In the past few years, iTunes has left its origins in the iLife suite far behind to become one of Apple's flagship applications. Apple now distributes the program for Windows as well as the Mac. It's the gateway to the iTunes Store, as well as the home base for iPods and the iPhone alike. Version 7.4.1 adds several new features, the most prominent among them support for creating ringtones for your iPhone.

With this ringtone, I thee wed

Feeling Marimba'ed out? If you've had the iPhone for any length of time, it's likely that you've quickly exhausted the excitement of its included 25 ringtones. While the phone lets you assign custom ringtones to your contacts, it's all too easy to quickly use up what Apple gives you. But with the US release of iTunes 7.4.1, Apple's added the ability to transform songs bought from the iTunes Store into iPhone ringtones. The UK release doesn't yet include this feature, incidentally, but we expect this to be added when the iPhone launches over here.

As we've come to expect from Apple, the process of creating an iPhone ringtone is simple and smooth, but it's not without its share of byzantine limitations.

Creating ringtones is easy enough. The first thing you'll need to do is display the Ringtone column in your iTunes library if it's not already being shown. You can do this either by control-clicking on the column headers and selecting the Ringtone option, or by choosing View: View Options and checking off Ringtone. When you do this, Apple will offer to scan your library and mark tracks that are eligible to be made into ringtones with a small gray bell icon. Like any other column, you can drag the Ringtone column anywhere you like and sort the tracks in your library by whether or not you can make ringtones out of them.

Making a ringtone from an existing purchased song is a breeze. Simply click on the bell icon, or choose Create Ringtone from the Store menu. The first time you do this, you'll be prompted to log into your iTunes account and reread and accept iTunes's Terms of Service. Once you've done that, the bottom of the main window will slide up to reveal the ringtone editor.

If you've used GarageBand or any other music editing application, you'll grasp the concept of the ringtone editor pretty quickly. There's a waveform of the song you're editing and a blue selection window that shows the portion of the song that will be turned into the ringtone. The window's resizeable, allowing you to choose anywhere from 3 to 30 seconds worth of music, and you can drag it anywhere within the song.

At the beginning and end of the selection are checkboxes that let you control whether you want the ringtone to fade in, fade out, both, or neither. The editor doesn't let you choose the speed of the fade, though, so you're limited to a simple yes or no.

At the bottom of the ringtone editor, you'll find a dropdown menu that lets you choose how much silence there should be before the ringtone loops, ranging from 0.5 seconds to 5 seconds. Keep in mind that this gap of silence is actually part of the ringtone itself; it's inserted at the end of the ringtone file that will be generated. You can listen to your ringtone at any time by hitting the Preview button; iTunes will continue to loop it, complete with the selected gap, until you hit Stop.

Once you're happy with the ringtone, you can hit the Buy button in the editor pane to purchase it. iTunes will warn you if you haven't listened to the edited audio and prompt you to confirm your purchase. I did experience some errors when trying to purchase ringtones created from songs that I already owned, but purchasing new songs and creating ringtones from them worked fine.

After you enter your login information to verify the purchase, the ringtone file will be automatically generated by iTunes; you'll find it in the Ringtones item under Library in iTunes's source pane. You may need to update your iTunes authorization when you go to play a ringtone for the first time, but this won't change the number of computers authorized to play songs.

It's worth noting that ringtones, once made, cannot be edited or altered. Once you've bought a ringtone, it exists as its own separate song file. If you decide that you like a different part of the song better, you can certainly go back and create a ringtone of that section, but you'll need to pay once again - the current US fee is 99 cents.