iTunes 11 review: Hands-on with Apple’s refined jukebox

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iTunes is a truly historic piece of software. It’s gone from a simple jukebox to the most popular media management software in the world, picking up a long list of features along the way. Keeping this legacy going is the latest version, iTunes 11, a major redesign that aims to dispell the opinion that iTunes is bloated and outdated. Read on to hear my thoughts on whether it succeeds.

Interface

iTunes 11 is the biggest visual refresh in the software’s history. It has a new toolbar gradient, a darker, sleeker playback panel, and an all-around cleaner look. The sidebar and status bar are hidden by default, in favor of a simple toolbar along the top. You can show them again by using the View menu. The sidebar’s been consolidated into a popover menu in the toolbar, and connected iOS devices get their own button next to the iTunes Store button on the right.

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View modes are gone in iTunes 11. Instead, albums are displayed in what Apple is calling “Expanded View”. This works like a folder on iOS: You click on an album’s artwork, and the interface splits and expands into a subview with a song list and an “in the store” section, which shows top songs and albums for that artist. Expanded View is intelligent enough to pull out the dominant colors in your album’s artwork, which are used to color the background and text, with a copy of the album’s artwork on the side. Expanded View is fun, and works better than the iTunes 10 model, which required you to back out of an album’s song list to see your album list. When viewing your artists, you get a list of artists on the left and the selected artist’s albums on the right. The traditional list view is still there when viewing songs, and you can even show the old-school column browser if you’re so inclined.

iTunes uses Helvetica now instead of OS X’s system font, Lucida Grande. iOS’s system font is also Helvetica, and with Apple’s trend of bringing iOS qualities to OS X it could be that the next major version uses Helvetica as the system font instead of Lucida Grande.

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While the new iTunes interface is pretty, it still has a lot of ugly dialogs from the past, like the one above, which appears when you add a song to your Up Next queue but play a different song.

Features

iCloud integration works similarly to how it does in the latest iBooks app for iOS. All of the items you’ve purchase from the iTunes Store show up with a cloud icon on the corner of their artwork, and you can either download them or stream them. Streaming music has a slight delay while it buffers, but it’s not much more than Rdio or Spotify. Streaming a movie has a slightly longer delay of course, but not too long. Downloads are quick as well, and there’s a new downloads button in the toolbar that opens the downloads window. Yes, window, not popover. It doesn’t work like the downloads popover in Safari, which is a shame.

miniplayer

The new MiniPlayer is fantastic. You can search through your songs and manage your Up Next queue, which is all you really need if you’re just playing music. If you click on the album artwork on the MiniPlayer, it’ll pop out into its own QuickTime-like window. You can hover over the artwork to access playback controls, so you can use it as a desktop widget.

The new iTunes Store layout takes cues from it’s iOS counterpart. You can swipe to go back and forward in your history, but it doesn’t animate the way it does in the Mac App Store, which is strange. There’s also a new button to show you what previews you’ve listened to. You can share things in the store on Facebook and Twitter, which unfortunately open up web apps and not native OS X share sheets. It’s weird that I have to go an album’s iTunes Store page to share it as well; you can’t do it by simply right clicking on it.

upnext

There’s a new feature called Up Next, which replaces iTunes DJ. If you right-click on a song or album and hit “Play next”, it gets added to your Up Next queue. A new button in the playback panel shows a popover with your Up Next queue. You can also show your playback history by clicking the clock icon. iTunes DJ fans might be a little miffed with the update, as Up Next lacks some of its functionality, such as the ability for iOS users to vote on upcoming songs with the Remote app.

The AirPlay popover has been updated, and now allows you to play to multiple devices at once, which is nice. That’s it for new features. All of the old features, with the exception of Ping, are still there.

The little things

  • Playlist management has been tweaked: When you start dragging a song, a panel slides from the side showing you your playlists. You can then just drag the song to the playlist to add it.
  • The iTunes icon has been slightly updated, with a white double eighth note instead of a black one. It better matches the App Store icon, but there are still small differences between the two. The iTunes icon is a little glossier, and the double eighth note has a slight gradient to it. I like it better than the old icon, but I still dislike it overall.
  • If you unhide the sidebar, you may notice that the icons in it have color, as oppossed to the greyscale icons in iTunes 10. Maybe we’ll see colored icons in the sidebar make a comeback on OS X?
  • There’s a new “On This Phone” tab when managing an iOS device. It’s a simple view of all the media on the device.
  • When you’re doing multiple things, like playing a song while syncing your phone, arrows show up in the playback panel that let you switch which activity’s progress is shown.
  • You can no longer use a dark background in Album view, like you could in iTunes 10. Bummer.

Wrap up

iTunes 11 is the best version yet. Hiding the sidebar and status bar was a good move, removing a lot of the visual clutter that made iTunes feel complicated. Expanded Views are fun, and enhance the music listening experience.  The MiniPlayer is more powerful, and actually worth using now. All of this adds up to an iTunes that’s modern and fast.

The only thing holding iTunes back is the buying experience itself. With subscription-based services like Rdio and Spotify, you pay a monthly fee and get à la carte access to media without the hassle of having to buy it first. Finding music feels easier on Rdio because I’m only deciding whether it’s in my collection, not whether I want to buy it. There have been rumors that Apple will move to a subscription-based model for the iTunes Store, and I hope they’re true. As usual, we won’t know for sure until Apple makes their move. Until then, the new stuff in iTunes 11 will have to hold us over.

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