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Alongside its new iPod shuffles released today, Apple is about to launch the next version of iTunes. Version 8.1 is a small step up in terms of its version number, but it actually sports three fairly large improvements.

Speed boost

The first noted improvement, according to Apple, is a “speed boost.” It notes that everything should be faster from loading large libraries (thank God) and browsing the iTunes store to syncing your devices.

While Apple has greatly improved the time it takes to sync my iPhone in recent months, I have to wonder if it still couldn’t be faster. Perhaps iTunes 8.1 will hold the answer.

Genius for TV and movies

The second upgrade is more significant: Genius recommendations for movies and television shows. I really like the Genius feature in iTunes, it seems to be one of the best systems for recommending new music I may like. And now with all of iTunes going DRM-free, the one-click buying system using the Genius sidebar in iTunes is already taking its toll on my bank account.

But if iTunes is to expand, it’ll have to be through movie and TV show sales, so it makes a lot of sense that Apple would roll out its Genius feature to these as well. While it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make a Genius playlist based on video content you have, it make a lot of sense to recommend other movies you may like based on what you have or are watching.

Netflix does something similar and has the Netflix Prize to try and perfect its recommendation system. It will be interesting to see how iTunes stacks up.

Import iTunes Plus

The final new feature of iTunes 8.1 is the ability to import music in the iTunes Plus format automatically. When Apple revealed its grand plan to convert the entire iTunes store to the iTunes Plus (DRM-free) format, it forgot to address what that meant for people who buy physical CDs and import music themselves into iTunes.

While you could previously import music in a couple of different formats (MP3 or AAC) and in a range of qualities, it was perhaps a bit tricky for the average user to figure out. Now importing in the higher iTunes Plus format (AAC 256-Kbps) is the standard, unifying the iTunes Plus experience.

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