Jelly Belly rang this morning, saying they wanted their selling point back. While I do enjoy their sour variants and assorted flavours always have been quite delicious, iTunes 11 also matches this little catchphrase. Take its new icon, which is conveniently sitting just above this paragraph. It appears to be bubble-like, does it not? In fact, it looks like the designer took the iTunes 10 icon and added a few layers to it in Photoshop to give it a more 3D look.
That’s not why we’re here though. iTunes 11 is a big release and it shouldn’t be reduced to the size, or design, of its icon. All proportions aside then, I’d like to take you on a ride into a different kind of Apple. Whether this is just something the company will be doing with iTunes or we may be seeing it in other OS X apps, the 11th edition of a Mac music player is a big deal. Let’s see what the company decided to change.
Brace yourself for a big section about every little detail that Apple has changed in this massive release. If we happen to skip over something, do tell us all about it in the comments below, but not before you’re done reading. Now, on to the features.
The first and most important thing about iTunes 11 is the way you find your way from place to place. There used to be a sidebar on the left that held playlists, podcasts, music, the Store, purchased items, and a good many other things. The developers have removed that to replace it with a window that takes up the whole screen when you’re browsing. Don’t fret: there’s still sidebar functionality, but it’s hidden in different areas of the app. Also, if you want the original sidebar, just go to the View menu and click Show Sidebar. It’s not everything you might expect though.
Selecting content is the main thing you’ll be doing, so let’s start with that. In the top left corner, just below the controls, you’ll see a drop-down menu that says Music by default. Click it to find your new destinations for media: Movies, TV Shows, Books, Apps, and Tones (if you have them). There will be more, depending on how you have things customised. If you want to add your podcasts or something, go to Preferences, click the General tab, and check whichever box you want to appear on the menu.
Since Music is a tab I’ll go through extensively below, I’m going to move on to the Movies tab. Here you will find all your films, or video files that you’ve imported to iTunes and not bothered to categorise. If you click one, surprise! Much more info will appear in a themed way (more on this far below). You can read the description, view the runtime, find out who’s in that particular film, and so on. If you want a different one, just click the x in the top left corner and continue browsing.
TV Shows is identical to Movies, just with seasons and episode information. Books hasn’t changed at all, really. Then there’s Apps, which has been expanded. There’s a little number in the view selector that shows how many updates you have for your apps and once you go to that tab, you’ll be able to download them by clicking the applicable button in the bottom right corner — just as in iTunes 10. Apps really isn’t anything fancy now, but it does have a different colour when you select one and there are five tabs at the top for sorting: iPhone/iPod touch, iPad, iPod Games (yes, they still make these), and list if you want something minimal.
Overall, navigation has been completely rethought, and we haven’t even gotten to the iTunes Store yet.
One of the most notable additions to iTunes in version 11 is the new search. When you’re trying to find something in your library, just start typing it in the search bar to the top right. You can filter it, depending on whether you’re in the Music pane or another, by such things as composer, title, album, and so on by clicking the search icon’s down arrow and then checking only the boxes you want to search. After that, you can opt to search the entire library or just the part you’re currently browsing. There’s no need to press enter because searching is now instantaneous and results appear as you type.
The new way that results show up is much better than before. Everything is larger and more self-explanatory. When you find something to your liking, click it to go to the artist page (for music). The weird thing about this is it doesn’t automatically scroll down to where that album or song is; instead, it lets you find it yourself. That’s not really search, but it might just be a bug.
New search’s best feature so far is the + button beside media. If you click it, that song or album will be added to your current setlist, or as Apple calls it, “Up Next” menu. (I’ll get to that in a few minutes, by the way.) I’ve found this incredibly useful when shuffling my entire library because I can continue to do that and also add a song I want to hear at the moment without disrupting anything.
The Grid and Flowing Covers Disappear
You remember all the view options in older iTunes versions, don’t you? There was Cover Flow, which is still used extensively in OS X, grid, and list. The first one was very popular when it first released in late 2006 with iTunes 7. It was the iconic feature of iTunes, and it even came to iOS devices so the question is, why did Apple remove it from the latest version of iTunes?
That’s right, the legendary Cover Flow is nowhere to be found in this edition of iTunes. You’re wondering the same thing as I: what would cause them to remove it? It’s hard to know, but maybe users just didn’t use it enough, or Apple wanted to unify the view of things with artists and albums. Whatever the case, it’s gone. In fact, Apple also removed another popular viewing mode (grid) from everything but the Albums tab, which is very disappointing.
Artists Tab View Changes Dramatically
Another major redesign in the music department is Artist view, which now looks like all individual artist pages have been put on the same page. It bears resemblance to the column browser of iTunes, just a bit more rearranged. No one expected Apple to remove the grid view from everything but the Albums tab and I’m very sad to see it disappear from the Artists one because they had a good thing going there. Even the Genre tab looks just like the Artists one — no more is the fun sparkly artwork that Apple created for specific genres.
Luckily for those who did like the old Artists tab, there’s a way to get half of it back. Even though the Albums tab looks to be organised by title, it’s actually sorted by artist name (alphabetically) and then by album title after that. If you are sad to see the old Artists tab go away, this new hybrid might help you make do.
Slightly Redesigned MiniPlayer
Apple has redesigned the MiniPlayer (and renamed it, as you can see), but only slightly. It has the new iTunes 11 look and buttons along with Up Next integration, which can be triggered the same as in the regular window. You can even search in it, which is something you wouldn’t expect to see in a 305-pixel wide window. All the features here are just like the ones in the app itself; click the + button to add something to your queue or double-click it to start listening now.
Overhauled iTunes Store
The entire iTunes Store, from browsing to previewing to reading reviews, has been completely redesigned. First, accessing it can be done by clicking the iTunes Store button in the top right corner instead of going to its tab in the sidebar. Right away you’ll notice that there’s now a pleasant grey noise pattern (meant to look like paper) as a background around the whole store.
When you’re looking at a potential app for your home screen, reviews are no longer shown on its main page. Instead, you must click the Ratings and Reviews tab just like on an iOS device. It gets stranger with the Related tab, which in a way is a redundancy. If you scroll down on a main app page (Details), you’ll get the Customers Also Bought section, which, while buggy, shows what the title says. When you head over to the Related tab though, the same thing appears along with the top apps in the selected one’s category. That’s a bit unproductive.
Getting used to the new iTunes Store shouldn’t be too hard since it’s not much different from the old one. There are now arrows that go right and left in the featured slideshow of each page and the new user interface polish like the drop shadows on New & Noteworthy and other side-scrolling categories makes things look nice. Some pages are really media-heavy though and even my MacBook Air from this year stuttered a little when scrolling. There are clearly still some bugs to be worked out.
Unfortunately, one big thing has not been added to this new Store: swipe gestures for navigation with an animation. If you’ve used the Mac App Store, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s nice to have that page-like feel that’s realistic, but not so much that it has an iBooks aroma to it. You can still swipe and it will function just as you’d expect, but not with that nice-looking overlay. Leaving something like this out shows that Apple could have polished the Store up more.
Artist Gallery and “In the Store”
Another new feature comes from the Artists tab, of all places. In addition to changing the layout of things, Apple added three new buttons to the top right of artist profiles: Songs, Gallery, and In the Store. The first shows their songs and is the default tab when you open an artist in the sidebar. The second is some of their photographs, but it’s unclear where they’re from as Apple does not give a source. You can click one of them to expand it and then use the arrows in the new window to navigate this gallery.
This is a great feature to have in iTunes, but it’s very limited at the moment. There are no captions to say where Apple obtained the content from and the About screen does not mention it, and that’s a major problem. The company should have partnered with Last.fm or another popular service that has photographs of major and minor bands because right now, even Coldplay has three images in its gallery.
The last tab in an artist’s page is for browsing the profile of that group or musician in the iTunes Store. It shows all the basics, from new releases to top songs to albums and recommended songs, the last of which are better when you use Genius.
iCloud Purchases Show by Default
Apple has been pushing its new cloud computing and storage service iCloud a lot lately. In iTunes, it wasn’t integrated too much until Match released just over a year ago. The $24.99/year service offers storage of up to 25,000 songs and automatically upgrades your quality to 256 Kbps VBR audio that Apple uses in many iTunes Store items (some are “Mastered for iTunes” and are higher quality). It was a good start, but now Apple’s taken things a lot further.
Even if you’ve had iTunes 10 installed for a while and used it extensively, right when you start up you’ll see some albums with iCloud icons in the top right corner of them. This means they’re available to download from the cloud, which is a hint that you already own them but don’t currently have them on your hard drive and should download them again. This might get annoying, so feel free to just hide it by clicking the Hide Music in the Cloud button in the View menu.
New Downloads Window
There’s a new way to manage your downloading items in iTunes 11. If you have something that’s been put on hold or waiting to be downloaded, it’ll show up in the top right corner with a progress bar just like in Safari. When you click it, a new window will open showing everything you’re currently downloading, along with the usual pause buttons and checkboxes. And if you have something you haven’t downloaded yet, click the [number of] iTunes Download(s) Available button to grab it from the servers.
Along with the loss of the sidebar comes the loss of the way you are used to doing things, like downloading something and finding out how long it takes. One thing that Apple could have done to make this an easier transition is use an actual pop-out download indicator like Safari has. It’d be more user-friendly and easy to pick up since people are used to Safari’s way of handling downloads. As for finding out how fast it’s downloading, just click the icon in the Downloads window, as usual, and it will show the transmission speed.
Syncing is Also Redesigned
Plug in that iPod or iOS device and you’ll be greeted with, well, nothing for once. Instead of automatically opening the device tab for your little music player or tablet, iTunes 11 moves straight to syncing it automatically. You’ll still see the progress in the top bar and if you don’t, click the up or down arrow until it shows up. To go into more detail, locate your device in the top right corner of the screen (above) and click it. (There’s also an eject button if you want to remove it safely.)
The sync screen didn’t receive a complete refacing like many of the other areas of iTunes, but it did get some upgrades. It’s now laid out differently, and every tab has a much wider appearance than before, taking up over 1200 pixels on average. It really seems like a waste of the screen in the Tones tab and others, but Apps makes better use of things.
There are now Remove buttons beside any software that’s installed on the device, though you can still manage your apps using the x buttons on the home screen browser. The bottom bar has been changed up to take up nearly the whole width of the window and it now makes your device, no matter how little the storage, appear to be large as ever. When you hover over a section (Video, for instance), it’ll tell you how much space it’s taking up on the device.
All the way to the right at the bottom, there’s a Sync button to start the transfers and Apply and Revert buttons will also appear if you modify anything. When you’re finished wasting screen space, click Done to return to where you last were in the real iTunes.
Know What’s Playing Soon with Up Next
Apple bought a DeLorean that can go exactly 88 MPH and they’re giving it to you for free. Well, in a way. There’s a really nifty new feature in iTunes 11 that was, to be honest, stolen from Sonora (a few other apps use it too), my favourite iTunes alternative that recently died of shame. (It actually had a very similar appearance to iTunes 11.) All that was due to iTunes 11’s imminent release, which the developers knew would heavily affect their alternative. In the end, yes, Apple does win, but it’s sad to see little independent apps burn out so fast.
Back to the feature: Up Next. There’s now a little list icon beside the now playing area of iTunes which, when clicked, will open a nice menu (identical to Sonora’s) that shows the next 20 songs in your current queue. Apple doesn’t call it a queue though, just Up Next. The keyboard shortcut is Command + Option + U if you want to pop it up really quick without moving your hands. Even though this is a stolen feature, it’s very nice to have and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when listening to big albums or playlists. And as I said before, you can add some songs that will play next.
One of the other apps that has integrated this feature nicely is Rdio. It’s a music streaming service, yes, but it has been using the queue idea for a while now. This is one of the features that sway a lot of people toward Rdio instead of Spotify or other competitors, and it definitely helps keep things the way you want them, not the way the music plays.
Lots of New Colours in the Album Tab and Movies
I hope you like a colourful day, because you’re really going to have one with iTunes 11, provided you don’t have a bunch of dark or lacking album artwork. The app now pulls in the colours in your artwork and builds a nice appearance for them in the Albums tab. As you scroll through, try clicking on one (but not double-clicking as that would play it) to expand the view to something more pleasant.
This is also available in the Movies tab, providing you’ve added information and artwork.
The most present colours of the album artwork will then be stretched over across the screen and Apple’s algorithm automatically contrasts them with a different track number and time colour that’s also from the album artwork. If that sounds very confusing, just have a look at the screenshot above. It looks really cool and is almost something you wouldn’t expect from a piece of Apple software. (It’s an indie thing.)
It’s like Pioneer’s Mixtrax with extra development. It’s also undoubtedly the best feature of iTunes 11.
Now you’ve reached the section containing all of Apple’s mistakes. If you already like iTunes 11, don’t ruin it by reading these. If you’re debating whether to upgrade or not (as if it’s not inevitable after a while), be sure to give these items a thorough read.
Cheesy Icon and Questionable User Interface Elements
Some will love it, others will hate it. Unfortunately for Apple, the response to its new music player’s icon is both uneven and unhappy. As I read my Twitter feed this release day (this is being written at noon Pacific time on 29 November), I see people’s complaints about the change, the features, the icon, and the app overall. The thing that stayed with me most though was the icon. I didn’t even look at anyone else’s opinion, at Twitter for that matter, after downloading the update, yet right when I saw the icon in my dock my heart saddened.
Why would Apple change the icon to one that doesn’t even fit the new user interface? It looks like one designer worked on the icon and the other on the every being of iTunes except that. People complained about the iTunes 10 icon too though. It was designed by one Louie Mantia, who now captains Pacific Helm with two other designers. As with all change, his nice-looking icon was met with much criticism and controversy because the disc had been removed. Everyone knew iTunes as the music player that imported CDs, but everything has its time.
With the new icon in iTunes 11, more controversy and whining is likely to ensue. I personally don’t like this icon that much because it has an iOS feel to it — in a more bubbled way. The main problem is that it just doesn’t mix with the rest of the items on my dock, even though some of them are Apple’s own default apps. That’s a problem the company should have solved after a month of release delays, but alas it’s still present.
As for the user interface as a whole, Apple has changed quite a few things. The new downloads icon, for instance, doesn’t fit the rest of the screen very well and its high contrast looks out of place. The same goes for the sudden darkness you get in some of the iTunes Store pages. If you’re used to that light interface and it drops to something black, it looks weird. In other areas, Apple did fine with contrast. It’s just those little things that make you wonder.
White is the New (and Only) Black
Do you remember the whole black and white colour scheme of iTunes 9? Apple first released the ninth major version of the software with a new white background that was set by default. Users erupted on the Internet, saying that the white was blinding and downright ugly. When you’re going through your library in low light, this is true. So, Apple took to releasing version 9.0.2 not far after to appeal more to the legacy users. Everything then settled back down and complaints ceased. Until now.
Welcome back the white background, this time for good. You can go to Preferences and scour for that selector, but it’s not there. Apple has completely removed the option to change the background and it’s unlikely that it’ll reappear in an update — unless users really do get angry. At least you can look through albums and whatnot in the sun.
Album Layout is Confusing at First
Fancy colours that look good beside your artwork are one thing; organisation is another. It’ll take you a while to get used to the new album track layout in iTunes 11 because it only shows six tracks per line on average (most albums don’t exceed 12 tracks — it’s an industry standard.) If you have a large album like the one above, it’ll still organise it evenly, but the position of each track is confusing. Once you reach the bottom of things, you have to scroll back up to find them again. It’s like reading two pages side by side and it will take a while to get used to.
Artwork Goes Small
In iTunes 10, you could click the album artwork, which was previously displayed in the bottom left corner, to give it a window of its own with controls that fade in and out on mouse hover. This is still available, but something tragic happened: all my artwork displays in a standard 500×500 window, which is a third of the resolution almost everything in my library has. (I like it to look crisp on my iPad’s Retina display.) At first I was fearful that iTunes had resized everything. Luckily that was not the case.
For some reason, all artwork, no matter its original size, now appears at 500×500 by default. You can drag the bottom right corner of the window out to make it larger and that will stay as the default size for whenever you open it again, no matter what album. It’d sure be nice if the default resolution just stayed there or if Apple made this artwork music play its own separate thing. More on that in a minute.
While I’m still on the topic of album artwork, it’s important you know that you can no longer adjust its size in the one remaining grid view of the Albums tab. There’s not a slider to do so and even though the Artists tab has a five-point slider for its artwork, the View Options window for Albums only has two sorting selectors. If you have a large iMac or enjoy AirPlay Mirroring at a big resolution on your 4K television, don’t even try iTunes unless you’re prepared to be three feet away at all times.
It’s Too Focused
With the removal of the iTunes sidebar, navigation of this app has been jumbled. It’s going to take people a while to get used to the new interface and once they do, it’s unlikely they’ll see it as “simplified”. If anything, it’s over-simplified. I admire Apple’s move to minimalism and it’s hard to argue that some of the elements in this app are enjoyable to use, but overall it’s a big jump into something completely different than the previous version.
The best example of Apple’s focus in this app is the new app pages in the iTunes Store. Instead of being scrollable and full of information, they require the user to click things in order to move around. In the previous version of the Store, it was much simpler and everything was on one quick-loading page. Now it looks like Apple is changing the priorities of things. This may be good for developers (people won’t look at ratings as often) but it’s terrible for users.
All throughout the app there’s this feel of priority. Apple wants you to do one thing at a time, clearly. Multitasking isn’t something that’s frowned upon by many, but Apple must think otherwise with this. Focus is a good thing in some cases — just not this one. It’s overdone.
The funny thing is, with all this focus, Apple neglected to add one thing that would have been nice: a fullscreen player with artwork and a few simple controls like the iPad Music app. It’d be even nicer if Cover Flow was re-integrated to create a music player in which the cover moved when a new song came on. Swiping from right to left would skip too. It’s a shame the developers didn’t think about that.
No Notification Centre Integration
Before OS X Mountain Lion, I used Growl for all my notifications throughout the operating system. It worked well and the themes available for it were great. I was satisfied. Then Notification Centre released and everything changed. Growl now costs, integrates with Notification Centre if you want it to, and just doesn’t work like it used to because Apple has innovated. That’d be fine with me if Apple actually used its own notifications system.
With Growl, I could get now-playing notifications with artwork, the song title and artist’s and album’s name. Apple doesn’t have this for iTunes 11. I would have expected it too because users would enjoy this feature.
Really Cool, Really Annoying
Change is never easy, especially when it’s in a piece of software that you use daily. Users are going to whine about this because that’s what they do. It doesn’t matter if Apple releases an app that I consider perfect; someone will still have a completely different view on it. In light of that, this app is, objectively, not bad. It’s hard to get used to, so don’t expect to just jump right in, and it’s definitely not as simple as it could be in many areas.
If this is Apple’s new direction of design and coding, it’s a good one so far, but I’m giving it a lot of leniency because it’s so new. I mentioned the problems with this app — there are many of them — and that shouldn’t stop you from wanting to go try it out. As for using it full time, it’ll take some getting used to. The biggest problem is its amount of focus and lack of anything even remotely related to multitasking. That’s going to hurt a lot of users’ productivity and even the new fancy features can’t compensate for it
Editor’s Note: Here’s some food for thought about iTunes 11. In the Windows world, many people would say that the current version of Office looks like the next version of Windows. It often feels like Microsoft tests new UI styles in Office before bringing them to Windows, and its held true many times. For Apple, iTunes is their Office for UI tests, at least in my opinion. It’s a good one: it’s the only Apple app most PC users will touch before switching to the Mac, and it’s often shipped on its own deadlines aside from OS X. iTunes was the first app to lose colored icons in the sidebar before Apple took that to the whole OS. It’ll be interesting to see what iTunes 11 features and design styles make their way into OS X 10.9.