Confused about iTunes Home Sharing?

I keep discovering new sources of irritation with iTunes 9. Having previously lamented about the confusion with ringtones and the iTunes Store Wish List, I’ve now tripped over another perplexing new feature: Home Sharing.

New in iTunes 9, Home Sharing allows you to access an iTunes library on another Mac, so as to either stream or copy its media (audio and video).

“Wait a minute,” you may be saying. “This doesn’t sound all that new. I can already stream media from a shared Library via settings in the Sharing tab of iTunes Preferences. True?”

That’s correct. For streaming media, the two methods function almost identically. Both are limited to a maximum of five users on a local network. Both prohibit you from streaming protected media purchased from the iTunes Store, unless the user is also authorized on your iTunes Store account (via Store > Authorize Computer).

Actually, in a couple of minor ways, the older method is superior. It allows you to restrict sharing to selected playlists or to require a password. Home Sharing does not. Admittedly, most people will never use these options; but they exist.

So why does iTunes 9 offer two different ways to do essentially the same thing? Because they are not identical. Home Sharing offers a critical feature missing from the old Sharing method: You can “manually transfer” media from one library to the other. To do so, just drag items from the shared library to yours. It even works for iPhone apps. Transferred items are now “yours”; you can access them even when you don’t have a connection to the shared computer. Again, accessing protected items, including iPhone apps, requires that the user be authorized for the relevant account.

Transferring media via Home Sharing is a slick new option. No doubt about it. And, as already stated, Home Sharing also supports shared streaming. Given this, why did Apple retain the old Sharing method at all? Why not just dump it? When would a user want or need to use the old method instead of Home Sharing? I don’t have a good answer. And Apple hasn’t given one either. Instead, as I’ll explain more in a moment, having both methods just seems to add confusion.

The main confusion with Home Sharing is not using it, but understanding how to set it up and, if desired, turn it off.

Turning on Home Sharing. The first step to setting up Home Sharing is to select the Home Sharing item from the Shared section of iTunes’ left-hand column. You are next prompted to provide your iTunes Store account name and password and then click “Create Home Share.” Here’s the first oddity: after doing this, the Home Sharing item disappears from the column. In fact, assuming there are currently no other connected Macs running iTunes with sharing enabled, the entire Shared section of the list vanishes. I view this as poor interface design. A new user might well assume that something has gone wrong at this point. It would be better if the Home Sharing item remained in place, perhaps with its name toggled to read “Home Sharing Active” — or something like that.

Similarly, if you have the older method of Sharing enabled, and are currently sharing with another iTunes Library, turning on Home Sharing causes the “old” shared library listing to disappear — and be replaced by the new one (compare the different icons for “Ted’s MacBook Library” in the two figures below to see what I mean). That’s already a bit confusing. It gets worse. This switch only happens if the other computer also has Home Sharing enabled. Otherwise, after you enable Home Sharing, the shared Library remains listed and connected via the older method. More confusion. At this point, a new user may mistakenly believe that the listing is actually a Home Sharing one. If he attempts to import a song from this shared library, it will fail. Indeed, I have seen several complaints in various online forums about exactly this matter.

Turn on Home SharingHome Sharing on

Turning off Home Sharing. With the Home Sharing item gone from the Shared section once you enable the feature, you may wonder how you go about turning off Home Sharing. Here’s how: Go to iTunes’ Advanced menu and select “Turn Off Home Sharing.” Surprisingly, after doing this, the Home Sharing item does not reappear in the Shared section of the column. To get it to return, you have to access the Advanced menu again and select “Turn On Home Sharing” — even though this was not needed the first time you enabled the option.

Choosing an account. Home Sharing requires that the same iTunes Store account (user name and password) be used for all sharing computers. In other words, if Joe turns on Home Sharing from his Mac, Jane needs to enter Joe’s name and password on her Mac. If, instead, Joe and Jane both turn on Home Sharing using their own account names and passwords, Home Sharing will be on for both users, and all may seem okay. But they will not see each other’s Library’s via Home Sharing. Once again, this can be confusing.

Assuming that each Mac has a separate iTunes account, does it matter which one you use to establish Home Sharing? Apparently not. But I am not 100% certain. It’s another aspect of Home Sharing that I wish Apple would clarify, but has not yet done so.

Automatic transfers. You can set up Home Sharing so that, when you purchase something from the iTunes Store, a copy automatically transfers to other iTunes Libraries with which you are Home Sharing. This works only for iTunes Store purchases, not items you import yourself (such as via a CD) — and only for purchases made after enabling Home Sharing.

It appears that, if Home Sharing is enabled but iTunes is not currently open on a shared computer, iTunes will check for and transfer new purchases the next time iTunes is launched and a sharing connection is made. However, if you turn off Home Sharing altogether, any purchases you make during this time will not automatically transfer if and when you turn Home Sharing back on.

This automatic transfer option is off by default. How do you enable it? Not in any way that is obvious. You first have to select the Shared Library name in the Shared section. After you do, a Settings button appears in the lower right of the iTunes window, next to an Import button. Click the Settings button and you can select to enable automatic transfers for your choice of categories (Music, Movies, TV Shows, Audiobooks, and Applications). You need to do this separately for each shared library. Adding a bit more confusion, the iTunes’ Help menu offers incorrect advice, stating: “To automatically import iTunes Store items that are downloaded to a computer you’re Home Sharing with, select ‘Automatically import new purchases from [Computer Name]’ from the Advanced menu.” Not so.

If you’re still having trouble getting Home Sharing to work properly, check out this Apple article. It offers several more suggestions, including how to make sure that your firewall is not blocking a connection.

Bottom line: There’s nothing inherently wrong with Home Sharing. It’s actually a helpful worthwhile feature. However, as with several other components of iTunes 9, Apple seems to have surprisingly dropped the ball in the user interface department. Let’s hope that Apple cleans things up in a future iTunes update.