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Mac 101: Stars and Smart Playlists

If you're anything like me -- and I sincerely hope you're not, for your sake -- you have a large iTunes music library, but the music that you like right now is only a small fraction of that total. (Yeah, that embarrassing '96 Dave Matthews Band album is getting pretty dusty.)

Since my musical tastes vary from day to day, and songs quickly fall in and out of my fickle favor, I love assigning ratings to the music I like this minute. I have a five-star rating for la crème de la crème, and a four-star rating for stuff that's pretty good. Three-star items are sadly relegated to history.

Next, I combine ratings with smart playlists: Now I can add and remove songs from my current rotation just by changing their star rating. I can do this on-the-go, too: Change a rating on my iPod, and the playlists are updated immediately, and eventually synced back to the computer.

Follow me across the jump to see how you can dynamically and efficiently manage your music as quickly as your tastes change.


The first part is the easiest: Assign star ratings to the songs you like most. You can do this any number of ways: by clicking the appropriate number of stars next to a song in iTunes, or clicking and holding the iTunes icon in the dock while the song is playing (and then choosing Rating). You can also select a rating on your iPod, and then sync your iPod to see the ratings show up in iTunes.

Next, assuming you've chosen a rating scheme like mine, we'll set up a smart playlist to include just five-star songs. (We'll do four-star songs next.)

  1. In iTunes, hold down the option key, and you'll see the button turn into a gear: . Click the gear.

  2. In the window that appears, select Rating from the first drop-down menu, choose is for the second drop-down menu, and click all five stars.

  3. Make sure the Live updating box is checked.

  4. Click OK.


You can name the playlist anything you want: "Five-star," for example. Personally, I like seeing five actual stars as the name of the list, so I've named the list ★★★★★, which works great on iPods, too.

When you click on the list, you'll see that all your five-star songs are in there. Perfect. Let's move on to the four-star list.

  1. Hold down option and click the gear icon again.

  2. In the window that appears, select Rating from the first drop-down menu, choose is greater than for the second drop-down menu, and click only three stars. (This will make sure that both four- and five-star songs appear in this smart playlist.)

  3. Make sure the Live updating box is checked.

  4. Click OK.

Now your four-star list will include a broader range of your all-time favorites, and the better songs from your music library. A playlist like this is great for longer drives, work sessions, or any time you need more diverse music to fill the void.

All you have to do now is sync these playlists with your iPod, and you're all set. You can change the star rating right on your iPod, and the playlist will be updated immediately with your new choice. (You may have to back out of the playlist and select it again to see your new lineup. Some commenters are reporting that this doesn't work on iPods of iPod Photo vintage and older. I can personally attest to it working on my 5G iPod and my iPod touch.)

Enjoy the freedom of not being locked in to what your playlists were this morning, or even 10 minutes ago!

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