Applesauce: All Things Apple
December 2, 2012

Applesauce: All Things Apple – December 2, 2012

Dissecting iTunes 11

It’s better late than never. Apple finally introduced a newly redesigned version of iTunes (iTunes 11) this week, proving once and for all that tech writers really love the movie “Spinal Tap” and were just itching to post what they thought would be a clever headline. This isn’t the only time Apple has been late in delivering a product, of course. Mac OS X Leopard was originally announced for a late 2006, early 2007 release. Apple later said it would ship in April 2007, but then that blasted iPhone got in the way and bumped the release to October. The white iPhone 4 was also fashionably late, arriving several months after the original iPhone 4 event, when Verizon released their first iPhone. But these are just notable exceptions. Apple will usually wait till the very last second to release a new product, but they meet their self imposed deadlines more often than not. At any rate, one month late isn’t too shabby. After all, the main iTunes guy has suddenly taken on a few extra responsibilities, and while this may or may not have had anything to do with iTunes’ tardiness, it makes for a fun story. No matter how late it ended up being, it arrived not a moment too soon. iTunes has been blasted in the past as a bloated and sluggish application with eyes larger than its stomach.

In the beginning, explaining iTunes was simple enough: This is where you put your music. Later it became the place to buy your music and sync your iPod. A few years later, Apple asked us to sync our iPods AND iPhones up to it. In addition to music, movies and TV shows, iTunes was even beginning to juggle photos and some documents. Then the iPad came along and ruined everything, adding even more documents to iTunes.

And we wonder why Dropbox became so popular so quickly….

iTunes 11 still does most of these things, of course. (Documents have been moved to iCloud)

In that sense, it’s still a bit of a catch-all application, and it still tries to do a little more than it probably should. Thus, the importance of UI, an area where, skeumorphism aside, Apple excels. The new iTunes gets rid of one sidebar, goes out of its way to hide the other, and presents things in a way much easier to read and understand than all previous versions. This new version is just downright pretty. Apple placed even more emphasis on album artwork (a sheer joy for those obsessive compulsive music fans who spend many late hours fiddling around with all that metadata) and lets the artists dictate how iTunes should look. It’s not all peace and free love over there in Cupertino, of course. Apple let’s their corporate side show a bit by making it even easier to hand over your money to the iTunes Store.

Just Try to Miss the iTunes Store

In previous versions of iTunes, listeners had an option to call up a sidebar on the right side of the screen which acted as a portal to the iTunes store. This is where genius recommendations and other Store links lived. The problem with this implementation, however, was that it was completely voluntary. Listeners had the choice to show this sidebar or hide it; A nice thought from Apple, but best I can remember I always tucked this sidebar away whenever I could.

As a personal note, I don’t recall anyone ever using this sidebar to access the Store. To say the Store only now lives throughout the app is false. In truth, the Store has always been easy to access in any view. The difference here is that it’s easier to find, and more beautifully implemented.

In older versions of iTunes, listeners could look for those little Greater-Than Chevrons to the right of song titles, artists and albums in grid view. This little symbol would then whisk you away to the corresponding section of the Store. While I don’t have any hard evidence about anyone else’s behavior, in my own experience I always found it easier to find the Store in the left sidebar and go searching. But then again, I like doing things the hard way.

The Chevron Guides have been carried over into iTunes 11, (and they’ve been given more responsibilities) but now the Store can be accessed in 2 dead simple ways. In the upper right hand corner of the app, there exists a button which toggles the screen between the listener’s Library and the Store. iOS has once again affected a Mac app, and it just works. It’s an idea borrowed from the Music app in iOS 6, with the notable exception that in iOS 6, you can’t jump from the Store to Library.

The Store can also be accessed in albums view, which is perhaps my most favorite part of iTunes 11.

Letting the Albums Speak For Themselves

This is the default view of iTunes 11 and is the first thing you’ll see when iTunes is set up and ready to go on your computer. This view is also where iTunes becomes a visual representation of your music rather than force your music to look like the app.

Apple has done something magical here, picking out the dominate colors from each piece of album artwork and creating a specific look for each album. Clicking on an album brings up this view, with the song titles, song numbers and song lengths in secondary colors picked from the album. This view takes up a good middle third of the screen, placing a slightly muted image of the entire album art on the far right side. What you get is a view which looks as if the artist themselves had created their own specific way to view their album, within a few strict parameters, of course.

(This view can be toggled on and off in case you have something against beautiful design.)

Ah, and what about the Store? Just above the album artwork on the right side are two buttons, “Songs” and “In the Store.” (It’s even grammatically correct, like they knew some grammatical nut jobs would be looking for this.)

As you’d expect, when Songs is selected, the Album view displays the songs the listener owns from that album. Clicking “In the Store” calls up the Top Songs from the artist in question, the Top Albums and even Recommended Tracks, all within the Album view and without yanking the listener from their library. Buying new music just got exponentially easier.

That Bastard Sidebar

What of that other side bar on the left? It still shows up from time to time, but it’s no longer the nagging persistence it once was.

(Users who fear change can bring this sidebar back in View Options)

The categories which once lived in this Side Bar to the Left are now located up top, front and center. Clicking on Songs, Albums, Artists, Genres, Videos, Playlists, Radio and Match will bring up a view mostly specific to that category. Those longing for the old days will find some solace in Songs view. Here, the familiar grid display appears once more, with Genres, Artists and Album sectioned off across the top.

While not the same old sidebar we’ve come to know and love, another sidebar appears in Artists, Genres, and Playlist view. In artists and Genres, the album artwork is still a key player to the layout, though less so than in Album view. Each album is displayed next to the corresponding artwork, the size of which can be adjusted in the View options. The left side bar displays the artists’ names along with a smaller, select piece of artwork. The Store makes another appearance in Artists view as well. Once more, in the upper right hand corner, there are 3 buttons to select. Songs begins the list, followed by Gallery and then In the Store. Just as it did in Album view, clicking In the Store brings up the artist’s Top Songs and Top Albums, followed by Recommended Songs, all within the library view. The Store also places the artist’s most recent album front and center, finding the newest piece of work a breeze.

Some artists (I suspect the few artists who actually used Ping) have suppled Apple with some nice pictures of themselves. These photos can be seen in the Gallery in Artists view.

An interesting note: When in Genre view, iTunes uses the Store’s own icons for specific genres. If you’ve ever shopped the store looking for specific genre, then you’ve seen these icons. The Video view lays out rectangle icons for each individual video in the library, while Playlists calls up a left sidebar once more, displaying the songs in a playlist in a list to the right.

Listeners can select which part of their library they want to view by clicking the button in the upper left hand corner. This button toggles between Music, Movies, and TV shows. The Album layout shows up again in Movies and TV shows, with descriptions, cast and crew and ratings all laid out in wonderful, color specific detail.

Then, There’s Mini Player

I mentioned in an earlier post this week that mini player needs its own description.

Any heavy user of iTunes is likely well aware of the mini player. Just as it sounds, the mini player has always been little more than a small window displaying the current song while giving the listener the most basic control over their music.

If you had been listening to The Band but got a sudden urge to listen to The Dirty Projectors, (it can happen) you’d have to go back into the large screen mode and select it. Personally, I can’t count the number of times I would get the urge to listen to one song outside of the current shuffle mix or album I was listening to. More often than not, I’d deny myself the instant gratification, if only to avoid going through all that trouble.

’Twas a tough life, indeed.

The new mini player gets rid of this with one handy feature which pervades throughout the entire app: Up Next.

Just as it sounds, Up Next displays the next 20 songs. So, depending on how you’ve got your repeat set, (Repeat entire album, repeat one song, no repeat) clicking on those 3 horizontal bars which represents Up Next displays these future songs accordingly.

Say you’re listening to a Genius playlist built around Okkervil River’s “Black.”

(I assume you, like me, have had this playlist created for years.)

Clicking Up Next displays the next 20 songs iTunes intends to play. If you see a song anywhere in the next 20 that you’d rather not hear, you can remove it easy as pie by clicking the “x” to the left of the song title. If you get a sudden craving to listen to something completely different, (such as “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand) you can click the magnifying glass in mini player and look for the song. Once you’ve found it, simply click theChevron Guide to the right to either add it to the Up Next list.

If, however, you want to hear it straight away, you can click Play Next.

Clicking the Chevron also allows you perform some other familiar tasks, such as listen to similar songs, create a genius playlist based on this song, add the song to another playlist, or just jump to the album, artist, or song in iTunes.

Up Next is a great feature, especially when listening to a library of substantial size in shuffle mode.

Shuffle and Mini Player

I sometimes feel guilty for owning some 20,000 songs and not listening to each and every one. Therefore, I often set my player to go through and select songs for me at random, usually reminding me of albums I forgot I own.

Whenever I do this, I invariably think of a song I want to listen to RIGHT NOW without being forced to go back into iTunes, listen to it, then go back and set up shuffle once more.

(This is additionally troublesome if you have a bit of a compulsion when it comes to numbers and want to work your way through all 20,000 without having to reset the number every time you get the urge to listen to that one guilty pleasure song and can’t stand the thought of waiting 5 hours for it to organically arrive and besides you might be sleeping then anyway.

At least, I assume. )

Up Next isn’t chained to the mini player, of course, It also lives in the Chevron menus throughout and keeps a steady home in the top window, to the far right of the song and album title.

The mini player has also gone through a design overhaul, making it an even cleaner and simpler way to interact with your music.

Whereas the old mini player displayed the same kind of controls found on a cassette player, the new mini player, when left alone, shows only a small album art icon, artist and song title, and Up Next and Search icons.

When a listener mouses over the mini player, it comes to life, popping up those familiar cassette player controls, as well as Air Play.

A neat trick: Mini Player now lets you select and control multiple AirPlay devices. If you have a device in the kitchen and the living room, you can turn them both on and control them right from the mini player. You can also continue to listen on your computer, which can either be a huge convenience or a way to sit right next to an AirPlay device and listen to your favorite music with that special, chorus effect we all once loved.

In closing, iTunes 11 is a great improvement on a piece of software which was starting to become a little long in the tooth. It’s beautiful to look at and dead simple to use. In other words, it’s a great example of Apple’s new iOS/Mac amalgamation, likely a heading they’ll continue on for another several years.

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