One thing about Apple's software and hardware offerings, including iTunes and the various flavours of iPod, is that everything is so well designed that it's really easy just to switch them on and go.

In general on a Mac, for most of us, most of the time, the standard tools and settings simply work. But by digging a little deeper into many of these programs, it's possible to get a lot more flexibility and control. iTunes is a very good case in point.

In this guide, we're going to just scrape the surface with a few suggestions for using tools already built into the program, plus a couple of applications and sites that can add to your experience of managing and listening to music on your Mac or iPod.

New Genius button

Before you start, make sure you've got the latest version 8 of iTunes installed on your Mac. Version 8 adds a new feature called Genius, which creates playlists for you based on a single song you've selected.

It's a great feature and works surprisingly well for an automated process. You can, however, be even more selective with your music pick and get iTunes to choose only your favourite songs. Many people use iTunes and iPods for years without ever rating a song.

What's the point of this function, and why on earth might it be useful? There are two very good reasons: to soup up your Smart Playlists and to improve the automatically generated Party Shuffle. Adding your own ratings will enable you to get more from both of these features.

Smart Playlists

You'll find instructions on how to rate tracks on your iPod and in iTunes, and on how to make a new Smart Playlist, in the two walkthroughs accompanying this article. Of course, if you have a large music library, it's going to take ages to rate every single track.

You could come up with a rough-and-ready Smart Playlist that singles out your most or least played tracks, or those that you usually skip when they start playing, and there are a few shareware programs that promise to automate the process. But any automatic list is going to leave a lot of room for error, so in the long run it makes sense to do this by hand, so to speak.

It's also been really interesting and enjoyable listening through our entire music library – that's just 30GB for us, but for some it's hundreds of gigabytes: good luck!

Smarter playlists

Rating can be the basis for some very useful Smart Playlists. In the step-by-step section, we've taken you through a very simple but handy one: a zero rated list that can help you prune your library. You've almost certainly got some songs in your library that you skip over every time you hear them starting. Why keep them?

Your hard-drive or iPod space is precious – okay, it's also pretty plentiful, especially if you've got a 160GB iPod classic, but say you have an 8GB iPod touch or a 1GB iPod shuffle: well, then the picture's quite different. You'll want to get the most bang for your buck. So trimming the stuff you really don't listen to is a good idea.

You might make a Smart Playlist that selects only the tracks that you've rated four or five stars, or narrow that selection down even further to include only songs that you've never skipped, or to exclude songs that you haven't listened to in the past two months. Now we're getting focused!

Or if you use your iPod to accompany an exercise program, you might find it useful to come up with a Smart Playlist of songs at a particular Beat Per Minute (BPM) rate – an article in The New York Times suggested 147-160 BPM for running, or 115-118 BPM for walking.