Mac, or simply trying to sort a group of files, will come in handy.

The Tivoli Audio iPAL: Big Sound from a Little Speaker

Around $200; Buy from Amazon.com

You wouldn’t think it by looking at this small radio with a built-in speaker, but it’s got a huge sound. The Tivoli Audio iPAL, or Portable Audio Laboratory, surprises by the richness and full range of its output. Designed initially as a radio, it comes with a mini-din jack so you can plug in an iPod or other portable music player, and it pumps out sound that’ll make you think twice. For the iPAL has only one speaker. But this speaker is so good that you won’t notice the difference. After all, if you have two speakers and they’re too close together, you won’t really hear the stereo separation. So Tivoli Audio decided to go for a single speaker with high-quality sound and amplification.

But it gets better. The iPAL is rechargeable, weather-resistant, and its case is rubberized. While you can use it on your deck or near a pool, I’d hesitate about using it in the rain—I’d hesitate even more about having my iPod out in the rain. But you won’t have to worry about the occasional splash or those first drops of rain at a picnic.

The iPAL shines in its powerful, rich bass, an area where most small speakers suffer. Unlike a boom-box with artificial bass enhancement, the iPAL’s bass is realistic and even, without the common booming that you hear in cheaper units. For many uses, whether at home, in the office or outdoors, the PAL is a great way to listen to your music. It’s got a built-in AM/FM radio, with a very accurate tuner, so when you’re tired of listening to music, or want to catch that Yankee game, you can do so.

Another way to use the iPal is as an external speaker when listening to audiobooks. A lot of people who are fans of digital audiobooks use iPods or other devices to listen on the move, but want some sort of external speaker for listening at home, on their deck, or in the park. With the iPal being slightly bass-heavy, it actually works perfectly for voice recordings, and, while a bit expensive, may be the perfect speaker for audiobooks.