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.

Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won’t benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.

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Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes

Are you a classical music fan? Then this new article is a must-read for you. I’ve written the first of a short series for Playlist, the website of Playlist Magazine. Find out about compressing and importing classical music, joining tracks and more here.