Apple promised us an overhauled iTunes to go with its latest iPods and iPhones when they were shown off in September, but version 11 of the all-in-one jukebox program has only just landed. This release aims to address the growing number of complaints from users about software bloat and degraded performance with a slick new look and reorganised controls. There’s also a concerted effort to make the iTunes Store and iCloud features more useful, but none of that is relevant in India since there is no iTunes music or movie store here.

iTunes has become somewhat of a pain to use over the past few years. As iPods, iPhones and iPads became more capable, the corresponding features needed in iTunes made it more cluttered and awkward to use. iTunes is also a notorious resource hog, with libraries larger than a few thousand songs often slowing PCs to a crawl.

New initial screen

New initial screen seen at first launch

Version 11 feels a lot cleaner and snappier, even though the overhaul is mostly cosmetic. The download weighs in at 84 MB, which seems excessively large. Installation is straightforward and the first screen you see has a helpful tutorial with arrows pointing to the new locations of some of the common controls. The main toolbar has received its most significant overhaul in many years. The greenish hue is gone from the track information panel, the buttons lose their round outlines, and the view controls are gone. Even the text in the info panel is bigger and more spaced out. The Windows version also loses its menu bar, which had previously been merged into the upper panel. If Apple’s designers were going for a sparse look, they’ve achieved it.


Interface and usage

The sidebar that’s been there since version 1 is gone (though you can turn it back on), leaving more room for your content. Its functions have been redistributed throughout the window: a horizontal bar between the controls and contents lets you choose how to arrange media, switch between content type, and pop over to the iTunes Store. Devices show up here when they’re plugged in (or syncing via Wi-Fi). It’s an intelligent use of space, and shifts a lot of attention to the huge wall of content below.

Album with flyout

Albums view with flyout showing contents and options.

The default spreadsheet-like view of song metadata that used to take up the majority of your screen space has been replaced by a pictorial grid of your album artwork. Clicking an album cover reveals a flyout with a track listing, play controls, album artwork and iTunes Store links. The background and text are automatically coloured based on the album cover, making each flyout unique and memorable, if sometimes garish. This of course works best if your songs and videos are properly tagged and sorted—not a problem if you buy all your content through the iTunes store or rip CDs, but rather shabby looking if your collection has been imported from other sources.

Beyond the Albums view, the Songs, Artists and Genres view have also been overhauled, with a sidebar much like the column browser in previous versions (which can still be turned on if you want it). All the views feature larger text, album artwork everywhere, and more expansive layouts. The new Playlists view replaces the list in the old sidebar, which makes dragging and dropping far more difficult than it used to be. Only the Radio view is unchanged, with the same list of stations nested by genre and no useful way to discover new or interesting music.

Conventional view

Spaced out view of tracks sorted by genre

Search results now show up instantly in a flyout menu as you type, and results can be added to the current queue or any playlist. The device management screens which show up when an iPod, iPad or iPhone is plugged in have also been spruced up.

The visual overhaul is very welcome, but a few things are more difficult to do. Hiding the menus leaves no simple way to tweak the view or get to many tools. You can’t drag image files onto albums to set embed in one shot, and playlist creation is also more difficult.

On the other hand, there’s finally a way to enqueue individual tracks without upsetting a playlist or turning shuffle off. In fact, a new flyout menu in the information area lets you see which songs are up next and knock them out if you wish to, whether you’re playing an album in sequence or shuffling through the entire library. This replaces the iTunes DJ and Party Mix features. While it isn’t a direct substitute, we found it more useful.

Mini player with search

New mini player window with search flyout.

Finally, there’s a totally overhauled mini player. This tiny window is designed to stay visible when you’re doing other things. When left alone, all you’ll see is a thumbnail and the name of the current track and artist. Hover over it and playback controls appear. You can pull up the same “Up Next” flyout and a new search field to help you find and enqueue tracks. Considering its features and purpose, we sorely missed an “Always on top” option.

Up Next flyout

“Up Next” flyout with enqueuing options

iCloud and conclusion

Indian users won’t get much out of the new iCloud features, but taken together, they point to changing media consumption habits. Users can stream their purchased music, movies and TV shows from the cloud if it isn’t on their Mac or PC, somewhat eliminating the need to ever actually download it. This is great news for those with SSDs rather than hard drives in their current laptops and tablets. iTunes now does not discriminate between songs based on where they’re stored, and behaves almost like the Web-based Spotify and Grooveshark, which have become quite popular. Bandwidth limits probably won’t let Indian users make much of these features, but we look forward to using them someday.

Device management

Overhauled device management screen.

Overall, iTunes 11 is a welcome and refreshing update. It seems to have improved its resource consumption habits, but only long-term usage will reveal how much. Some flexibility has been sacrificed in favour of simplicity, but it’s a tradeoff we’re happy with.