Mon, 03 Dec 2012 iTunes 11 review
Latest version of iTunes introduces new features, style and store plus performance enhancements
- Manufacturer: Apple
- Pros: 64-bit code runs much faster than before; Up Next, Playback Sync, and MiniPlayer all great features; cleaner more stylish interface
- Cons: Removal of Sidebar is a bit of a shock (you can get it back in the View menu though); iTunes Match could be better; it'd be nice if Apple played nicer with other music services; no Gapless Playback or View Duplicates
- Price: Free
- Star rating:
iTunes 11 MiniPlayer
Another marquee feature of iTunes 11 is the wholly redesigned MiniPlayer. In previous versions of iTunes, the MiniPlayer displayed just Shuffle controls, Volume and the iTunes LCD display; it is now fully interactive and enables you to search, select and play tracks. And it's even smaller than before.
The MiniPlayer displays a small album art and the track currently being played, and when you hover the mouse over it the track name changes to display Menu, Shuttle controls, AirPlay, Up Next and Search icons. Two notable omissions from the MiniPlayer are sliders for Volume and scrubbing through tracks. Volume isn't that important but scrubbing seems like a bit of an omission, but Apple clearly has to decide what stays in and out and we think the new MiniPlayer offers far more than it takes away. (As a side note you can always tap the Album art in MiniPlayer to open a track Album Art window which has Volume and Scrubbing sliders.)
Tapping Up Next expands the MiniDisplay (either up or down, depending on the location of the MiniPlayer on your desktop) whereas search enables you to look for Artists, Albums, Songs, and Playlists (but not Podcasts, Films, or TV Shows.
The MiniPlayer is deceptively easy to use, and is one of the better examples of Apple's design ethos of breaking down complicated interface interactions in an intuitive way whilst getting rid of clutter.
Your milage with the MiniPlayer will depend on your familiarity with your music library; it's at its best when you know exactly what you want to play. It's less good for random browsing and picking, although we imagine that's really what you should be using the main iTunes Application Window for.
You enter MiniPlayer mode by clicking the MiniPlayer icon (now located on the top right next to the Full Screen icon). It is also possible to view both the main Application Window and MiniPlayer view by pressing Option+Command+3.
The iTunes MiniPlayer expands to display search results
iTunes 11 and AirPlay
AirPlay has been updated and now enables you to adjust volume settings for each device. You can also now use the MiniPlayer with AirPlay and control different devices separately, making it much more versatile for people with multiple AirPlay connected devices. There has also been a separate software update for the Apple TV. It's only possible to play one track or movie via AirPlay at once, so you can't send different tracks to different devices.
iTunes 11 Search
iTunes 11 introduces a slightly new search engine that delivers more results than before. Search returns results for Artists, Albums, Songs, Music Videos, Playlists, Podcasts, Books and Apps. There is a larger selection of results in the main Application Window than in the MiniPlayer (which doesn't access Podcasts or Music Videos). You can filter by All, Song, Album, Artist, and Composer.
Search in iTunes 11 is good at is returning the right content if you enter the right term (or just a few letters). Like Spotlight it reacts instantly and worked ludicrously fast on our test iMac (2009). What search doesn't offer is any kind of boolean power searching, so you can't search for Kinks AND Ray Davis for example, to produce all tracks by the band or lead singer. You also can't search by date, genre, rating or any kind of complex search. Most users won't really care, because you just want to look for a track or artist, but it seems an oversight not to include some of the more powerful functionality that you get in Spotlight from iTunes Search. Although you can set up Smart Playlists to group together this kind of information.
iTunes 11 iCloud features: streaming and syncing
iTunes 11 introduces a few new features via its iClouds service. First of all any tracks you purchase from the iTunes Store can be played instantly via streaming so you no longer have to wait for them to download. It's a nice touch but not a big deal, really, unless you're downloading something like Echoes from Pink Flloyd (23 minutes and 32 seconds) and really can't wait a couple of minutes for it.
Of much more interest is that you can now – finally – stream movies and TV shows that you have purchased in iTunes straight from the store. So you no longer need to download movies to every machine you own. Given that Apple had a trouble getting studios to agree to download movies to a second machine, and this only happened within the last year, this is a major step forward. Hopefully this feature will also appear in iOS at some point soon enabling people to stream movies they have purchased over air to an iPad or iPhone instead of having to sync each one. It seems such an obviously functional feature, but sometimes the movie industry is a cagey beast with licensing issues.
iTunes 11: Playback Syncing
Another great iCloud feature is that it now syncs playback information of movies and TV shows, as well as podcasts. These are other long-form items that you're likely to end up watching on multiple devices, and you can now start watching a TV show on the Mac and carry on watching from the same place on an iOS device.
iTunes 11 iOS Syncing
Syncing iOS devices has had a slight revamp in iTunes 11, although the overall process remains largely similar. iOS devices appear as a button next to the iTunes Store button, and if there are multiple devices clicking this reveals a visual drop-down selection menu.
There's a slight visual refresh, but most of the options remain the same: Summary, Info, Apps, Music, Films, and so on. Apps work slightly differently in that instead of checkboxes, they have Install or Remove buttons next to them. But the functionality is the same, you click Install and Sync to move apps from your Mac to an iOS device.
Although Apple has gone some ways towards remote installation with the Automatically Sync New Apps checkbox, we still think this is one area where Google has the edge with Android and the Google Play store. With Google Play you can log in to a web-based store, and install apps remotely over the air to any of your devices – no syncing required. We'd be happier if Apple moved towards this sort of system for app management.
File Sharing still works in largely the same manner, below apps is a list of File Although this is better than the system that preceded it (which was no file management), it still strikes us as being a somewhat clumsy method of file management. This is the sort of thing that iCloud's Documents In The Cloud feature is slowly going to start replacing, which is a good thing in our book.
iTunes 11 On This Device
Aside from that there is one big new feature for iTunes syncing is On This Device. This tab splits the Application Window into a Sidebar and main window in List view displaying all the content on your device. Here you can view content on an iOS device on a Mac. We became incredibly excited when we thought, at long last, that Apple would allow iTunes to take content in the opposite direction (from an iOS device to a Mac) for the first time. But no... sadly you can only play music and movies (or head to the Store to buy them), you can't copy them from an iOS device.
iTunes 11: New Look iTunes Store
The store has also had a complete revamp to go along with iTunes 11. In terms of styling it's more similar to the iTunes Store and App Store in iOS, with a large revolving carousel at the top, and sideways scrolling lists. Along the side are Quicklinks for features like Account, Redeemed and so on. Underneath these are the usual Top 10 Free and Paid lists.
It seems like Apple is making a concerted effort with the Store to move away from putting popularity lists front and centre, and instead having curations of content: New & Noteworthy, What's Hot, Editor's Choice, Apps for Education, Kid's Favourites, and so on.
You access the Store via a permanent button on the top right of the display, which then turns into a Library button to head back to your content. It's a more user-friendly approach, and Apple has also
We're not wholly sold on the new look iTunes Store (not on iOS either): sideways scrolling lists feel weirdly odd to us, maybe in time it'll become second nature but in our heads lists go up and down, not left and right. It's also not tremendously clear whether anything is listed are in order of popularity, or just randomly according to Apple's whim. Perhaps more importantly all the items (apps, books, movies, songs) no longer have their star rating next to them There are, it has to be said, numerous issues with the reviews across iTunes and the App Stores – Google recently moved to link Google+ with the Google Play store so users could only post under their actual name. But only being able to see Star Ratings on the App page itself instead of on the page where you compare multiple apps seems a overkill to us.
iTunes 11 and other services
iTunes 11 is a great step forward, but if you step back from the software update for a moment there are still a lot of areas where it seems to be behind.
Perhaps the big feature missing is some kind of music subscription service, like Spotify (or Spotify integration). iTunes Match goes a long way towards enabling you to stream all of the music you own, wherever you are, but it doesn't allow you to listen to any music at all. Some kind of Spotify service, or Spotify integration with our own music collection would be a good service.
Users of Sonos systems (which works out fine with iTunes 11 incidentally feel free to upgrade) will appreciate how much better a music system can be. Sonos takes your iTunes library, with a system similar to Up Next but it enables you to mix up tracks from iTunes, Spotify, Napster, as well as online radio services like Last.fm, Pandora and live gigs from Wolfgang's Vault. When you use this sort of system you realise just how many alternatives to your own iTunes music collection are out there, and they're not always direct rivals: Wolfgang's Vault and iTunes can happily live side by side.
What's missing in iTunes 11
For all the new features in iTunes 11, Apple has had some house clearing and some features have been removed entirely:
Cover Flow. The carousel view that headlined iTunes 7 and allowed you to flip horizontally through tracks and albums. Cover Flow was removed from the Apple TV a while back, so maybe it's just out of favour – Apple is being sued over it, however
View Duplicates. We're not sure why this has been removed. Teh ability to view duplicate files is vital for cleaning up the iTunes Library, and iTunes Match has made it more likely for you to end up with multiple editions of the same track – not less.
iTunes DJ. iTunes DJ enabled you to create music lists according to Genre. However, it's been replaced by the smarter, easier to use, Genius feature so we don't really mind.
Multiple windows. You can no longer double-click Movies, Podcasts, TV Programmes in the Sidebar to open them in a new Window. This was a useful feature but we can see how it could be confusing to newcomers and Apple is bringing it into line with iOS and full screen mode in Mac OS X.
Cover Flow and Multiple Windows we can live without, and it's so long since we used iTunes DJ that we'd almost forgotten about it. But View Duplicates are both useful features that shouldn't have been removed. Hopefully Apple will figure out a way to re-introduce them soon.
Note: This list originally included Gapless Playback. The Gapless Playback option has been removed from iTunes 11 but it now automatically detects and plays back gapless tracks in an album. It previously determined Gapless Playback automatically, but it's better for iTunes newcomers to have Gapless Playback completely automated. Thanks @mcelhearn
Looking at iTunes Match
We're big fans of iTunes Match, which scans all the music on all of your computers and iOS devices and enables you to stream and download any track, anywhere, on any device. It's great and well worth the £21.99.
One great thing about iTunes Match is that it goes some way towards legitimising your old music collection. All the tracks you have ripped from CD, or perhaps picked up from other people or downloaded from the Internet (let's face it, most iTunes accounts have the odd dodgy track in them). iTunes Match enables you to match these songs to iTunes, and download the legitimate file at 256 kbps (without any DRM or copy protection). Which if you have lots of old scratchy MP3s is a great way to get them sounding like the originals.
How Apple got the music industry to agree to this is beyond us, but it goes a long way towards providing a clean break for people who previously ripped tracks from the Internet, but want to bring their collection up-to-date and buy music honestly online from now on.
With that in mind it'd be great if iTunes could sort out the correct track information (Artist, Album, Year, Genre, and so on) alongside downloading the correct audio file and adding album artwork.
iTunes 11 stability
iTunes 11 a comprehensive redesign, a thing in itself that is welcome, although change often shakes things up in ways not everybody appreciates. We love the new Up Next feature, and Album Folders – and once you quickly get used to it iTunes 11 is much more visually pleasant app to use.
Like all major shake-ups it's not without its faults, we did find one error on the iTunes Store (the Previous Tracks menu didn't work) although this may have been server gremlins at Apple's end, and it all seems fine now. It's functionally much faster and we haven't had any real problems using it; it even works fine with our Sonos system which is typically the first thing to have trouble with any new version of iTunes.
If you feel out of sorts with the new interface then click on Songs and View > Show Sidebar and you're almost back to normal.
Is it worth upgrading to iTunes 11?
It's a free update so there's no cost to update, and we have yet to come across any major errors. It seems to work with Sonos and other third-party systems that we've tested, and nothing has gone wrong for us so far. If you use any specialist software in association with iTunes you might want to do a bit of research first, as it is a significant rewrite of the code.
The lack of ability to set Gapless Playback is a bit of an oversight, however, and if you're interested in downloading and joining up mix and dance music (or still have some to import from CD) you might want to bear in mind that you won't be able to in iTunes 11. Hopefull Apple fix this soon.
If anything the speed enhancements make it more reliable and better to use. The new interface is a bit of a jolt, but we like it. Having said htat, it will take a bit of time to get used to it. There's a lot of interesting new features to use in iTunes 11, so if you're up for something new to play with this is a lot of fun.