Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Technology Marches On

by Tom Bozzo

Following the Leader's speech yesterday, I was transported back to the purchase of my first gigabyte-ish hard disk drive in 1994 or thereabouts — $700 for a bare SCSI drive with a whopping 992 megabytes of formatted capacity. That it's commonplace notwithstanding, I'm still occasionally amazed that the same money in nominal terms now can buy 500 times that, with change back; alternatively, that you can pay half, get only 80 times the amount (if in less than an eighth of the old drive's cubic volume), but the manufacturer throws in this nifty music-and-video player for free! (*)

I haven't tried using the iTunes TV store as an a la carte alternative to cable yet, but an announced increase in video quality makes it likelier. I did detect a couple changes of terms here and there. I'd have sworn they'd been selling BSG by the season at prices not inconsistent with the DVD sets, though it's now only available by the episode. About all Apple would need to add for my purposes would be the new Doctor Who and I'd be set.

The news account of the new iTunes cover browser was not fully illustrative, but it's a relatively cool feature, akin to browsing certain styles of jukebox. (And the new version upgrade thankfully didn't blow up my computer or music library.) The main limitation is getting cover art to populate it: iTunes took its time chewing over my collection for the automated Get Artwork feature; confirming the iTunes Store Esoterica Index of the collection, most of the albums came up blank, leaving a generic album icon (the black square with the musical notes):

iTunes cover browser
Strange bedfellows.

Still, on a modern Mac (e.g., our iMac G5), you can slew through a large album collection very quickly while the visual cues of the covers seem to be no less useful for orientation than following a scrolling text list. Unfortunately, the automated feature isn't perfect — or it needs some database surgery at a minimum. It'll sometimes pull a closest match that ain't quite it.

Right band, wrong album.

Fortunately, a quick Web search and a drag-and-drop does the trick!


And I'm happy that it might stop raining.

ADDENDUM: As this* is really about how highly compact data storage devices have affected our leisure activities, we should all say a big happy 50th birthday to the hard disk drive. A propos of the post title, the storage density of the drive in the new 80 GB iPod is roughly sixty million times greater than the original IBM (5 MB) hard disk drive of 1956.

Ma nature still takes the prize for cramming nearly a billion DNA base pairs of information in a trillionth of a gram of DNA. We walk around with a lot more information (much of it redundant, of course) than our weight in ultra-high-density hard drives, though microelectronics has some speed and data transfer rate advantages for the time being. Still, I figure it's only my limited scope of reading that hasn't had me come across some near-future SF in which really huge databases are coded in DNA, replicated in enormous numbers, and read in reasonable time using some sort of massively parallel quasi-biological processes.
I'm a huge fan of coverflow, but this implementation leaves me pretty lukewarm. Coverflow's display felt a little more tangible, somehow -- maybe by showing more albums stacked to the side? Functionally, Coverflow also had a great feature where selecting an album sent a properly-sorted playlist right to iTunes. So you could, you know, listen to the album. iTunes, in contrast, still doesn't know that albums exist, even though it now has two display modes that explicitly center on the album. Sigh.
I suppose a slider that varies cover density is a straightforward improvement for a future iTunes release.

The iTunes cover view does take you to the first track of the album when you 'focus' on it (and assuming you're sorted by album; see the first screenshot) -- so you just double-click on the highlighted track to start playing the album. It's a matter of preference, for sure, but if you're already in iTunes, I'd consider it presumptuous if iTunes (vs. a helper app) were to automatically create a new playlist when I just want to play a song.

But, as you note, you might want it sometimes -- e.g., to avoid having playback run into stylistically inappropriate material that happens to follow in album sort order -- so a button preference setting to select all tracks from an album would be appropriate and useful.
Indeed, you're right that it works well if you're already sorted by album -- but I'm never sorted by album because I always browse by artist. This wouldn't be problematic to me if, for example, I wasn't returned to the top of the list when changing the sort order after selecting the first track. On the playlist, I'll hold out: I'd love it if iTunes kept a single "currently-selected album" playlist dynamically updated.

Finally, in High Fidelity style, I want the option of rearraning my albums in chronological date-added order _while preserving_ album track order. That would rock.
I see your point -- I actually switched from artist to album sort when I switched from the standard library list view to the cover view. At least it's only one click to switch sorts.

My preferred ordering, from my record store clerk days, was always by record label and catalog number. (Those days are long gone, and to my occasional annoyance, my physical vinyls and CDs have almost no sort order right now.) I can't recall if those are metadata fields.
Check out the stuff over on Orion's Arm. They talk quite a bit about large DNA computers as ways to deal with massively-parallel computations.
I know it will seem blog-stalkerish to post one more time, but I can't resist: Clicking the "album" column header a few more times cycles through additional new sort-by options, including "Album by Date" and "Album by Artist" -- the latter of which is *perfect*. Nice, Apple, very nice. I take back my entire previous rant (except about wanting a pony).
Drek: Thanks, looks interesting.

Alan: Not to worry. I confess to having never tried that out -- obviously why there's a market for those "Apple Product: The Missing Manual" books.
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