iTunes 11 review

iTunes 11 Review

Apple iTunes 11 is the long-awaited (and slightly delayed) update to Apple's music and media playing, iOS device syncing, and iTunes Store software. It's a radical update too: our iTunes 11 review looks at the new interface design, revamped functions, performance benchmarks and new features.

When you start using iTunes 11 you quickly become aware that this is no slight upgrade: there are sufficient enhancements to the visual style and enough performance enhancements to more than warrant the new version number.

The iTunes 11 new interface

iTunes 11 now sports a completely new look that simplifies the interface. Part of this is a new edge-to-edge design that's removes much of the clutter, particularly around the edge of the screen. The Play, Next and Previous buttons are no longer contained in round elements but flat symbols on the gray background, while the Volume slider no longer has icons (Apple assumes that unmarked slider is obvious enough to refer to volume); the iTunes LCD display is slightly cleaner but now contains the Up Next icon (more on that later) while the View mode buttons have been removed completely, leaving just the new enhanced Search button.

Some of the elements from the Sidebar have been integrated with the Albums, Artists, Gengres and Composers buttons – which now displays: Songs, Albums, Artists, Genres, Videos, Playlists, and Radio.

The Status Bar has been removed from the bottom of the Application Window, so you no longer see how many tracks and storage space the iTunes library is taking up. This also removes the duplicate Genius, Shuffle, and Repeat, Eject and Airplay controls, though they are still in the iTunes LCD display (where they make more sense) or have been placed elsewhere in the interface.

A quick trip to the View menu enables you to get the Sidebar and Status Bar back if you really want them. The Status Bar seems a bit redundant really and, although the new interface is not without it's learning curve, we quickly found ourselves happier using iTunes without the Sidebar.

iTunes 11 vs iTunes 10

The old iTunes interface (left) and the iTunes 11 interface (right)

iTunes 11 taking its style from iOS

Aside from the edge-to-edge styling, it's clear that iTunes 11 is taking a lot of its cues from the iOS interface design. There are lots of instances of Pop-Over menus (the box and triangle style from iTunes), another clear example of this kind of interface element is the Album Folder view, which expands beneath an album artwork to reveal the tracks contained within.

Album Folders reveal one of the nicest touches in iTunes 11: contextual background art. Rather than just having a grey Album Folder background, or a wood-based skeumorphic design like Newsstand on iOS, the Album Folder is made up by matching the colour of the album with the album art blended into it using a gradient feather effect.

iTunes 11 Album Folder

Album view with its expanding Album Folders is now the default view, and it seems to be the one that we're working in more often. It's certainly more visually appealing than the Songs view (although that is still accessible and works largely the same as before).

If you're not happy with the new style of iTunes, then click Songs and choose View > Show Sidebar and you're largely back to where you were before. The only thing missing is that you only have the List view, not the Grid, Album List, or Coverflow view (For some reason these are still available in Playlists view, however.). Albums largely replaces the Grid view, and the Artists option is presented in Album List view (with a handy iOS-esque list of artists where the Sidebar used to be). If you're into Coverflow then you're out of luck as it's obviously been put out to pasture.

iTunes 11 code and performance

Great news! iTunes 11 is cleaner and faster under the hood, as well as on the surface and it certainly shows when you use it. iTunes 11 was one of the last applications to move from the older Carbon operating system (which was 32-bit) to the newer Cocoa (which Apple took to 32-bit). Whereas iTunes 10 was still a 32-bit application and still featured a lot of legacy code; iTunes 11 is now a fully 64-bit application and we believe it has had a substantial Cocoa rewrite. (Coders around the Internet still seem to feel that it still has some legacy code but it must be mostly Cocoa by now).

To test the performance we converted a 47 minute 40 second mp3 file (The Best Of 2008 mix from the Hectic City blog) and used the Convert to AAC in iTunes 10 and 11.

iTunes 10 took 1:17.48 to convert the file, whereas iTunes 11 did it in 51.38, a good 26 seconds (approximately 50 per cent) faster at that particular task.

iTunes Convert to AAC Speed Test

iTunes 11 Convert to AAC SpeedTest

It also feels snappier to use, the interface moves more quickly and we experienced fewer spinning ball situations. This could be just because of the fresh installation, but we'd wager that being able to access larger memory blocks in 64-bit mode has a lot to do with it. We also found it responded faster when we edited information on multiple items (iTunes sluggishness at this basic task has been something of a bugbear of ours for years).

iTunes 11 Up Next

Aside from the new visual style, the main difference in usability for iTunes 11 is the Up Next menu. This is accessed by clicking the Up Next icon in the iTunes LCD display and displays upcoming tracks.

Up Next is rarely empty, as clicking on a track in Songs plays that track, and displays the upcoming songs after it; clicking a track in Albums selects that track and all the tracks that follow it in the album.

Up Next keeps adding tracks as it plays through the playlist). This makes sense when you think about it, because choosing a track in iTunes would always move to the next track after playing it.

iTunes 11 Up Next

You can manage the Up Next list on a more granular level, however. If you drag and drop tracks to the Up Next icon it will play that song next (and any you add after it). You can also click on the Arrow icon next to a track and choose Add to Up Next.

Cleverly, when that track has finished it will return back to the list you had in the first place.

Users with Sonos systems might have already experienced a different approach to the Up Next style of playlist creation. Clicking a track plays it, then clicking more tracks adds them to the list. The iTunes approach is more confusing at first, as you wonder where all these tracks are coming from; but crucially it is sticking to the same playing process as previous versions of iTunes (ideal for casual owners who might not even notice the Up Next button or how it works).

The Up Next window is interactive. You can remove tracks from it, re-order tracks, and a contextual menu next each track enables you to start a Genius playlist, add tracks to Playlists, go to the Artist or Track in iTunes, or view the track and similar ones on the Store. There is also a Time icon in Up Next which turns it into a Previously Played playlist (again, an option that is no longer immediately available via the Sidebar).

Next: MiniPlayer and missing features