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

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A search for 'Shakespeare' yields items from various iTunes libraries.

iTunes 11's new search feature dramatically changes the way you'll search for content in your iTunes library. Previously, when you searched for something, you could do so only for the currently active library. So if you were in your Music library, you could search for music, but not movies, TV shows, or other content.

Now, by default, the search field is set to search your entire library. If you click the magnifying glass icon in the search window, you can uncheck Search Entire Library, and search only the currently active library.

To select a result, click the item. At once, iTunes will take you to that item in whatever library it lives.

The new search has two serious problems, however. First, as I noted earlier, searches of my large library took an astounding 20 seconds of beachballing before the search results appeared. Second, clicking an item dismisses the search list, so if you want to find additonal items from the same search, I had to wait the full duration of the search before seeing the results again. (I performed my testing on a late-2010 Mac mini carrying a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a solid-state drive.) In contrast, searching a small library of about 1350 songs on a Retina MacBook Pro produced instantaneous results.

Search speed is much faster from the iTunes window if you uncheck Search Entire Library.

Syncing iOS devices

The method for syncing iOS devices hasn't changed much, but you'll access them slightly differently. If you have the sidebar displayed (View > Show Sidebar), your iPhone, iPad, or iPod will display there as before, but if you don’t use the sidebar, you'll access your iOS devices from a button at the top right of the iTunes window.

iOS devices are grouped in a popup menu that appears when you click the Devices button.

If you have, say, three iOS devices connected, the button will be labeled 3 Devices. Click it to see your devices, and then click one of the devices to access its syncing screens. These are much the same as before, though iTunes 11's Helvetica font makes them seem less airy. Small changes include displays of your device’s current battery charge and of Install/Remove options instead of checkboxes for syncing apps to iOS devices.

After you’ve applied any settings you want, click the Done button to return to your iTunes library.

iTunes in the Cloud

iTunes 11 blurs the distinction between what's on your computer and what's in the cloud. If you check Show iTunes in the Cloud purchases in the Store preferences (it's activated by default), you’ll see any music or video content that you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store in your iTunes library, whether you have physical copies of it on your hard drive or not. This differs from iTunes Match, where you can store your entire music library in the cloud; what you get here is just the addition of any items you may have bought and deleted.

This new display can be more of a hindrance than a blessing. Do you really want to see all of the free singles you’ve deleted after listening to them once? You can get rid of these items, but the process is slow: Go to the iTunes Store, click Purchased under Quick Links, and find the tracks that you don’t want to see. In Album view, hover your cursor over an album and click the X icon located in the upper left corner. Doing so removes the album from your Purchased list and from your iTunes library. (To restore an item, go to your account in the iTunes Store, select iTunes in the Cloud > View Hidden Purchases, find what you want, and click Unhide.)

The new iTunes makes no visible changes to iTunes Match—most significantly, no change to the 25,000-track limit. I deleted my entire iTunes Match library to start from scratch, and ran into the same problems I’ve encountered since the beginning, with some albums matching partially, but not matching on one or two tracks. Any tracks that didn’t match in the past also didn’t match this time around.

For some albums, certain tracks show as being in the cloud even though they’re on my Mac.

I had hoped that Apple would improve its matching algorithm, but apparently it didn't. The only visible change in the updated version is a cloud icon on album corners, as for iTunes in the Cloud purchases. You can download individual songs by clicking the cloud icons next to each one, or you can download an entire album by clicking the cloud icon on the corner of its artwork.

iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud occasionally perplexed me. In my iTunes library, iTunes showed certain songs as being in the cloud, even though they were present in my library. Others appeared out of their proper order, and sometimes only a handful of tracks from purchased albums showed as being available from the cloud.

The new iTunes Store

The other major change in iTunes 11 is a new design for the iTunes Store. One of many ways to get to the iTunes Store is by clicking the iTunes Store button at the top right of the iTunes window. The new iTunes Store has a cleaner design than before, which you may already be familiar with from the iOS version of the store. The iTunes Store, like the program itself, seems to be optimized for a smaller display—say, a 15-inch laptop. On my large Cinema Display, the iTunes Store left a lot of empty space on either side of the store content; shrinking the window to about 60 percent of its width removes that space.

The new iTunes Store is cleaner and clearer than its predecessor was.

You can see some iTunes Store information from within your library. If you’re in Albums view in your Music library, click an album to show its tracks, and then click the In The Store button to see (after a few seconds) Top Songs, Top Albums, and Recommended Songs by that artist—all while remaining in your library.

Absent from the iTunes Store are the quick-look preview panes. In the past, you could hover your pointer over an item, and click on the i icon to obtain more information about it. Now, however, you must click through to the item’s page. Apple has also removed Power Search, which let you to search for items using multiple criteria, from the iTunes Store.

On the plus side, Apple added a nifty feature for redeeming iTunes gift cards. Click Redeem in the Quick Links section, and you can use your Mac’s built-in camera to capture and submit the gift code—it's much easier than entering the code by hand.

But not everything is perfect…

Naturally, not everything is perfect with iTunes 11. Many people seem to have lost album art; in my case, all of the art for my movies and TV shows disappeared, and dozens of my albums lacked art. (See this hint for a way to get iTunes to redisplay art for movies and TV shows.) In views other than Albums, you can’t click an album to select it and then (for example) press Command-I to change its tags; instead, you have to select the tracks—and if they're in several columns, doing so is harder than it usd to be. Some animations, such as when I created a new playlist, lag more than they should, even on a Retina MacBook Pro. And surprisingly, iTunes 11 doesn’t hook into Notification Center. People will quickly adapt to many of the other small annoyances, but in other instances that they'll continue to miss the old approach.

A number of things have been cut from iTunes 11. For example, while you can go to List View for your music by clicking Songs, but you can’t display album art in that view. Album List view, which was in iTunes 10, is gone. The iTunes window no longer includes an album art window at the bottom left. Instead, the album art for the currently playing song displays in the iTunes LCD (the top part of the window, with the progress bar); and if you click the album art, a larger window pops up. Also, you can't have multiple windows in iTunes. In the past, many people used a separate window for the iTunes Store or for certain playlists, but that’s gone in iTunes 11.

Other notable MIAs include the Advanced menu; the Find Duplicates command; the Gapless Playback tag (which hardly anyone understood anyway); Cover Flow view; the Column Browser (other than in Songs view); and the iTunes Sidebar, which displayed iTunes Store and Genius information.

Bottom line

All in all, version 11 is a good upgrade to iTunes. Some parts of the program have been simplified, while others see new complexity. With the focus on playing instead of organizing, Apple is trying to turn iTunes into a more user-friendly tool for playing media.

What bothers me most about iTunes 11 is the way it imposes new ways of organizing and viewing content without offering familiar alternatives. Clearly, Apple considers Albums view—with tracks showing minimal information spread across columns—attractive and ideal for many users; but why not let others choose different ways to view their content? Songs view provides the best example: Allowing users to display album art (as with iTunes 10) when in a list view like this isn't rocket science. But removing that option forces users who want to view their music that way—and who are used to it—to adopt a new way of thinking. Ultimately the iTunes interface is simply a visual metaphor for the way people organize their music. But when someone comes into your home and rearranges things, it’s hard to find them again.

Many of the controls in iTunes 11 are hidden, and become visible only on a mouse-over. Though you'll quickly figure out this sort of thing, and though not having buttons and arrows everywhere makes iTunes look less distractingly busy, the new design leaves the user the burden of figuring out how to perform basic operations.

If you have a small iTunes library, you’ll probably like the new views and the ease of creating playlists. If you have a large library, however, you’ll likely be disappointed by the limited viewing options in iTunes 11, and you may want to think twice about upgrading (at least until Apple makes some improvements).

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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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