iTunes, one of Apple's flagship iLife products, has now been ported to Windows by those wonderful people at the gloss-fruited ones. Albeit only available for Windows 2000 and XP, it's a brilliant step forward for the company. If you look at it cynically, it's just a way for Apple to increase the potential market for its iTunes Music Store, but it's a great media player nonetheless and one hell of a lot better than the Microsoft equivalent. What would take myriad options in Windows Media Player takes a few seconds in iTunes, and the interface is so simple it's ludicrous.

So what's the fuss all about, Joe?

Many Windows XP users have admired Mac OS X from afar for some time, everything from its lickable interface to the solidity of the whole package. Many Linux/BSD users shared the same mentality. One of the most lusted after applications for these systems was iTunes, which looked to be a great MP3 player with a kickass interface and with even better playlisting. Plus they could sync their iPods, lucky bastards! Several iTunes-alikes were created, notably JuK and XTunes (now Sumi), but none of these came close to the functionality or sheer style of iTunes. I myself was one of the crowd who wanted a taste of that sweet sweet brushed metal glory, and worked out a complicated system involving JuK and some insane command line arguments which altered the KDE theme to a POS brushed metal thing. It "resembled" iTunes, but not so much as to make me think it wasn't a horribly hacked together attempt to fuse a great MP3 jukebox and iTunes' looks.

While I was still a 'nux user, I read about the Windows version of iTunes on Slashdot, and how goddamn great it was. I still liked Linux, but the idea that I too could enjoy something I had strived to duplicate in a matter of minutes sort of made me want to use Windows . Indeed, the only barrier to me actually dropping Linux at that point was that a) I hated Windows from the very bottom of my soul with a scary seething anger which would give Bag of Crushed Child nightmares, and b) all of my files, and therefore my music, was on the virtually impenetrable Ext2. The final straw was when a home network change meant I had to use XP, or else. Ah well, I thought, at least I'll have iTunes.

And goddammit if I don't want to stay with the Billgatesebub operating system just for this one program! Never have I actually seen an MP3 player which did what I want it to, rather than what Bill wants it to ("No, I really don't wanna rip my music in WMA files, Bill. So long and thanks for all the torture.") and makes it easy to do simple tasks that could take ages on other players.

So, what are these cool features?

First off is Smart Playlists. These sound crap, but are actually damn cool. Say you have half an hour before you go out, and you want to listen to some tunes. PLUS you want all of the tunes you listen to to be ones that you like personally, not just some good ones with some mediocre ones you have kicking around, like you'd get on shuffle.

iTunes to the rescue! Click File>New Smart Playlist, give it the conditions for what you want to hear (30 minutes, 4 star rated and above) and BAM: random tracks are selected from your music library according to your criteria, ready for playing/burning as you see fit. As far as I know, this feature does not exist in Windows Media Player, and the only thing close to it within WMP is a preset playlist which cannot have its criteria changed and merely selects songs which you have rated above a certain level. iTunes does this all flexibly and with no fuss. It's a lifesaver if you're on a tight schedule, or just want to listen to the cream of your music collection. If I recall correctly, you win out here anyway-Microsoft wants you to pay for Plus! Digital Media Edition for this functionality-god knows why.

Another great feature is Music Sharing. Put simply, this is a way of streaming your music to another computer running iTunes, be it PC or Mac, over a LAN. It's of no practical use to me, but it's still a nice thing to show off occasionally and make light of your mad skillz. I showed this to my mother, and she was goddamn impressed as a "Joe's Music" icon appeared in the iTunes source list and the PC started to play Seven Nation Army. Like I said, it's not much use to me, but I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who would think it's the shit.

A lot of things are just pure convenience. The first time I ripped music with iTunes, I nearly pissed myself at the sheer ease and convenience. Insert Coldplay disc, click import, and a minute later the dulcet tones of Chris Martin start filtering through my speakers. Even better, iTunes encodes in the crystal clear AAC format, which actually makes things sound better than on CD. Burning is just as easy: make a playlist, click Burn CD and a cute animation signals that your disc is being toasted at this very minute. iTunes also has a very handy minimode, which shrinks the window down to a simple 100x50 silver box with play/pause, forward and backward buttons. Resizing this window horizontally reveals a nifty little mock-LCD panel which can either display song information or a simple visualisation. It's just insanely convenient to be able to have your music a few hundred pixels away and at the same time not taking up much real estate. The only irritating thing about this is that even in the minimode iTunes still has a taskbar button (a problem expertly solved by later versions of ICQ). Even so, Windows Media Player's solution isn't any better: in place of a WMP taskbar button, it puts a toolbar on the taskbar, about the width of a taskbar button; thereby eradicating the point of having such a thing available.

Another nice touch is album art. Songs can have album art associated with them, which is displayed while the song plays. It's utterly useless, but it's nice to be able to go to Amazon, find a cover and drag 'n' drop it onto iTunes to link it to an MP3 you just downloaded. As I said, it serves no purpose, but damn is it cool. A very good feature is Sound Check, which processes your songs and keeps them all at the same volume-no more reaching for the volume knob frantically!

I'm hooked on this program. It just works-albeit without playing WMA files, but who has those anyway? Whereas the Microsoft equivalent (or the Real equivalent for that matter) has all the grace, style, finess and usefulness of a hippo on crack, iTunes is fast and simple, allowing you to actually do what the program is meant to do-play music-rather than fartarse around telling it what goes where. It is available from www.apple.com/itunes. Be warned, because if you don't have QuickTime already, it'll be a 20MB download. It's worth it though (and QuickTime is always handy for those pesky movie trailers that insist on it...)

Note: I specifically did not talk about the iTunes Music Store because a) that's a subject for another node and b) it hasn't been released in Britain yet. When it is released, I will post my observations in the correct node.