If you know anything at all about Apple, you know it's a company that's really big on the whole "user experience" thing. What does this mean for the newly released (and seriously overdue) iTunes 11, the latest version of a free app for organizing and playing music and video on a Windows PC or a Mac and syncing to iOS mobile devices? Not surpisingly, iTunes 11 boasts a faster, cleaner and more intuitive interface than earlier iterations. Was it worth the wait? To answer that question, let's take a look at the various new features that are included in iTunes 11, as well as some of the features that have gone missing.
There's no denying that many people in this world are averse to change, even if that change is painless and for the better. Of course, each person holds a different definition of the word "pain," especially when it comes to adjusting to brand new versions of age-old programs. For this reason, there will be just as many people who'll throw their arms up in frustration over a new software release as those who'll throw their arms up in joy.
Suspense built up around iTunes 11 when Apple pushed back the release date for the new app from October to November. The good news (or the bad news, depending on where you stand) is that iTunes 11 didn't turn out to be a total reimagining.
Nobody's trying to remake the wheel. It's more a smoothing out of that wheel than anything else. There are no "Eureka!" moments when you're using iTunes 11, despite new features like Up Next, iCloud Streaming, Bookmarking, and Unified Search. That's probably its greatest accomplishment. Adhering to the old adage that says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," the folks at Apple have put forth a refreshed product meant to accomplish the difficult task of simplification without "dumbing down." In that respect, they've succeeded well.
iTunes 11 has been touted as a much faster animal than any of its predecessors, and this turns out to be very much true. Historically, iTunes has operated much more slowly on Windows PCs than Macs. Running iTunes 11 on a Windows 7 PC, I found load time to be very much improved, and the feel to be far lighter and more efficient.
Visually, iTunes 11 is certainly handsome and a lot less cluttered than earlier versions. The main interface, which defaults to your music library when launched, displays thumbnail images of album art that can be clicked and expanded. The result is an attractive theme that matches the album cover's predominant color scheme beautifully and gives you the impression of looking at more than just music files on a computer. The changes here are more than cosmetic, though. In fact, there are new and improved features in the brand new version of iTunes that might just make this upgrade a bandwidth-worthy download for many.
The MiniPlayer has been reconfigured to offer the most simplistic of appearances while retaining quick response and a diverse set of controls. On the surface, the MiniPlayer appears to be little more than an indicator of the track currently being played, with a mini-thumbnail of the album cover, the title of the track, and the name of the artist. If you hover over the MiniPlayer, however, you'll see several useful controls: a play/pause button, a previous/next track button, a volume control, a fully functional search box, and the much talked about Up Next feature.
As we just mentioned, there's a new feature in iTunes 11 called Up Next which (as you probably already astutely guessed) tells you what track is set to play next. It also gives you the ability to change that, if you're so inclined, by dragging around the order of the upcoming songs or adding and deleting tracks while you're listening. In my experience, Up Next operated fluidly and shifting the order of songs caused no performance lags.
Easier Playlist Arrangement
Making playlists from the media in your iTunes library has never been easier, and this is a good thing. With iTunes 11, you can simply click and drag an entire album, individual song, artist, or genre into a pop-up sidebar to create new or augment existing playlists. The new platform enables the creation of numerous large playlists without impacting file performance.
Previously, iCloud enabled you to store your media in the cloud. This resolved the encumbrances brought about by devices with smaller hard drives and limited capacity. With iTunes 11, though, iCloud now enables you to stream your stored data directly from the cloud without going through the process of downloading it, with performance as smooth as what you'd get from actually having the file on your computer. Naturally, this functionality requires an internet connection, but with the proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots, this is yet another practical improvement on Apple's part.
Unified Search is useful for those who want to conduct a search that queries their entire media library and not just a single category at a time. Yet on the down side for those who don't, iTunes 11 defaults to Unified Search.
Although it would be more appropriate to call this "media-marking," bookmarking lets you pause a media file (whether it be music, audio book, movie, etc.) and then automatically pick up where you left off on another device. For instance, you might start a movie on your connected TV and then watch the last few minutes of it on your iPad while brushing your teeth before bed.
Just about every time a product is brought back to the drawing board some features are going to be rearranged and others yanked altogether. iTunes 11 is no exception. Because Apple revisited iTunes with the specific intent of creating a less clunky, more streamlined interface, some things were sacrificed for "the greater good."
If you've ever used iTunes before, you'll probably recall the sidebar that used to exist on the left side of the screen where you'd click to access all of the various forms of media in your library. Now, that's been replaced instead by a small drop-down selector. Alternating between your choices there (music, movies, TV shows, audio books, etc.) brings up a nice visual of your media files, complete with a grid-like display of thumbnail images. Yet if you find yourself missing the old library sidebar, you can get it back simply by clicking View in the menu bar and selecting Show Sidebar.
Once touted as a crowning feature for making the library browsing experience easer, Cover Flow has officially been relegated to the league of eliminated designs. In its place, the end-to-end grid display makes browsing for media files a much simpler, more straightforward task.
A favorite feature for the OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)-prone and anyone with a desire not to hear the same tracks twice in a row, the de-duplicator has also been eliminated in the brand new version of iTunes. The de-duplication feature performed the function of going through your iTunes library and getting rid of duplicate files.
As always, there are going to be just as many people who dislike the latest iTunes interface as there are those who adore it. Fortunately for those in the former camp, Apple has made it possible for users to manually revert to some of the features of its predecessor, iTunes 10. This can be accomplished by lifting the virtual hood (in this case, by clicking View in the menu bar) and choosing from among your desired settings -- whether that's to replace the otherwise missing sidebar, keep your iCloud purchases separate from the files on your local drive, or change the default search parameters.
Overall, iTunes 11 represents a positive step in the evolution of a software platform that will likely never achieve perfection. One thing iTunes 11 does incredibly well is to let users do what they've always been able to do, only with a lot fewer clicks. Where the all important "user experience" is concerned, that's nothing less than gold.
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