This week Apple released iTunes 11, a major update to its media management application. First previewed at the company’s media event in September as “the new iTunes,” it was originally planned for an October release but later delayed into November. The “11” part of the name remained somewhat ambiguous, appearing only in hints on Apple’s web site until the software became available yesterday.
Representing one of the most significant design updates in the history of the software, iTunes 11 sports a completely new user interface that emphasizes a graphical presentation of content over the traditional list views, along with a redesigned mini player, and much tighter iCloud and iTunes Store integration. As with any iTunes update, there have been several smaller changes throughout the application as well, but the (generally) good news is that despite the completely redesigned UI, iTunes 11 remains much the same as prior versions under the hood. Features that were feared to have been lost remain intact, and though the redesign isn’t merely skin deep, Apple hasn’t tossed away classic functionality this time.
Read on for our deep look at what’s changed in iTunes 11.
Despite the major version change, the installation of iTunes 11 is surprisingly straightforward, simply requiring a download via Apple’s Software Update, Mac App Store, or within-iTunes Update button. The first time you run it, it will take a few minutes to upgrade your library database, and then you’re pretty much ready to go. The upfront library upgrade process was relatively quick, taking less than 10 minutes even with our largest iTunes libraries, though additional upgrading may have been taking place in the background thereafter.
New User Interface
The biggest—and obviously most noticeable—change in iTunes 11 is a completely redesigned user interface. Gone is the old left-hand sidebar for accessing your media content, devices, and playlists; this is replaced by a full-width screen that defaults to showing content as a grid of artwork—similar in concept to the “Grid View” first introduced in iTunes 8.
A top menu bar provides access to the former media categories such as Music, Movies, and TV Shows, as well as shared libraries and audio CDs from a drop-down menu at the left. A central set of buttons is used to select different views for browsing within the current media category, while buttons at the right provide access to the sync settings for any connected iPhone, iPad or iPod, as well as the iTunes Store.
In the Music section, the Songs option provides access to the older-style track list view, which remains largely identical to prior versions of iTunes, including such features such as column sorting options and the column browser for filtering. Although the left-hand column browser view originally introduced in iTunes 9 has been removed, the traditional top view remains. A new Videos section has also been added here for showing only music videos—a feature introduced in iTunes 6 but later abandoned in iTunes 7 in favor of a default Smart Playlist. A “Radio” option also appears here for Internet Radio tuning, if you have it enabled in iTunes Preferences.
A “List” option can also be used in other sections such as Movies and TV Shows, but will only appear if the Show list views for all media option has been enabled in the iTunes Preferences. This option should be enabled by default if you have upgraded from a previous version of iTunes, but is disabled by default for new iTunes libraries.
In addition to list view, iTunes 11 provides two other standard views. The aforementioned “grid” style view is used for Albums and Videos in the Music section as well as the main listings of Movies, TV Shows, Books, and Apps.
A new two-pane view is now displayed for Podcasts and iTunes U content, as well as for browsing Music by Artist or Genre, Movies or TV Shows by Genre, or Books by Author. In this view, the left column is used to select the Podcast/iTunes U series, Genre, or Author, as applicable, with either the standard grid view shown or an expanded artwork list view shown in the main panel.
Notably, the Cover Flow view first introduced in iTunes 7 has been removed entirely in iTunes 11. Apple has faced patent battles over this feature; it’s unclear as to whether it had to abandon Cover Flow for this reason, or just felt that the interface no longer mattered enough to keep around.
When working in any of the grid views, clicking on an item such as an artist, movie or TV show will expand in place to show a more detailed view: the window will slide apart on a seam, akin to opening a folder on an iOS device. For albums and TV shows, this second layer will contain a list of the individual tracks or episodes inside; movies simply provide summary information such as a description and cast and crew.
TV Shows are grouped into seasons, with a series of buttons at the top used to select the items from each individual season. A common artwork image from one of the seasons is used across all seasons, however, and does not change as the user switches to different seasons.
An In the Store option at the top-right corner of each detail view takes the user to the corresponding content on the iTunes Store, where available.
When viewing by artist, a Gallery option will also appear here allowing users to browse through a photo gallery for the selected artist, where available.
Expanded Album, Movie and TV Show views are rendered by default using custom colors borrowed from the item’s artwork. This can be disabled in the general iTunes preferences to simply use a generic light blue background color instead.
The iTunes Store has seen a similar facelift in iTunes 11, moving to a design more reminiscent of that found in the iOS iTunes app, with a Cover Flow-style heading, more prominent purchasing buttons, and a tabbed style view for separating main details, ratings with reviews, and related content.
Movies and TV shows now provide an HD/SD toggle button that allows users to quickly choose their preferred format, rather than showing a longer series of purchasing buttons for each. Content specs have been moved to an “Information” section further down, but generally made more easily readable in the process.
For Movies that include them, a new iTunes Extras section is also now available, providing users with a description of the extra content, including preview images. Sadly, iTunes Extras remain available only on a Mac or PC, however; they still can’t be used on iOS devices or the current Apple TVs.
TV Shows now include expanded episode information with expanded descriptions and a thumbnail image for each.
A new Preview History feature has also been added to allow users to quickly see a list of tracks they’ve previewed so that they can revisit them or purchase them more easily; users can click on any item to go directly to its store page. Hovering over an item provides a purchase button to buy the item, and for music a playback button to replay the preview.
The View Options in iTunes 11 have been refined to use a non-modal inspector-style window, allowing the window to be left open while navigating between various sections and categories, updating to reflect context-specific information as you do so.
The layout has also been improved, with column names now categorized when working in list view, and adding a Sort by option. View options are also now available in grid and the two-pane detail views provide additional options such as artwork size.
Turning the Sidebar Back On
Note that iTunes 11 still allows you to return to a more traditional view simply by choosing the Show Sidebar option from the View menu.
This will return you to a more traditional iTunes interface, with the added advantage that the colorful icons from the pre-iTunes 10 era have returned. The actual UI in this mode is a hybrid of the standard iTunes sidebar with the newer iTunes 11 layouts in the main panel.
iTunes 11 now provides a menu button beside most items that expands to a quick context menu of commonly used options such as Genius and adding to playlists. This acts as an abbreviated and more accessible version of the full context menu that remains available by right-clicking on an item.
A new “Genius Suggestions” menu item is also now included here, showing a list of up to 10 related tracks from the user’s library.
iTunes 11 introduces a new category to the Movies section for Home Videos, allowing users to more easily filter their own personal video content from the main movies listings.
Items can be set as Home Videos by selecting the item, choosing File, Get Info from the iTunes menu, and visiting the Options tab in the file information dialog. From here, simply change the Media Kind to “Home Video.”
Unfortunately, this category does not seem to yet be used anywhere outside of iTunes. Even this week’s update to the Apple TV does not provide support for the Home Videos category, nor do any iPods or iOS devices; Home Videos on these devices will still be available but will continue to be organized in the main “Movies” section as before. Regardless, this is a welcome addition to iTunes, and we look forward to seeing it spread to other Apple devices.
A Playlists view can be accessed from the Music section, which provides a list view very similar to that from previous versions of iTunes, with a left sidebar showing playlists and a traditional list view for the content of each.
However, each Playlist now includes a heading at the top with the name of the playlist along with a count of the number of items and length and their combined playback duration. Note that clicking on the playlist name at the top of a given playlist will allow the user to rename the playlist; much the same way as clicking twice on the playlist name in the left sidebar worked in prior versions—and still does as well.
At the right side of the playlist heading are buttons for changing the playlist view; both Grid and Artist views are accessible from here, and work in much the same way as they do in the main Music listing.
An “Add To” button in the top right corner allows the user to add content to the playlist by returning to a view of the main library with the playlist shown in a right-hand sidebar. From here the user can browse the iTunes library normally, even moving into different sections such as Movies and TV Shows, and simply add content to the current playlist by dragging and dropping it into the right-hand sidebar. The current playlist can also be manually re-sorted by dragging and dropping items up and down directly in the sidebar, or the user can choose from pre-defined sorting options such as name, album, artist, year, rating, and more by using a drop-down list at the top of the playlist. A “Done” button returns the user back to the standard playlist view.
The general design here feels similar to that found on iOS devices in the approach of selecting a playlist first and then going out and looking for content to add to it, rather than going the other way around. That said, items can still be added to a playlist via drag-and-drop from any view: when initiating a drag-and-drop operation on a given track, a list of all of the playlists will appear in the right-hand sidebar and the user need only drop the item on the appropriate playlist to add it. This also works for adding entire groupings of content, such as albums or artists. Further, items can also still be added by right-clicking on the track and using the Add to Playlist option in much the same way as in prior versions of iTunes.
It’s also worth noting that despite the fact that the Playlists option only appears in the Music section, playlists can continue to include just about any type of media content found in your iTunes library, such as Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, and Audiobooks.
Both Smart Playlists and Genius Playlists remain supported in iTunes 11 and work in much the same way as in prior versions. A new Smart Playlist can be created from the File menu or by clicking on the small plus sign at the bottom-left corner when in Playlist view. Both the user interface for creating and editing Smart Playlists and the options available remain virtually unchanged from iTunes 10. Genius Playlists are created by right-clicking on an item, or accessing the item’s quick menu, and selecting the “Start Genius” option, much as in prior versions of iTunes.
The AirPlay button has been moved up to the top-left corner by the volume control, and now displays a pop-up window with buttons for selecting single or multiple speakers for AirPlay streaming.
It’s now easy to see which speakers are being used at the same time, and independently set volume levels for each speaker should you want to do so.
Downloads in progress are now reflected by a status icon in the top right corner of the iTunes window that appears whenever content is being downloaded, similar in concept to that used in Safari. Clicking on the icon opens a separate window to display download progress.
iTunes in the Cloud
One of the other big changes in iTunes 11 is tighter integration with iTunes in the Cloud features, effectively integrating most of your purchased content directly into iTunes regardless of whether it’s stored on your computer or not. Items that are available in your iTunes Store account but not on your computer will now be displayed along with the rest of your library, differentiated by an iCloud icon next to them.
Music, Movies, and TV Shows can be streamed directly from iCloud in iTunes 11, essentially providing you with an integrated iTunes library regardless of whether your content is stored locally on your computer or not. You can also download a copy locally simply by clicking on the iCloud icon.
This basically integrates the information previously found in the Purchases section in the iTunes Store while allowing you to stream content as well as downloading it. If you don’t want to see your iCloud based library, you can hide any items that aren’t locally stored using the Hide … in the Cloud option found on the View menu.
The new iCloud integration in iTunes 11 also promises seamless over the air syncing of playback position between Movies and TV Shows. In our testing, the actual playback position seemed to sync up reasonably well between iTunes 11, iOS devices and the Apple TV. Last played times and played status however appear to still be slightly less consistent, with the new/played status indicators not always changing appropriately when a TV show or movie is viewed on another device. Oddly, the playback position seems to sync properly, allowing shows to start partway in even when the blue dot indicator would otherwise indicate the item has not yet been opened. It is unclear at this point whether this is a flaw in iTunes 11 or simply a sync issue on Apple’s back-end iCloud servers.
iTunes 11 eliminates the iTunes DJ feature in favor of a new universal play queue called Up Next. Originally known as “Party Shuffle”, iTunes 8.1 renamed it to iTunes DJ and added support for controlling it from the iOS Remote app.
Party Shuffle and iTunes DJ were designed to provide a dynamic play queue but suffered from one significant limitation: you had to specifically use the feature by adding tracks into the iTunes DJ queue and playing them from there. In fact, even if you were already working through a playlist, switching to iTunes DJ required you to move that playlist into the DJ list, stop your current playlist, and then try and pick up where you left off from the iTunes DJ section.
By comparison, the new Up Next feature is always available and works in the background regardless of how you’re playing your music. Up Next basically just lets you see the tracks that iTunes would be playing next anyway. Up Next is accessed simply by clicking on the button at the right of the upper status area, which will display a pop-up window showing the source of the currently selected tracks and the order in which they will be played next.
Tracks can be reordered from here simply by dragging them up and down in the list, or removed by clicking the “X” that appears to the left of the artwork when hovering over a track. The quick menus are also available beside each item from here, providing quick access to set a rating, access genius options, add the track to a playlist or go directly to the related artist, album or iTunes Store entry.
A “Clear” button at the top allows the user to clear the Up Next queue entirely. The clock icon switches to a history of previously played tracks. Hovering over a track in the history view will display a plus sign to the left of the album artwork that can be used to add the song to the Up Next queue.
Up Next has also been integrated into the quick item menus in much the same way as iTunes DJ was previously; Play Next and Add to Up Next options are available on the menus for any given item to either add it to the beginning or end of the Up Next queue, respectively.
The only downside to the elimination of iTunes DJ is the removal of the iOS Remote app features that allowed users in a party setting to let guests request and vote on tracks from the iTunes library. This capability is gone in iTunes 11; however, version 3.0 of the iOS Remote app does now provide direct support for viewing and modifying the Up Next queue.
Note that this does not include the “Guest” mode previously available with iTunes DJ, however, meaning that devices will need to be signed in with Home Sharing or associated directly to the iTunes library in order to access the Up Next queue.
Searching your library in iTunes 11 has been improved with an expanded “live” search that dynamically displays detailed results as you type. Results include appropriate artwork thumbnails and are organized by media category.
From the search results, users can choose to add music items directly to the Up Next queue by hovering over them and clicking the plus button, or access the quick options menu to go directly to the track, album or artist or access Genius functions. An option at the very top of the search results allows the user to filter the current view, much the same way search worked by default in prior iTunes versions.
iTunes 11 introduces a redesigned mini player, allowing users to listen to and control music playback more effectively without needing to keep the main iTunes window open. The Mini Player is accessed from a button in the top-right corner of the main iTunes window, providing a simplified and unobtrusive interface focused on playing back your music. It can be set to remain on top of all other windows for easy access.
The Mini Player shows an artwork thumbnail and information on the currently playing track, along with a button for accessing Up Next and a search button. Hovering over the track name will display standard playback controls along with access to the quick menu for the currently playing item and AirPlay options. Options here work in much the same way as in the main iTunes window, including the search feature which provides the same live search feature, focused only on the music section, allowing users to quickly seek out additional tracks in their library to play without having to return to the main iTunes window.
Note that you can also search out playlists from here by name as well to queue up an entirely new playlist into Up Next.
One additional useful feature with the new Mini Player is that it can now be used alongside the main iTunes window, rather than instead of that window. The Mini Player button in the top right corner switches between the two modes, however an option can be found on the Window menu to open the Mini Player separately.
Device Sync Settings
Like much of the rest of iTunes 11, changes to device sync settings are largely cosmetic in nature. Devices connected via either USB or Wi-Fi are now shown in and accessed from a button at the right of the top navigation bar.
If only a single device is connected, this button will display the type of the device, rather than its name, and clicking on it will take you directly to the summary screen. If more than one device is connected, this button instead displays the number of devices, and when clicked presents a pop-up window showing a list of devices; clicking on a device from this list will take you directly to the settings for that particular device.
iTunes 11 now displays the capacity of each device in the listing and the summary screen. As with prior versions of iTunes, a battery indicator is still shown beside each device name when a device is connected via USB, however this indicator has also been added to the summary screen as well.
The general layout of the summary screen has changed somewhat as well, and for iOS devices now includes buttons to back up and restore the device. A Reset Warnings button also now appears below the Options section. The Back Up Now, Restore Backup and Reset Warnings options were previously available from the context menu in the now-deprecated left sidebar.
The bottom capacity bar has also been redesigned with text displayed within each colored section rather than the legend found below the bar in prior versions. Hovering the mouse over a given section provides a popup with more detail on the content in the section, such as the exact capacity and number of items.
Individual sync settings screens remain largely the same otherwise. Likely due to the new enhanced search features in iTunes 11, the individual search fields have returned to Music, Apps, Movies and Books (for iBooks), reversing a change made in iTunes 10, which had rather counterintuitively switched to using the main iTunes window search field to filter content on these screens.
The Apps settings have been slightly modified to use “Install” buttons beside each app in place of the checkboxes used in previous versions, with a status that changes to Will Install, Remove, or Will Remove as appropriate to more accurately reflect the status of changes to the installed apps.
A new On this… section appears as the right-most option allowing users to browse content directly on the selected device. This replaces the expandable tree view in the Devices section of the sidebar from previous iTunes versions. Showing the sidebar from the option on the View menu, as described earlier in this article, will revert to the older behavior.
Managing content in this section works in much the same manner as the Playlists section under the Music, described previously. An Add To… button appears in the top-right corner allowing new content to be added to your device in much the same way as for a playlist. As with iTunes 10, content can be added directly to a device via drag-and-drop regardless of whether you’re using automatic synchronization or managing your content manually. You can also play content directly from iOS devices using iTunes, although this option still remains unavailable for traditional iPod models.
If you’ve enabled the option to manage your content manually, additional options will be available in this view for deleting tracks and managing playlists as well, much as in the main iTunes library. Essentially, everything in this view works in more or less the same manner as it did in iTunes 10 with only the look and locations of user interface elements having changed.
iTunes Preference Changes
Surprisingly little has changed in iTunes 11 under the hood, and this is most apparent when going through the iTunes Preferences, which contain only minor changes compared to iTunes 10.
The General screen contains two new options for configuring whether custom colors are used for expanded albums, movies and TV shows in grid views, and whether list views are available in other media sections. Notably, however, even the Show options displayed on this screen remain much the same as in iTunes 10, based on sidebar categories rather than the new iTunes 11 layout, although iTunes DJ and Ping have both been removed from the list for obvious reasons.
Apple’s Store preferences have been slightly reorganized with additional options added to control globally whether iTunes in the Cloud purchases are shown, syncing playback information via iCloud, downloading album artwork, and sharing library details with Apple for retrieving artist images, album covers, and track information.
Parental controls remove references to Ping and add options to separately restrict explicit content for Music and Books.
iTunes 11 eliminates the Advanced menu found on the menu bar. Most of the options previously found on the Advanced menu now live on in the File menu under various sub-menus, with the exception of the Deauthorize Audible Account option which has been moved to the Store menu.
Three options for CD tracks have been removed from the primary menus entirely, and are now accessible from an Options button that appears in the header when importing a CD. Join CD Tracks is particularly well-hidden here, as it does not appear on the options menu—even greyed out—until you actually select one or more tracks to join.
The View menu has been simplified with the list, album list, grid, and Cover Flow options removed, and new options for showing or hiding the bottom status bar and old-style left sidebar, as well as another option for showing or hiding iTunes in the Cloud content when viewing the appropriate categories.
iTunes’ Window menu adds a new option to display the Mini Player as a separate window, allowing users to use both the new Mini Player and the full iTunes window simultaneously rather than having to switch between the two.
Camera-based Gift Card Redemption
iTunes 11 also introduces a new feature allowing Mac users to redeem physical gift cards simply by holding them in front of their camera. The feature requires a built-in FaceTime or iSight camera—so Mac mini users are basically left out here—as well as one of the newer gift cards with a box around the code. Users simply choose the “Redeem” option as they normally would, and if a compatible camera is detected, an option will appear on the initial screen with instructions and a Use Camera button.
Selecting Use Camera will simply turn on the FaceTime or iSight camera, at which point you can just hold the gift card—with the code revealed of course—up to the camera and it should recognize the code and fill it in for you automatically.
Considering the complexity of typing in Apple’s gift card codes, this definitely looks like it could be a handy feature, and we’re hoping to see it integrated into Apple’s iOS devices in the near future as well, where it will be even more useful.
iTunes 11 represents what is arguably the most significant user interface change in the entire history of Apple’s venerable media management application. The new design is clearly intended to place a stronger visual emphasis on content, allowing users to more easily explore their libraries. Casual iTunes users will probably greatly appreciate these changes, while veterans and power users may be less impressed with the new design; fortunately Apple has—for now at least—provided the ability for the latter type of users to still work in list views and even switch mostly back to the traditional sidebar mode.
On the other hand, little has actually changed under the hood, with the two most significant non-UI features being the transition from iTunes DJ to Up Next and the tighter integration with iTunes in the Cloud, both of which should be welcome enhancements for most users.
Unfortunately, iTunes 11 still suffers from a few of the typical Dot-Zero bugs found in almost any major upgrade. In our testing time, we found several problems, including sync issues with iCloud playback status—at least one of our libraries had several hundred unwatched TV shows suddenly marked as watched—and at least one purchased album from the iTunes Store not being properly added to the library after being downloaded, which ironically ended up being transferred back from our iPad where it had been automatically downloaded by iTunes in the Cloud.
The bottom line is that other than a cool new user interface, there’s not much here that would require a user to upgrade, and in fact due to the delays in the release of iTunes 11, even users buying the latest devices can comfortably stay with iTunes 10.7 for the time being. Users cautious of new bugs may want to await a maintenance update prior to taking the plunge. That said, once iTunes 11 receives bug-squashing fixes, there’s every reason to upgrade and little reason to want to go back to earlier versions of the software.