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iTunes 11: I Want to Be More Impressed Than I Am

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 3, 2012 5:00 AM PT

After the iTunes 11 delivery delay, I was hoping Apple was working through a seriously complicated redesign that would vastly improve my iTunes experience. Instead, we got iTunes 11, which looks like a huge improvement, but -- if anyone out in the world is at least somewhat like me -- is just a marginal improvement with some pretty shininess built into it.

iTunes 11: I Want to Be More Impressed Than I Am

iTunes 11
iTunes 11 has a more visual interface and better integration between devices.
Granted, iTunes has a lot of mistresses to keep happy: It's not only a jukebox hub for music, it holds movies, TV shows, podcasts, iTunes U content, books, apps, and even ringtones. Plus, it's the store for buying or renting all Apple-oriented media and a conduit for synchronizing with iPhones, iPads, and iPods, not to mention the Apple TV.

Still, after two years since the last update, you'd think a $100-plus billion company would have the resources to knock our socks off.

So What Goes Wrong?

Let's start with the album art. I used to think I was as pretty visual guy, attuned to visual things, but viewing my entire music library as a massive grid of colorful albums seems like a good way to incite a seizure. The default view is alphabetical order, which helps, but getting me to actually recognize which album cover holds the songs I want underneath it? Personally, I've got a long way to go before I'll be navigating by album cover. At the same time, I appreciate the digital nod to album covers as an important statement as to the musical personality of an artist's music. I like that, just not for navigation.

And yet, I almost want to try to teach myself to navigate by album cover, because when you click on one -- boom -- you get a wicked-fast drop-down window that shows all the songs you have belonging to the album. You can click a play or shuffle button to start playing right away -- or even add the album your new "Up Next" playlist. And what's the Up Next playlist? One of the best features in iTunes 11, but I'll get to that later. There's more to say about the album view: When you click on an album and get the drop-down details, it's clear that someone at Apple had their thinking hat on because the background color behind the songs is a perfect match to the dominate color element of actual album art. It's a subtle and pleasing detail -- the sort of thing I love about Apple's best products.

Sorting by Artist view, you get album thumbnails with the songs that you own next to each album cover. It's visual and handy without being particularly efficient unless you are, again, an album-art visual thinker. It is fast, though, and that's its saving grace.

Consider Enabling the Sidebar

If you click on Songs to navigate, you'll get a more familiar spreadsheet sort of view of your music that's sortable by name, artist, album, genre, rating, plays, and even the length of time the track will play. You'll also likely see some little "download from iCloud" icons. In my case, I saw all the old music I previously bought from iTunes but now hate so much I tried to delete it from my life. With iCloud, that's hard to do. If I delete it here, will it show up next time I upgrade iTunes? I'll have to get into iTunes somehow and systematically try to hide these from view forever, if possible.

In addition, there are a lot of tracks that show up as duplicates for me -- I have a version that is on my hard drive in my library as well as the same track available for download from iCloud. I'm not sure what gives here. I used to be an iTunes Match customer, but did not renew my subscription -- I just don't have enough non-iTunes-purchased music that I need accessible via iCloud for US$25 a year. For a handful of songs, I can move them around manually.

The question you'll have right away is, "Where the heck are all my playlists!?"

Ah, there's now a top navigation item for Playlists. Click it and a left sidebar will appear with your playlists in it. But there's no way to click on elements of your Library, like Music, to see all your songs. To do that, you'll need to change your view scheme back to Songs with the top horizontal navigation bar. But what if you want to see all your TV shows? Ah, there's a selectable button for that at the top left, which, if you're following me, is on Music. Click it and you can select TV Shows, which drops you into the icon/album-like art view of your TV shows. Click on an icon and you also get the cool drop-down info, which gives you the episode list. You can also sort by Unwatched, Genres, and simply, a spreadsheet-like List view.

Movies functions in a similar way, but select Books, for example, and you get the pretty covers and little else. Why? You can't, for some reason I still can't fathom, read a damn iBook on your Mac. It is 2012, is it not? But iTunes will store them for you with a handy glass shield over the content. You can unlock it with an iOS device though. Handy? Hardly.

Meanwhile, the Nav Starts Growing on You

As I got used to the new navigation, there was still a sense of something missing. I didn't realize what it was until I tried to load up a bunch of holiday music on my old iPod nano: The left sidebar is gone, and when it's gone, it's hard to figure out how to find the right music to sync to the iPad nano. I was seriously lost for five minutes. Eventually, I created a new playlist, then found my list of big songs, then sorted by genre, then added the songs to the playlist, then synced it up with my iPod nano. Intuitive? Not like it was before. Maybe it was just as fast, but I'm not sure.

Either way, how can you avoid this? Show the old sidebar. Go to the View menu and select Show Sidebar. Whew! You get your familiar left side sidebar with easy access to all your stuff! Nice.

Except, what happens? If you show this sidebar, you effectively erase two new navigation elements -- the left horizontal selectable content button and the far right iTunes Store button. Yes, these links are now available in the old-school left side column, so they aren't redundant. But what happens? Learn to navigate the new way? Or stick with the old? I'm of the mind that important software programs like iTunes should nudge users into the new styles of navigation the creators believe is important moving forward. Give us the redundant buttons and hope that we'll start using the right-side iTunes Store button and move with the future. Simple as that.

The New Store

There's not a lot to say here. It's definitely faster, which in itself in a fantastic improvement, as well as a little prettier. Is it fundamentally better or easier to navigate? Not really. Take, for instance, your Wish List feature. Say that you see a movie that you want to rent and watch, but just not now. Can you put it in your Wish List? Nope! Oh wait, you can if you want to buy the movie but you can't if you want to rent it. Apple has been asleep at the wheel with the Wish List for years. Even has this down. I can dump something into my shopping cart at then save it for later where it's handy to me. But what if Amazon stops selling it? No problem. They leave it there for me and say it's no longer for sale or that price changed from when I first put it in. Easy. Nice. Handy. But with Apple? No freaking way. You either buy it now, rent it now, or forget it ever existed.

The iTunes Store
The iTunes Store is faster than before

Ah, but isn't there a new feature for this? In the upper right, there's a "History" icon list button. Click it, and it'll show you the items you bothered to preview in iTunes. So a song that you previewed a week ago but didn't actually buy, but now that you've hear it on the radio a few more times, ok, you're ready to find it again and buy it. You can find it easily through this little History feature. I like it. Does it solve the evaluation-before-you-buy need? No. How about the save-for-later need? No.

With features like this, I get the feeling that iTunes is marvelous for customers with unlimited iTunes buying budgets.

So What's Right About iTunes 11?

Despite the disappointments, iTunes 11 remains an improvement, first and foremost because it's much faster than the old iTunes. It's snappier in navigation and the elements load up and transition more quickly. I love this.

The iCloud integration seems better, too. You can, for instance, set it up so that if you buy a TV show on your MacBook Pro, it'll download to your iOS devices, too. Like my iPhone. So I can download an episode of "Homeland" on my Mac, start watching it, and if my iPhone had enough time to download it, I can pick up where I left off in the episode on my iPhone.

You can also use Apple's more visual navigation scheme if you can -- and revert to old helpers, like the sidebar, if you need to. That's smart. That will go a long way to helping guys like me out. iTunes is fundamentally decent, of course, especially given the wide variety of things it's able to do reasonably well.

Plus, if this isn't obvious to you now, it should be: Apple is "touchifying" its Mac applications, and iTunes shows a glimpse of the future: While you get irritated with the visual nature of the new iTunes 11, consider iTunes 11 on a touch-sensitive iMac screen. Suddenly the ability to touch and flick and select is much more intuitive and user-friendly.

If I were reviewing the new iTunes 11 on a touchscreen-based iMac, I'd be gushing.

Last of All, the 'Up Next' Playlist

With iTunes 11, Apple delivered on fantastic new feature: The Up Next playlist. Basically, this is a dynamic playlist that you can create or clear on the fly as you navigate through music. Say you have a big playlist but only have time or want to listen to a dozen work-friendly songs. You can step through the playlist and add those items to your Up Next playlist on the fly. Mess around with it, get used to it, and I'm guessing you'll start liking it. I do.

At the same time, a word of advice: Notice the little circle button with the ">" symbol inside of it. This little button gives you a popup window that lets you add items to Up Next as well as jump to other views. It's handy and important to your experience with the new iTunes 11. If you get on board with that little button, as well as appreciate Up Next, it'll jumpstart your appreciation for iTunes 11.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at

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