First look: Apple's pretty iTunes 11's a speed demon

Apple [AAPL] introduced iTunes 11 yesterday, a significant revision to what is arguably its most important slice of software, given the service has approximately 400 million potential users.

[ABOVE: Eddy Cue's iTunes 11 intro in September.]

Pretty speed demon

There's been lots written on the refined user interface and Apple's move to introduce visual improvements to the way you navigate through your content. You do need to spend a little time getting to understand the new interface, many of the things you might have done with the old version of iTunes are hidden away in the current version, while also being more logically arranged.

Apple iTunes is much faster

[ABOVE: The new MiniPlayer does more than it seems.]

The MiniPlayer is much better and lets you do almost anything you might wish to do in the full screen application. In use it shows you the title and artist of the song you're playing, but mouse across it and you're given access to a series of controls, including a search tool.

I've seldom used MiniPlayer in the past, but the added functions in iTunes 11 should change that.

The depth of thought that's gone into the release is evidenced by the software's ability to colour coordinate track listings to match the cover of which album you happen to be listening to, which makes it feel a little like you're looking at the digital equivalent of a CD collection.

While the visual and user interface changes are impressive, for me the biggest deal in the release is just how much faster it feels when navigating through a huge (c.15,000-track) music collection.

The software justifies its own installation by these performance improvements -- the only delays I've come across is on those occasions when I've had to download a missing track via iCloud and iTunes Match. Overall iTunes seems far less bloated and much more responsive than before.

Apple's iTunes 11 first look

[ABOVE: An example of the way albums appear when you play them. Backround colour changes to match that of the selected album.]

A few pros and cons

The Genius feature isn't as easy to find in the top window, to enable creation of a Genius playlist from your current track you now need to click on the right-facing arrow that appears when you mouse over the track name. Doing so raises several options: Star Ratings; Play Next; three Genius options; Go to iTunes Store and add to Playlist, among others.

I've seen some people complain that they now need to create playlists if they want to show the bit rate of songs, which isn't the case. In 'Songs' view you can navigate to View>View Options in the top menu bar; in this view you get lots of choices, including the capacity to show Bit Rate in the song listing. In most cases those elements some users might have grown to enjoy are still there, ready to be re-enabled through adroit use of commands available in the View menu.

One relatively obvious feature that appears to be missing is the capacity to play an album when you mouse over the album artwork. It's hard to speculate on why this might be missing, but it makes so much sense to include this ability I can't help but expect to see it appear inside a future software update.

I do feel the loss of CoverFlow is compensated for by the many more visual tricks you use to wade through your collection, but it might have been nice to make an exception to this when you work in album view with the currently playing album appearing across so much of the window (above). This could be a personal thing but I'd quite like to cherry pick album tracks while also scrolling through the rest of my collection.

The Play/Up Next feature merits a little explanation. This lets you create an on-the-fly playlist, determining which song follows which during playback. You access the feature as shown in the image below.

There's two options, 'Play Next' and 'Add to Play Next'. You use the first to identify a selected track, album, playlist, genre or artist as the next to play. To add even more tracks, albums, playlists, genres or artists to the list you then use the 'Add To Play Next' button. There's an excellent and far more in-depth explanation to help you use this tool right here.

The improvements aren't confined to music: there's a significant change when dealing with TV shows and movie purchases, principally that you can now stream these forms of content without re-downloading them to your computer, which should save you precious disk space, particularly when using space-limited systems such as the MacBook Air.

Apple iTunes 11 UpNext feature

[ABOVE: Some of the tools available via the Now Playing bar.]

A little speculation

Some may notice the appearance of a new dedicated 'Radio' button near the top of the iTunes browser. This is interesting because in recent years radio has seemed a poor relative to the rest of the media offerings inside iTunes -- and still do:

  • The default collection of stations is hardly ever updated and the playback interference remains more or less the same.
  • The listings aren't accurate -- BBC Radio 6 Music is described as: "Classic concerts and sessions from the BBC's vast music store." Which it isn't, as this is the broadcaster's best alternative music channel.

At least one analyst believes the elevation of iTunes' Radio offering could emerge to be a placeholder for the company's much-anticipated move to launch its own streaming radio service to compete with Pandora and/or Spotify.

" Apple’s iTunes 11 has made the current generation “Radio” product far more prominent, adding it to the horizontal feature bar that runs across the top of the screen. While the service underlying that Radio button is unappealing to most consumers today, we believe the radio service can easily be updated to incorporate the functionality we envisioned in our October 2012 blog post, click here. We continue to believe an iRadio product is critical for Apple to create a local advertising/commerce strategy, tying together Maps, Passbook, Siri and a new music service (which we are calling iRadio for now)," writes BTIG analyst, Richard Greenfield.

Summing up:

Improvements in visual navigation and a more logical arrangement of tools are good, but for me the biggest positive within iTunes 11 remains its vastly improved performance on all three Macs I've tested it on, including a relatively ancient five-year-old MacBook.

It seems Apple's decision to delay the release for a month has paid off. Perhaps Apple's listened to recent criticism that it has introduced new software before it is ready (Maps?) and chosen to get back to shipping software products only when they're ready. You'd imagine that with near 400 million potential users any major bugs or criticisms would have emerged by now, but the only bug reports I've come across include some complaints the AirPlay button isn't always active on every system and claims of missing artwork, neither of which I've experienced.

The upshot?

Faster, slicker and prettier, iTunes 11 goes a long, long way toward shrugging off previous complaints at its performance. I'm sure more cautious users may delay installation for a few days pending the emergence of any major faults, but in the absence of such reports, this is a must-have upgrade. I'm really, really pleased at how much more responsive it seems to have become.

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