Earlier this week Apple released iTunes 12.2 to accompany the new Apple Music service, expanding the Music section of iTunes to provide access to the new on-demand library for subscribers, as well as the new Radio and Connect features of Apple Music.
While for most users the Apple Music features will be enough of a reason to make the jump to the new version, there are a few other interesting changes to be found through iTunes 12.2 as well.
With iTunes 12.2, Apple has changed up the iTunes icon yet again, replacing the short-lived red version introduced with iTunes 12 last fall with a much flatter white icon that uses a blue-red-purple gradient for the outline and note portion. This mirrors the new Music icon introduced in iOS 8.4 as well, a change presumably designed to highlight both the very significant redesign of the iOS Music app and the new Apple Music service. Last fall’s red shift was a somewhat garish and interesting departure from the blue motif used for iTunes since version 7 was released nine years ago, however even the new white icon continues to retain the same basic note design introduced with iTunes 10.
As one would probably expect, Apple has not made any significant user interface design changes in iTunes 12.2 – likely the reason it comes out as a minor point update rather than a whole new major release, despite the significance of the Apple Music launch. Anybody already using iTunes 12 will find the app remains completely familiar, and were it not for the new icon you probably wouldn’t even realize you’d updated to the new version.
The major new feature in iTunes 12.2 is support for Apple Music, which is actually a collection of four different related music services: the on-demand streaming service (which Apple also refers to individually as “Apple Music”), iCloud Music Library, Beats 1 Radio, and Connect. These are reflected in iTunes 12.2 with four new tabs in the “Music” section: For You, New, Radio, and Connect.
Unlike the Music app in iOS 8.4, the For You and New sections will still initially appear even if you are not subscribed to Apple Music, presumably in order to encourage you to subscribe. If you’ve already subscribed on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, however, you can click the “Already a Member” link to be taken right in – for whatever reason iTunes doesn’t seem to automatically recognize that you’re already subscribed to Apple Music, even if you’re already signed into the proper Apple ID.
While many users will likely want to at least check out the free trial, if you decide you want nothing to do with Apple’s on-demand streaming service, you can simply click “Go to My Music” at the bottom of the sign-up screen and the on-demand specific Apple Music sections will vanish, although both Radio and Connect will remain as free services that you can choose to use or ignore as you see fit.
If you’ve subscribed to Apple Music – or at least opted to check out the free trial – the For You section will contain a set of curated playlists selected in accordance with your musical tastes, while the New section provides an iTunes Store like interface of everything that can be accessed via the on-demand streaming. Notably, Apple has opted to separate the Apple Music catalog from the iTunes Store catalog entirely, which has the advantage of making it obvious whether you’re browsing tracks that are included in your subscription or tracks that are available for purchase, and probably helps to obscure the differences between the two catalogs.
If you sign up for Apple Music for the first time using iTunes, you’ll be taken through the process of selecting your favourite genres and artists much the same as in the iOS 8.4 music app, clicking on the circles for genres/artists you like, clicking twice for genres/artists you love, and clicking the “X” that appears in the top left corner of any circle you hover over to remove the ones you don’t like.
As in the iOS Music app, these screens can also be brought up again if you want to tweak your taste preferences by clicking on the account menu near the top right corner of the iTunes window and selecting Choose Artists for You. The screens will show your previous selections and you can tweak from there.
From the account menu, you can also click on the name section at the top to edit your name and nickname which appear when you’re making comments on artists’ posts in Connect or sharing playlists. You can also choose from here whether to automatically follow artists in Connect when you add their music to your library. Oddly, although it looks like you should be able to replace the generic person image with a custom photo like you can in the iOS Music app, there doesn’t appear to be an option to do so, and in fact even if you’ve added a photo in the iOS Music app, it doesn’t appear in iTunes at this point.
Apple Music vs My Library
iTunes 12.2 basically integrates an on-demand streaming service into the same general space that’s occupied by your iTunes library, so it’s important to understand the distinction between those tracks that are in your library versus those that are simply available from the Apple Music service.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Apple Music doesn’t change anything that’s already in your library. Tracks that are stored in your local library that you’ve ripped from CDs or purchased from the iTunes Store remain exactly the same as they were before. If you’ve been using iTunes Match and/or iTunes in the Cloud, your previous tracks should show the same status as before, such as Purchased, Matched, or Uploaded.
You can listen to any track available on Apple Music while exploring the service and these will simply be streamed from Apple’s iTunes servers. However, you can also add tracks to your library, either explicitly using the Add to My Music for an album, playlist, or track, or implicitly by adding those items to one of your playlists. In this case, these tracks appear right alongside everything else in your library, with an iCloud Status of Apple Music. Once in your library, Apple Music tracks work much the same way as any other track stored in your library; Apple Music tracks can be searched for, browsed, played, sorted, and filtered alongside your normal music, and in fact you can even bring up the track info dialog box and change their metadata if you like, and any changes you make will even sync with your other devices via your iCloud Music Library.
The only thing that’s particularly different about Apple Music tracks is that they are DRM protected. This is what you’d expect, since Apple isn’t giving you these tracks – it’s renting them to you. You need an active Apple Music subscription to listen to these tracks, although it’s unclear how often iTunes “phones home” to check the status of your subscription; you can listen to these tracks without an Internet connection, but they will presumably expire if you don’t reconnect your devices to the Internet on a semi-regular basis to confirm that your Apple Music subscription is still active. The downloaded tracks themselves are stored on your computer under a separate “Apple Music” folder, although iTunes obfuscates this somewhat by not showing full paths to the files and omitting options like “Show in Finder” that can be used to locate your own tracks.
In a sense, Apple Music tracks hearken back to the days when everything on the iTunes Store was protected by Apple’s FairPlay DRM, and you’ll be limited to similar rules as were in place before – rules that in fact are still in effect for movies and TV shows purchased from iTunes.
Note that there have been some reports early on that tracks re-downloaded from iTunes in the Cloud were coming down as DRM-protected “Apple Music” versions, but we’ve been unable to reproduce this, leaving us to assume that it doesn’t affect everybody, or that Apple has made changes on the back-end to resolve whatever the earlier problem was. We’ve re-downloaded a representative sample of Purchased, Matched, and Uploaded tracks into our iTunes 12.2 libraries on different computers, and they all come down in the expected formats – either the matched AAC version from iTunes or the original AAC or MP3 format from our main library. That said, we’ve always recommended keeping a copy of your original tracks and iTunes library, even if it’s as an offline or near-line backup, rather than relying on Apple and iCloud exclusively.
Browsing and Searching Apple Music
The Apple Music library is a sort of amalgam of the browsing experience of the iTunes Store mixed with the controls found in the newer iTunes library layouts. From the For You or New screens you can choose an artist, album, or playlist and drill down to see the appropriate track listing. Clicking on a song title simply plays the entire song, and you can click on the “Love” button to tag those tracks that you like, which Apple Music will use to help refine your tastes to deliver more curated playlists going forward. Hovering by a track name shows the standard ellipsis menu button, which you can click on to display a menu of additional options for that track; an ellipsis button at the top of an album or playlist provides options for adding or playing that entire grouping of tracks, and three buttons to the right of the album or playlist header provide options to quickly add the entire group of tracks to your library, love them, or share a link to them.
Browsing to an Artist page provides a highlighted list of the artist’s top songs, albums, and videos, as well as a brief biography and links to similar artists. A toggle button at the top lets you choose between seeing all of the artist’s music that is available on Apple Music, or filtering to only show what is in your library. A button directly under the artist’s name shows whether you’re following that artist or not; clicking on the button toggles your following status.
You can search through the Apple Music library as well from the standard search box in the top-right corner of the iTunes window. In the drop-down that appears once you start typing, a selector allows you to choose whether you want to search “My Library” or “Apple Music” and recent and suggested searches are shown here as well. This effectively replaces the ability to search the iTunes Store dynamically from here, although it’s a reasonable compromise as if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you’ll probably rarely be looking to purchase a track. If you are looking for tracks to buy, however, you can still visit the iTunes Store tab to search in the same way as before. Of course, if you don’t subscribe to Apple Music, this also still works in the same manner as it did in the prior version of iTunes.
The Radio section works in much the same way as it did for iTunes Radio, although the amount of content and stations has been dramatically increased, and of course it now headlines with Apple’s new Beats 1 Radio right at the top. Stations you’ve recently played will appear next, followed by featured stations and then categories of stations.
While listening to a radio station, the iTunes playback window will show the title of the song currently playing. A “Love” button allows you to click on a track that you like, and hovering over the song title provides the ellipsis menu that can be used to take actions on the currently playing track, such as adding it to your library or tailoring your listening experience in the case of a custom radio station.
The Up Next queue in the Radio screen also provides a playback history of tracks you’ve previously listened to, not only from your current iTunes library, but any other devices that you’re using with Apple Music. There appear to be some bugs in this interface, however, since some tracks include an “Add” button for adding them to your library, while others only include an iTunes Store “Buy” button, even if they are available in Apple Music. The ellipsis menus that can be accessed from each track show similar inconsistencies.
Another odd limitation we found is that Beats 1 doesn’t allow streaming over AirPlay. Once you start playing Beats 1, the AirPlay icon disappears, and if you have an AirPlay speaker previously selected, the audio output is set back to your local speakers. This is particularly strange as the Beats 1 has no such limitation regarding AirPlay on iOS devices, and in fact unless you’re using a much older Mac, you can just direct your entire local audio stream out to an AirPlay destination using the Audio settings in System Preferences, in which case Beats 1 will stream fine to your speakers in the same way as any other audio on your Mac. Notably, this limitation only seems to apply to Beats 1 – other radio stations can be streamed over AirPlay in the same way as any other audio.
While the For You section contains a list of curated playlists published by Apple’s Music teams, one of the other new features that Apple Music enables is the ability to share your own playlists. In some ways reminiscent of the iMixes found on the iTunes Music Store ten years ago, any playlist you create that contains music available in Apple Music can be shared directly from iTunes via email, messages, or on Facebook or Twitter. The playlist sharing link will open iTunes and take you to a view of the playlist in the “New” tab, where you can simply listen to songs from it in the same manner as any of Apple’s published playlists. Note that if you’re sharing a playlist that contains tracks that aren’t available in Apple Music, the playlist will still be shared, but with only the available tracks included.
In addition to simply listening to a shared playlist, however, you can also click on the plus button in the top right corner to add it to your own library. These playlists will be placed into their own “Apple Music Playlists” section in the playlists sidebar to indicate that they’re from the Apple Music service. Playlists that have been shared with you are read-only, however they remain linked back to the original playlist and will be updated if the owner makes any updates to them. Sadly, there isn’t any way to create an actual collaborative playlist, and even the current sharing is somewhat limited and inconsistent, with iTunes sometimes taking a while to properly refresh changes to playlists, and sharing links sometimes failing to open the proper playlist. It’s also worth noting that the sharing model is limited to sending links—there is no way to search for a specific user’s playlists, share playlists with a specific user, or get any kind of notifications in iTunes. Essentially, every shared playlist link is “public” and can be used by anybody with the link, and there’s no way to tell who you are actually sharing a playlist with, other than knowing who you’ve sent the link to.
The introduction of Apple Music adds a new rating structure and a few new preference options to the mix. Users can now choose a more binary “Love” system to identify tracks they like, which can be used instead of or in parallel to the existing five-star ratings. The “Love” icon appears in the form of a heart beside tracks through iTunes, as well as in the playback window, in the context menu, the mini-player, and elsewhere. If you don’t like this particular feature, it can be turned off globally with a trip into the Preferences, where a drop down menu allows you to choose to use either or both of the new and legacy rating systems.
In the general section of Preferences you’ll also find options for disabling Apple Music and iCloud Music Library should you want to turn these features off for whatever reason. The Parental section also adds a new control for disabling Apple Music Connect in the event that you want to turn that off.
New options have also been added to the Store Preferences screen for controlling when and how often iTunes asks for a password when downloading items from the iTunes Store or App Store. For purchases, the options can be set to always requiring a password, never requiring a password, or requiring a password if it’s been more than 15 minutes since it was last entered. For free downloads the options are simply to require a password or never require a password.
The Advanced section of preferences now also sees the return of the Share iTunes Library XML with other applications option, which has come and gone in iTunes over the years—usually when missing iTunes just automatically writes the XML file, so the presence of this option is essentially just in case you want to turn the option OFF for performance or security reasons. When enabled, iTunes will output and maintain a write-only XML version of the library database that third-party applications can read to get information about the iTunes library. It’s a more advanced feature that most users won’t need unless you’re running third-party software that needs to read your iTunes library database.
Although Apple Music is great in principle, the iOS and iTunes updates that heralded the new service belie its “dot zero” nature—for basic streaming Apple Music works reasonably well, and iCloud Music Library as an extension of iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud has already had many of its bugs worked out. Other aspects of the service aren’t nearly as fortunate, however, with shared playlists being a feature that are really handy when they work, but annoyingly frustrating when they don’t. Like the iTunes Match DRM bug reported earlier this week, it’s possible that some of this can be fixed on the back end by Apple, and some of the problems may even simply be a question of rapid adoption of Apple Music and scaling of Apple’s busy servers – many errors we found during testing simply seemed to revolve around things not syncing or updating nearly as quickly as they should, or iTunes servers returning odd errors when trying to update Genius information or push tracks to iCloud Music Library.
As an iTunes update, version 12.2 seems relatively stable for use with your own library, so there’s really no reason to avoid it. In terms of Apple’s Music service, your mileage may vary when it comes to the power user features, but for simply listening to streaming radio stations or curated playlists, or searching out your own favourite tracks, it seems to work quite well, and based on past experience many of the other performance and sync issues with metadata and playlists should improve over time.