How clever is Apple's Genius?

Apple introduced the Genius feature into iTunes 8 last week, but I didn't really understand the full cleverness of it until Marcus Annett from Apple Pacific ran through it for me.

If you want to know what the point is, it's simple: many of us have spent several years now piling songs into our iTunes collections. All of those CDs, tracks from other sources and tracks from iTunes and other sellers have created am impressive music resource.

We make playlists for the trip to work, that special dinner party, cycling, work-outs ... I only have about 8GBs of music but a daughter has 23GBs, and I know plenty with plenty more. However, what we tend to do, especially those with huge collections, is listen to a tiny eight per cent of that stock over and over.

Apple likes people to get more from their system, and Genius does that. Why have all those songs just sitting there if you never listen to them? With Genius, click on any song you like, then press the Genius button to get a list of suggested matches. Hopefully you'll be pleasantly surprised and rediscover some gems.

The good thing about Genius is that it's not entirely predictable. For example, clicking on the 1960s song Boom Boom by The Animals picked 24 other songs for me in a flash, but only a quarter of those songs were British songs from the '60s. Other choices ranged from Talking Heads through Patti Smith to Tom Waits. The selection appears under ‘Genius' under Playlists.

Of course, the results depend on what's in your collection, and how good your tagging is. Songs bought via iTunes come replete with tags (click on a track and choose Get Info from the File menu to edit or add tags) and many from commercially-released CDs also get tags added as you import them.

Genius is supposed to work for any songs - not just those bought via iTunes. It's not guaranteed though - I got no results for Beethoven's Symphony 7 by the Auckland Philharmonic, downloaded as a podcast from National Radio, and Arnold Schwarzenegger calls Gateway got no suggestions either (OK, it's a prank audio file using samples of Terminator dialogue).

But if I add tags (metadata) to the files this will assist its addition to the Genius database.

Are you feeling the nefarious feather touch of Big Brother on the back of your neck yet? Apple is actually gathering information about your iTunes library, so all your legally acquired songs and your listening preferences are being listed somewhere so Genius can go into the cloud of information created and retrieve matches for your choices from other people's listings.

Of course, all those illegally acquired songs are being listed too. Apple insists the information will not be used for anything apart from generating Genius playlists, but think of the potential for this information. It would allow Apple to draw conclusions about listener preferences by area, race, religion, nationality, income, political persuasion - if Apple used it. It could also give Apple phenomenal leverage over record companies.

Apple says it won't - the whole issue is spelt out in your legal agreement you 'agree' to when you install iTunes.

Basically, it states that when you opt-in to the Genius feature, Apple will automatically collect information to be used to identify media in your iTunes library on your computer including your play history and the contents of play lists ... This information will be stored anonymously and not associated with your name or iTunes account.

Apple states clearly it will only use this information and combine it with aggregated information from the iTunes libraries of other users who also opt-in to this feature.

The legality question over the contents of your library may be a non-issue anyway - since the only data sent to Apple is title, artist, album, and genre, songs in your collection look the same as those ripped from CDs you bought legally, then imported into your iTunes library.

The Genius data in the cloud is updated once a week over your broadband connection, so the more people turning on Genius in iTunes 8, the more data is available for Genius to use for refining matches.

But you can force a Genius update by simply choosing Update Genius from the Store menu in iTunes.

Genius also works on iPods if they support it (ie the iPhone running the latest software v2.1, and the latest iPods just released). This works even if you're not in a WiFi zone, as the Genius information, a code database of a few megabytes, transfers over from your iTunes' collection on your computer and the iPod will use this to generate a Genius list from the songs you have transferred to your iPod.

Just choose Genius under Playlists, touch New, then select any song from the presented list to generate a new Genius playlist.

And is Apple doing all this work just to get you you to enjoy your iTunes' collection more?

Well, not only, no. Genius does reinvigorate your listening, there's no doubt about that - but if you choose to turn on the Genius sidebar you also get a list of possible purchases that match your initial choice should you wish to add to your collection.

The first part of the list is Top Songs You Are Missing (the rest of the album, for example) and the rest are recommendations. Of course, you can preview before you press that irrevocable Buy button.

Another use for Genius is finding songs for a specific purpose for a slideshow etc. Choose one getting near to what you want, and look through the Genius recommendations to consider others.

Finally, have you tried the new Visualizer (sic) in iTunes 8? Give it a go - it's called iTunes Visualizer and it's based on one called Magnetosphere that used to be available as an iTunes add-on.

Turn it on and change the type of Visualizer under the View menu. And here's a tip: press the letter ‘m' repeatedly on your keyboard while iTunes Visualizer is playing to cycle through different modes.

This article originally appeared in the NZ Herald -

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