Review: iTunes 11 adds cool features, but can be jarring to longtime users

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What’s next?

If you're accustomed to using the iTunes DJ playlist, you’ll have to adjust to its quite different replacement, the new Up Next feature. Whereas iTunes DJ could extract tracks from a selected playlist or from your entire library, Up Next plays only what you tell it to. You can select items, right-click them, and then choose either Play Next, to play them after the current track, or Add To Up Next, to add them to the upper part of the queue, in front of what was already there.

You can also drag items to the iTunes LCD (the display at the top of the window). If you press the Option key and hover over an item, its track number will change to a plus (+) icon; click that to add it to Up Next. (Alternatively, you can press Option-Enter to add selected items, but this will add the items only to the top of the queue, not to the end.) Click the Up Next icon to open a popup window containing a list of what’s to be played; you can reorder your play queue from this list, or delete songs that you no longer want to hear. Apple’s updated Remote iOS app integrates with Up Next.

To display the Up Next list, click the 'Up Next' icon in the iTunes LCD.

Up Next employs a new kind of contextual menu. When you hover your cursor over a song, a small arrow icon appears after its name. Click this, and you'll see a contextual menu containing a number of commands, including those for Up Next, as well as others for adding songs to playlists, starting Genius, viewing items in the iTunes Store, and more.

The new contextual menu displays when you click arrow icons next to items in your library, but the older contextual menu remains available if you right-click an item.

Although Up Next is a very useful feature, initially it's confusing. You can add items to the queue in various ways, but those ways are inconsistent, and it takes time to understand exactly what happens when you have songs in the queue and add others. Also, a perplexing dialog box appears when you have something in the Up Next queue but you go to play something else. The program asks whether you want to clear the songs in the queue—an odd question, since iTunes doesn’t offer to put the songs at the end of the queue.

Updated MiniPlayer

The MiniPlayer has been redesigned as well, and now functions more as a control center for iTunes. In addition to providing the standard controls for play/pause, next, and previous, it shows you what’s queued up in the Up Next list; also, a search field lets you find songs, albums, and playlists, and either add them to the Up Next list or play them immediately. Searching was abysmally slow in my 65,000-track library: I sat through more than 20 seconds of a spinning beachball before getting results, though those results were useful and practical. (On my blog, I posted a video of just how bad it was.) I found the MiniPlayer so useful that I’ve set up iTunes to display it all the time. (Since I use Spaces, setting up MiniPlayer for permanent display wasn’t easy; this hint explains how to do it.) In a perfect world, I would frequently use this search field to find what I listen to from the MiniPlayer window, and to avoid visiting the main iTunes window as often.

Unfortunately the MiniPlayer lacks a progress bar. This is problematic for me in two ways. First, I sometimes want to see where I am in a certain track. Second, I often want to skip ahead in a track—for instance, when I’m listening to a podcast or when I want to skip through a drum solo in the middle of a live song.

Clicking the album art in the MiniPlayer brings up the artwork player window, which shows the album art in a larger window with QuickTime-type controls at the bottom (when you hover your cursor over that window). I opened that window, moved it just above the MiniPlayer on my screen, and then closed it. Now any time I want to access its controls, I click the album art in the MiniPlayer—and the larger control window displays in the same location.

The MiniPlayer (right, with the Up Next list visible) can work in tandem with the artwork player (left).

To change the MiniPlayer's volume, you click the AirPlay icon and change the Master Volume, rather than using a volume slider.

I wish that Apple had put the MiniPlayer controls and access to Up Next in the menu bar, but I expect third-party apps to add such functionality if possible.

Continue to page three of our iTunes 11 review →

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Refreshed interface
    • Up Next offer a new way to queue up music
    • Improved MiniPlayer, iTunes Store integration
    • Simplified playlist creation


    • Sort options limited in different views, many view options are hidden or inconsistent
    • Searching very slow with large libraries
    • No artwork window or option to change the size of album art in Albums view
    • No option to open multiple windows
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