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An In-Depth Look at iTunes 11

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Alongside the launch of the iPhone 5, iPod Nano, and iPod Touch, Apple promised us an October release of iTunes 11; the biggest update to their all-in-one media management tool since the inclusion of a music store in 2003. As October came and went, Apple failed to deliver on time, instead pushing the release back to “November”, and on the 29th the new iTunes finally shipped. With this major release comes a new interface, seamless iCloud integration, and a major design overhaul. In this article I’ll take you in-depth into the new additions and changes to Apple’s Swiss Army Knife of media players.

The Welcome screen in iTunes 11
The Welcome screen in iTunes 11

The Design

Apple's new iTunes design is nothing like they've ever done before. It only mildly resembles its counterparts on iOS, instead creating it's own design language, which manages to fit into OS X while still being unique.

Beginning at the top, the toolbar features a return to the normal left-to-right window controls, replacing the top-down controls which were almost universally panned. There's also new player control buttons which aren't exactly better, just different. As with the rest of the application, this style of button isn't seen anywhere else in OS X and that leads me to believe it might be a sign of things to come.

Continuing across the toolbar, Apple has brought their skeuomorphic volume slider over from iOS, and it works pretty well. While I'm not a fan of skeuomorphism in general, the subtle metallic on the "knob" looks nice and doesn't hurt the overall simplified feel of the design. The toolbar also includes controls for AirPlay front-and-center, which is a welcome addition.

The new toolbar.
The new toolbar.

Rounding off the changes to the toolbar's UI is a new "now playing view" with a noticeable gradient which makes it look like it's been inset into the toolbar. The rest of the player's design can be divided into three styles:

  1. Mac OS X - Some elements of the new iTunes are carried over from versions of iTunes past and on a broader scale, OS X. The most obvious of the non-changes is the app's preference panel which looks exactly like the one found in iTunes 10. Moreover, the iTunes account screens appear to be untouched. In short, if it take a few clicks to find, chances are - Apple hasn't updated it yet.
  2. Metro-ish - For the longest time Microsoft has been accused of copying Apple, but take one look at the expanded album view in iTunes 11 and you'll see the tables might have turned a bit. Seriously, if I didn't know better, I'd think I was using a new version of the Zune software. This design inspiration is especially strange since it's not seen anywhere else in the app.
  3. Bubbles - I was at a loss for what to call this, but I'm settling for "Bubbles" since it most closely resembles the feel of the rest of the iTunes 11 design elements. All list items in this view have a grey font and a light blue, matte rollover highlight. Most notable to me are the inclusion of some new icons for the different kinds of media (Music, Movies, etc...), they're in color unlike the sidebar in Finder and gloss-free unlike most everything else in OS X. If I had to guess, this is the direction I think Apple will be taking OS X as a whole. As of now, I'm not a huge fan, but I can see it growing on me over time.

Finally, there's a new icon which is basically the old one with the music note inverted to be white instead of a dark purple-grey; this was definitely a step backwards. Overall, iTunes has needed a facelift for awhile now and this new design takes many steps forward and only a few back.


iCloud Integration

Apple is billing its new iCloud integration for iTunes 11 as a headline feature, and I guess there's really not much to say on the matter - it works. By default, when you first open the app you're greeted with every song from your iTunes in the Cloud library; don't worry, they're not automatically downloaded, though. Those iTunes in the Cloud songs can be either streamed, downloaded, or hidden completely.

iCloud Integration
iCloud Integration

I chose the third of those options, since I'm not particularly interested in seeing every song I've ever purchased. Streaming music works as expected and buffering was minimal; I can definitely see this playing nicely into a Spotify or Rdio alternative in the near future.

In addition, when you add a song in iCloud to your "Up Next" queue, it buffers in the background, which means you won't have to wait in between songs. Nice touch, Apple. The iCloud integration for TV shows and movies works in the exact same way as for Music, although there seems to be more utility in streaming TV and Movies which otherwise take up quite a bit of hard disk space than in music which is comparatively much smaller.

I was disappointed, however, to see that there is no iCloud integration for Books or Audio Books. All things considered, if your Mac has a large hard drive this newfound iCloud integration probably won't be very useful, but if you're stuck with a smaller SSD, this might be just the thing you need to conserve space.


New Features

Instant search.
Instant search.

iTunes 11 is packed with smaller new features which make using the app a much more enjoyable experience over previous versions. Since they each don't really merit a section of their own, I've compiled a complete list below of some of the biggest ones:

  • Up Next - This one kind of speaks for itself, the Up Next feature allows you to queue songs up to play next. It's basically like a spiced up On-the-Go playlist. But don't mistake it's lack of complexity for a lack of usefulness. Seriously, I use this every day.
  • iTunes Store - The iTunes Store has been updated to match its iOS counterparts. It's faster, nicer looking, and an all around much needed update.
  • Gift Card Redemption - You can now redeem iTunes gift cards using your computer's webcam. While I didn't have a chance to try this one out, it seems really cool. Let's hope it makes its way to the iPhone and iPad where the use case is a bit clearer.
  • Mini Player - The new iTunes Mini Player strips away much of the chrome from the old one in favor of a much cleaner and lighter look. It also spotlights some of iTunes' more recent feature additions like AirPlay and the Up Next queue.
  • Search - iTunes now includes an instant search feature that works just like you'd expect it to; start typing and you results will be narrowed down as you go along. If it can't find what you're looking for, iTunes will allow you to search the store for that query.

What's Missing

While Apple added quite a bit in this release of iTunes, a few features are also missing. If you use any of these, you might want to wait on upgrading.

  • Cover Flow - This is actually a good thing if you ask me. Cover Flow was always accidentally popping up in older versions of iTunes while offering virtually no utility. If I were a betting man, I'd say it's almost a given that Cover Flow will sunset in the next version of OS X, as well. Good riddance!
  • The Sidebar - Well this isn't completely fair since you can still reactivate it from the "View" menu, but it's hidden by default, meaning that Apple probably doesn't want you to use it. To their credit, while I found myself looking for the sidebar performing some tasks, with just a little looking around, I've found that everything in iTunes 11 can be done without it.
  • Multiple Windows - Some users might miss the ability to have multiple iTunes windows, but I respect Apple's desire to simplify the software by removing it. I'd also imagine that more people actually ended up with multiple windows by mistake rather than doing it intentionally, so this serves well for usability.
  • iTunes DJ - This lets people at parties suggest and vote on songs. While it never gained much traction, I always wanted to give it a shot when the opportunity presented itself. Alas, I waited too long. This feature probably won't be missed by many, but if you're one of the few who used it, upgrade with caution.
  • Duplicate Remover - Because iCloud doesn't really allow duplicates, I guess Apple decided to can this little gem. But hey, you don't have any Music that's not purchased from Apple, right?

Conclusion

iTunes 11 is no doubt one of the app's biggest upgrades yet, and it's clear that it has been designed with an eye towards the future. With iCloud as a headlining feature, users with smaller hard drives or SSDs are likely to see their media libraries in a whole new light; not as something stored on your computer, but as something to be retrieved on demand from the cloud.

Moreover, many of the app's user interface design decisions point towards a similar future for the rest of Mac OS X. Despite these major changes, iTunes 11 feels like the iTunes you've come to know with a new coat of paint; and truth be told, that’s not a knock against it. By keeping many interface elements intact, the new iTunes has managed to maintain a pretty slim learning curve for those coming from older versions of the world's most popular MP3 player while still allowing Apple to begin the transition to the future of your media library.

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