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Originally published May 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 26, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Practical Mac | Jeff Carlson

Be smart about sorting your music playlist

Turning on the television these days, I just assume that 90 percent of what's on isn't worth watching. Having hundreds of channels available...

Special to The Seattle Times

Turning on the television these days, I just assume that 90 percent of what's on isn't worth watching. Having hundreds of channels available strangely makes it easier for me to find something interesting, because I can ignore the shopping channels and sports channels and others that proliferate at the edges.

But what do you do when you're overwhelmed by your own library of music and video? You know, all that material that you've already selected as being worthwhile and interesting?

I had to deal with this problem recently as I finished writing my latest book, "The Apple TV Pocket Guide" (Peachpit Press). My music library is now up to about 7,000 songs taking up 30 GB of hard disk space; another 20 GB or so is video.

These numbers present an inconvenience on the Apple TV, because the main method of finding music is scrolling. The software has some helpful touches, such as acceleration after you've held the scroll button down for more than a couple of seconds, but you're still watching titles zip by in a blur.

A solution is at hand, however, and you can take advantage of it even if you don't own an Apple TV. Create Smart Playlists in iTunes for music and video, or Smart Albums in iPhoto.

Smart selectors like these enable you to group things together and apply smart sorting criteria. For example, you could create a Smart Playlist in iTunes that includes only the music you've added within the last two months, is rated three stars or higher, and is not jazz. Here's how:

In iTunes, choose New Smart Playlist from the File menu (or hold down the Option key and click the new playlist button — with the plus-sign — in the lower-left corner). In the Smart Playlist dialog that appears, choose Date Added from the first pop-up menu; choose "is in the last" from the second pop-up menu; and specify two months in the last field and pop-up menu.

Click the plus-sign icon (+) next to that attribute to add another, and choose My Rating from the first pop-up menu; "is greater than" from the second pop-up menu; and select two stars in the final field.

Last, add another attribute and set its criteria to Genre, "is not," and Jazz.

As you add more music to your library, the Smart Playlist adjusts its content based on the criteria.

When you sync with the Apple TV (or iPod, or share with another computer on your network), you can jump right to the smart selector with a minimum of scrolling. These features can also apply to video in iTunes, and smart selectors can be built in iPhoto and Aperture for making smart photo collections.

Turbo.264: I received an interesting new gadget while I was writing about converting video to make it playable on the Apple TV. Elgato's Turbo.264 ($100, www.elgato.com) looks like a slightly bulky USB memory drive, but it contains a chip that can greatly speed up video encoding.

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Let's say you've edited a video of your last vacation in iMovie HD and want to view it on the Apple TV or on a video-enabled iPod. Encoding video is a processor-intensive task, so exporting the movie can often take longer than the movie's duration, especially if you're using H.264 encoding (a high-quality compression algorithm that Apple uses in QuickTime).

The Turbo.264 shoulders much of the processing burden (which is faster because the hardware is focusing only on encoding video, and not also running the other tasks on your computer, as your main processor is doing).

In my testing, it took about 25 minutes to convert an 11-minute DV-formatted video from iMovie HD 6 using the default "Movie to Apple TV" export settings. With the Turbo.264 connected, I exported the same movie in about 15 minutes.

One downside is that the maximum resolution the Turbo.264 supports is 800 x 600 pixels, which means it won't help you encode higher-resolution HD video.

For occasional exporting, $100 sounds pricey. But if you regularly create a video podcast or convert movies for viewing on the Web or on an iPod, for example, the time saved is worth it.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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