iTunes 11.1: All the Music You Want, No Purchase Required

In the rush of new apps and upgrades on iOS 7’s launch day, the app that started it all got updated, too, with some features you won’t want to miss. In the 13 years since Apple bought out SoundJam and turned it into their music library app, iTunes has grown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams from 2001. It’s where we manage our Post PC devices, or — increasingly — just that old app we forget about in the age of streaming music services.

So Apple decided to make it about music again. iTunes 11 streamlined the aging music app’s interface, hid much of the complexity, and added a rather nice mini-player in last year’s upgrade. That still doesn’t help much if you don’t buy music or rip CDs these days.

Enter iTunes 11.1. It’s the iTunes — on your Mac, PC, and iOS — that finally makes sense in the post-download age. It’ll get you listening to — and likely buying — new music more than any iTunes before.

“You’re Listening to iTunes Radio”

The new iTunes: all about Radio.

The new iTunes, with a reinvented Radio.

The big news of this year’s iTunes refresh is the long-rumored iTunes Radio. After years of guesses, we’ve finally got streaming music in iTunes — and it was worth the wait. Much more like traditional radio than the subscription streaming services that let you pick the songs you want to listen to, iTunes Radio includes a catalog of curated stations and lets you create your own from your favorite artists. All that’s left to do is listen (and, yes, there’s the very occasional voiceover saying “You’re listening to iTunes Radio”. I didn’t mind that at all). iTunes will stream the same high quality tracks you’d expect from the iTunes store, complete with track info and album art. And, it works in every market that iTunes sales music — a far larger swath of the globe than is covered by the likes of Spotify.

iTunes Radio lets you pause music anytime, though you can’t backtrack or fast-forward through a song. It also lets you skip up to 6 songs per hour on each station, a decently generous limit unless your station serves you an unusually bad selection — and if so, just switch stations.

Training iTunes.

Training iTunes.

For the most part, you can just play pre-made stations and forget about anything else. It just works. But you can customize it to your tastes as well. You can have iTunes create a station from any song or artist in your library, or search for an artist name or music genre in the station listings. Then, once you’re playing a station, you can tell iTunes which songs you like and which you’d rather not hear again, set the channel to your preference of hits, variety, or discovery, or add/remove artists from a station.

The curated iTunes stations have mixes that are at least as good as most terrestrial radio stations, ranging from pop hits to playlists from stars to ambient background sounds to help you work. But once you train the stations a bit, you’ll find that they can really do quite the good job at finding music you’ll enjoy — at least, that’s the case for many. Apple’s Genius algorithm has watched our music tastes for years, and it’s obviously learned what music works together. It’s not perfect, though: I’ve found that, say, a station with today’s top hits will veer into hits from a decade ago if you listen long enough.

But really, it’s pretty good. It’s become my default way to listening to music beyond my iTunes library, and I’ve really enjoyed it since it’s one of the few licensed ways to listen to streaming music right now in Asia. And I happen to think it’ll become the default way for most iOS and Mac users to listen to music, especially as so few people sync their devices with iTunes these days.

Note: If you still like traditional internet radio, don’t worry. You’ll still find the iTunes catalog of internet radio stations in the new Internet tab, and they still work the exact same as before.

The best kind of ads: ones for iTunes media.

The best kind of ads: ones for iTunes media.

Now, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and iTunes Radio has its ways of making money, too. There’s the very most obvious monetization option of letting you purchase tracks you’re listening to on the radio directly from iTunes, either while you’re listening or later from the list of recently played songs. I happen to think that’ll get a new generation buying iTunes tracks the way Apple intended back a decade ago, as radio is the perfect discovery mechanism. And, for what it’s worth, buying a half-dozne or so tracks a month with a free streaming service sounds a lot more appealing to me than paying $10/month for unlimited music.

But then, there’s also ads in iTunes Radio unless you’re an iTunes Match subscriber (which, yes, now just gained the extra perk of removing ads from iTunes Radio). The good news is, they’re far from annoying, at least at this stage. I’ve heard 1-2 per hour in my weeks of listening to iTunes Radio so far, if not less than that. The majority of those ads have been for stuff in iTunes — new albums, or the iTunes Festival songs — with only one ad so far for another product: the Nissan Versa. Either way, you’ll have an unskippable 15-30 second audio add, accompanied by a square picture ad inside the iTunes app (one that won’t show on your screen if you have iTunes minimized, thankfully). Again, it’s been far from annoying so far, though we’ll have to see if they ramp up the ads going forward.

UPDATE: Turns out, iTunes Radio only works if you have a US account — but a US account can play iTunes Radio streams from anywhere on earth (something other streaming services don’t allow directly, sans-proxy). International rollout should be soon, but we don’t know when just yet.

There’s More than Radio

Genius got a bit smarter

Genius got a bit smarter (well, depending on your library’s quality. Mine’s lacking.)

iTunes Radio is the only headline new feature in iTunes 11.1. For the most part, it’s the same old iTunes 11 as before, just one with a streaming music service baked in. But the new genius smarts can make your local music library a bit nicer, too. There’s brand-new Genius Shuffle that’ll make a playlist of songs in your library from anything you’re currently playing. It’s much like the old Genius Mix, but one that works nicer and on the fly. You’ll find that option in the right-click menu or in the small right-arrow menu beside your Now Playing song, right alongside the new options to make a station from your song. You’ll also find new Podcast features that’ll let you make your own “station” of podcasts, in the order you’d like, that’ll sync to the iOS Podcasts app.

It's still the (rather dated) place to manage your iOS devices.

It’s still the (rather dated) place to manage your iOS devices.

Throw in sync support for iOS 7 devices — and an updated tool to organize apps on your device home screen — and that rounds out this iTunes update. There’s not tons to it, but it’s really what iTunes 11 should have been when it shipped. Because, face it: iTunes 11 isn’t too bad of an app, with most of the cruft at least hidden from view and nice new menus for getting the songs you want playing. With the addition of streaming radio, it’s the iTunes update we needed to make everyone rediscover the original Mac music app.

You can install iTunes 11.1 from your App Store updates on a Mac or via Apple updater on a PC, or hold out a few weeks to see it in Mavericks. But really, there’s no reason to wait. Go ahead and enjoy iTunes Radio this week. You just might consider dropping your other streaming service subscription.