Sunday, May 07, 2006

iTunes: iPod-Only Playlists

Anyone can enhance their iPod experience by making some iTunes playlists that are used exclusively on the iPod. In particular, iPod-only playlists are useful for:
  • Trimming big playlists to fit onto a small iPod.
  • Trimming huge playlists so that you have enough space for other things on a big iPod.
  • Minimizing synching time for playlists that only need to hold enough for a specific trip (say, your daily commute).
  • Simplifying the synching process for a multi-iPod household.
  • Quick lookup for a particular song or artist, without navigating through several distracting layers of menus.
The Outline

I have a 4 gigabyte iPod Nano, which isn't nearly enough to hold all my songs. When I listen on the go, I want to have a wide selection, broken down into two main categories: favorite music, where the songs have high ratings and potentially appear in several different playlists, and unfamiliar music where the songs are unrated and/or have low play count.

I also have a 40 gigabyte iPod (pre-video), which often skirts the edge of being able to hold all the music I want to bring with me. It's easy to download several gigabytes at a time of South-By-Southwest indie rock, Grateful Dead concerts, then get an unpleasant surprise when a synch doesn't have enough room for all the songs, or when I try to use the iPod for file storage and discover there's almost no room left.

When listening in iTunes, I want the widest selection possible, so I have one Smart Playlist with all my 3-5 star songs, another with all my 4-5 star songs, another with all my unrated songs, another with
all the unrated songs with zero play count, and so on. (In addition to my standard playlists where I've picked out each song myself.)

The core technique for iPod-only playlists is to make Smart Playlist "clones" of some of these other playlists, varying the conditions a little so that they work better on the iPod than the original playlists.

With this technique, it's essential to choose the setting "Synch selected playlists" in Preferences > iPod. Each iPod has its own separate setting, so you'll pick different sets of playlists depending on which iPod is plugged in. If more than one is plugged in at the same time, choose the iPod name from the dropdown inside the Preferences > iPod dialog.

Space Savers

The key consideration with an iPod is, thou shalt not run out of space. You might think this is easy to guarantee if you have a big iPod with many gigabytes free, but things can change in a heartbeat:
  • You can download a big song collection. These days, you're likely to find hundred of free songs all packaged together in a promotional download from the South-By-Southwest conference, or dozens of free full-length concerts from the Internet Archive.
  • You can get a second, smaller iPod and find that your current system of playlists doesn't work for a 2-iPod setup.
  • You can decide to use your big iPod for backing up critical files, and realize that you have to free up several gigabytes.
Thus, to save space with an iPod-only playlist:
  1. Identify each playlist that has the potential to grow beyond what your iPod can comfortably hold (given that you might use the iPod to hold lots of other playlists and/or data files).
  2. Identify each playlist used for unfamiliar music that holds more songs that you could listen to between synch sessions. For example, if you rate unfamiliar songs during your daily commute, and sych that iPod once a week, do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out how much total time the playlist needs.
  3. Make a folder in iTunes by selecting the Library icon in the Source list and choosing File > New Folder. Give the folder the same name as the iPod.
  4. Inside this folder (i.e. select the folder before creating each playlist), create a new Smart Playlist for each of the original playlists you're cloning. Name the new playlists by concatenating the original playlist name and the iPod name, for example "My Top Rated - Joe's iPod".
  5. Give each Smart Playlist a single condition, "Playlist is Name of Original Playlist". This creates a clone of that playlist.
  6. Check the box that limits the size of the new playlist. Choose a measurement that makes sense in this context. For example, when dividing up space on my 4 GB Nano, I give each playlist a fixed number of megabytes so I can allocate or free specific amounts of space when the iPod is almost full. On a bigger iPod, I choose perhaps 100 songs selected by rating to get the "top 100", or a specified number of hours to last through a week-long trip away from the computer.
  7. If the original playlist is a mix of good, bad, familiar, and unfamiliar songs, you can add an extra condition like "My rating is between **** and *****" or "Play count is greater than 0", so the iPod-specific playlist contains only your most familiar or favorite songs. For example, I might have a "Flamenco" playlist in iTunes, while its iPod-only clone only contains my favorite Flamenco songs.
  8. Plug in the iPod, set it to synch only selected playlists, and choose the ones from the appropriate folder. Because the iPod preferences show playlists in a single big list, you'll need to give them distinctive names as above so that you can tell them apart from the original playlists.
Repeat the process for each iPod you have.

Time Savers

Do you ever get a craving for a particular song, artist, or album while listening to your iPod? If you're right in the middle of a playlist, satisfying that craving can be very disruptive -- keep pressing the menu button until you get to the main menu, then navigate down by song, artist, or album scroll through some very long lists, and maybe in the end you didn't really want every song from that artist or album, so you must navigate more menu levels and scroll through more lists. To top it all off, now you're out of the original playlist, even if you just wanted to listen to one song.

The trick here is to take advantage of a few subtle properties of iPod playlists:
  • Once a song is on the iPod, there's really no penalty in including the same song in multiple playlists. So why not make variations of the same playlist?
  • The iPod has a single global setting for Shuffle Play, unlike iTunes which lets you choose shuffle or sequential play for each playlist.
  • Whatever order you sort a playlist in iTunes, the songs are listed in the same order when you bring up that playlist on the iPod.
Can you see where this is going? Using the same technique as in the last section, you can make Smart Playlists that are clones of other playlists:
  1. Just use one condition, "Playlist is Name of Other Playlist".
  2. Don't set any limit on the size.
  3. Use a name that reflects the original playlist but adds some qualifying information. For example, I have playlists "My Top Rated (song)" and "My Top Rated (artist)". (I would have made the names a little longer, except that anything longer is truncated in the iPod listing.)
  4. Sort the playlist by the appropriate column. Then never touch that playlist again! Use the original playlist for searching or fiddling with song info.
  5. In iPod preferences, check that playlist so that it's automatically synched with the iPod, in addition to the original playlist.
Now, instead of listening to "My Top Rated" on the iPod, I listen to its clone, like "My Top Rated (song)". If I get a sudden craving for a particular song, I press the menu button once to get to the list of songs in this playlist, then scroll straight to that song because the names are listed in alphabetical order. If I want to zero in on a particular artist, I press the menu button twice to get to the list of playlists, move to the adjacent playlist to switch to the same list of songs arranged by artist, and scroll through the songs alphabetized by artist. As a bonus, I see in this playlist only the favorite songs from that artist, not all the others that might happen to be on the iPod.

The same technique applies any time you want to access the same list using different criteria. For example, you might have a playlist full of podcasts sorted by Date Added, so you could listen to episodes in order. But you might have another playlist with those same podcasts sorted in order of time, so that you could pick a long or short one to match the length of a drive.

Advanced Tip: Pseudo-Shuffle Playlists

I mentioned earlier how the iPod has only a single, global Shuffle setting. Again, this can lead to inconvenience if you're listening to songs in random order and want to quickly switch to sequential play, or vice versa. You have to navigate to the main menu, down into Settings, change the Shuffle setting, then come back up and go to Now Playing or navigate to some other playlist.

For example, in the case where you start jonesing for a certain band, you probably want to hear several songs in a row from that band. Even if you switch to a playlist arranged by Artist, that doesn't help if Shuffle Play is still turned on -- you can pick the next song, but iPod will jump randomly when it finishes.

There are enough instances when it's helpful to turn off Shuffle Play -- sequence of podcast episodes, that I sometimes leave it off for long stretches. As a shortcut, instead of turning Shuffle back on, I'll use even another playlist, like "My Top Rated (random)", where the songs are already in shuffled order.

Let's think about that a minute. Even if you don't go the extra step to create this final playlist, how would you get the songs in unpredictable order? You could sort by some other column like Time or Size, but then the songs at the start would be kind of weird (either very long or very short). Most other columns are largely blank; for example, sorting by Comment gives you the songs with Comment fields in order by that field, then all the ones with blank Comment fields in order by song name. No good there.

iTunes has a little-understood notion called "Play order", represented by the column of numbers on the left, with no column title. Click on the unnamed column title, and you'll see the essential order that iTunes thinks the songs should be in for that playlist. (Either ascending or descending, depending on the direction of the arrow in the column header.) With the playlist sorted by that column, click the Shuffle icon in the bottom-left (looks like two snakes having a good time), or option-click the icon if Shuffle is already turned on for that playlist. You'll get a whole new randomized order for that playlist, that you can utilize on the iPod to give you random play even if Shuffle Play is turned off.

Periodically, I'll get sick of always seeing the same first screen of songs every time I go into a particular iPod playlist. Reshuffling them in iTunes and synching again helps keep them fresh, and I could swear that even Shuffle Play turns up more interesting songs after a playlist is re-randomized like this!

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