Apple iTunes 11 review

Apple's iTunes media playing software has long offered the most in listening and viewing options. This major overhaul is faster and cleaner than ever.
Photo of Apple iTunes 11

For the more than two years since version 10 was released, Apple’s world-dominating iTunes media application has remained largely the same. The arrival of iTunes 11 (free) marks a major rebuilding in features, interface, and underlying code. Not only does the iTunes 11 player have a new look and features, but the iTunes Store and even the program’s icon have been redesigned. A big thrust of the new version is the inclusion of more iCloud features, jibing with Apple’s iOS-and-Mac cloud syncing service. Another is more iTunes Store purchase suggestions. The new, more capable Mini Player is icing on the cake, in this unparalleled source and player of music and video.

iTunes still includes all those extras we’ve gotten used to, including iTunes U, podcast playing, Genius, Home Sharing, the equalizer, the visualizer, a book store, and movie and TV show rentals as well as purchases. One thing it doesn’t include is any sign of Apple’s ill-fated music social network, Ping. For this review, we’ll focus on just the most exciting new features of iTunes 11.

You can get iTunes for Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8 in addition to Macintosh OS X version 10.6.8 or later (updated Snow Leopard). I tested the new iTunes on both Windows and Mac OS X. It’s an 83MB download for Windows—slightly larger than version 10, which was already on the portly side. By comparison, Windows Media Player weighs in at just 12MB, and WinAmp is 11MB. (The Mac installer for iTunes is even larger, at 198MB.) The installer makes iTunes your default player for music files, but you can uncheck the box for this if you prefer an alternative like Windows Media Player or WinAmp. I had to close Outlook for some reason for the installation to proceed.

On first run of the updated app, after agreeing to the updated license agreement, I was offered tutorial videos explaining new features. A privacy option asked me to share details with Apple so it could display album covers and even artist photos from concerts and studio sessions. This choice also enables iTunes’ new store recommendations, since poor old Apple really needs you to buy more and more content.

The interface seems even more trimmed down and muted than before, if that’s possible—and it looks great. Even the standard app menu is gone in the Windows version (not Mac though), replacing it with a square icon in the extreme top left. (You can re-enable it if you like from the newfangled menu, however.) The AirPlay button is still there, so you can throw whatever you’re playing to a home entertainment system attached to an Apple TV or one that supports AirPlay natively. You also get basic play/pause, fast-forward, and reverse controls, as well as a volume slider, and a search box along the top of the program window.

The left-hand sidebar is gone, but you won’t miss it at all. Switching among Music, Movies, TV Shows is faster than before using the button at top left. It drops down choices for these media types. The same goes for switching between your library and the iTunes Store from a button on the right. Next to the dropdown is a cloud icon for iCloud that’s merely an indicator of whether iCloud is connected or actively downloading.

Clicking on an album now drops down an area the full width of the program window showing tracks, timings, album art, and play options (shuffle, repeat, and so on). You can also add album tracks to any play list or to Up Next (see next section) from here. In a slick design touch, the color of this panel is based on the album cover, so each will usually have a different shade. A button in this tinted panel also lets you see related music available on the iTunes Store.

Up Next
A key new feature in iTunes 11 is Up Next. Accessible from a bullet-list icon next to the top-center song information area, it shows you a list of songs are on deck to be played. You can move or remove upcoming songs with the cursor. A clock icon takes you in the other direction chronologically, showing the list of songs you’ve already listened to. A new context menu next to song entries includes choices for Add to Up Next, as well as simply Play Next, and adding to playlists. Unfortunately, the Play Next and history lists didn’t work for Internet radio stations such as SomaFm in my testing.

Mini Player
For times when you don’t want iTunes taking up all or even a significant portion of your computer’s screen, the application has for years offered a Mini Player interface, accessible from the View menu. For several years the Mini Player remained unchanged as a bare-bones tool, offering nothing more than a play/pause button, volume slider, rewind/fast forward buttons, and a collapsible panel showing what’s playing. Once your selected songs were done, the Mini Player didn’t give you any options for choosing more music—you had to open the larger window view.

The Mini Player is now even smaller, though it still doesn’t shrink down to the minuscule size of WinAmp’s mini-player sliver. But it does offer a lot more capabilities. It’s also easier to access as a top-level choice from the main menu. The play controls now only show up when you hover the cursor over the player, otherwise you’ll simply see song info, including a tiny album cover. It now has icons for search and the What’s Next list, so you don’t have to open the larger iTunes window to start playing something new. When you choose either of these, the tiny window drops down a box showing song art and titles.

The way you create playlists has changed, though it was a very simple matter of clicking the Plus sign icon below the sidebar in iTunes 10 and your new playlist would be added immediately to the left panel list above. Now you have three choices—New Playlist, New Smart Playlist, and New Playlist Folder. When you do create a new list, a panel opens on the right side of the program window, where you drag items onto it. A neat new trick is when you start dragging a song, the right sidebar of playlist opens for your dropping pleasure.

Connecting iOS Devices
With the left sidebar gone, plugging in an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch now reveals a button next to the iTunes Store button. Once you click it, the interface seemingly reverts to the device view familiar from iTunes 10. You can check for iOS updates, restore from backups, and configure all your media, apps, photos, and other files, just as before. But adding music and other media to your device now takes an extra click. Before, you could drag anything onto the iPad’s sidebar entry, but now you first must click an Add To icon. Then you can drag media from the main center panel to the new right-hand sidebar representing the device.

iTunes Store
The store, key to Apple’s media empire, has also been redesigned. Since the sidebar is gone, you switch to Store mode by clicking its button at top right. On my Windows 7 PC, however, the update wouldn’t have encouraged much in the way of new purchases: The window was blank in the center. As with a Web browser, I could zoom in and out with the mouse wheel while holding Ctrl, but the center still did not hold anything, until only later after I navigated the app for a while. But the weird, incorrect layout reappeared when I switched to viewing apps, only to correct itself on another try. I’ll chalk it down to the first-day growing pains to which any app is susceptible.

Once the Store displayed correctly, featured content now appeared in a cover-flow display, and a new history panel shows content you previously browsed. Frankly, the store didn’t seem drastically changed from the previous version, but there are certainly more entry points to it from the rest of the app, and it does match the experience you get on iPads and iPhones more closely.

The last version of iTunes already integrated with iCloud, via iTunes in the Cloud and iTunes Match, and as with version 10, content you purchased on a mobile iOS device instantly is available on your Mac or PC. Each album you’ve purchased on any of your devices shows up in an album cover thumbnail on your Albums page, and each of these has a new download button in the form of that ubiquitous cloud icon. This makes the purchased content available for offline playing. Just as Netflix does, iCloud now lets you pause a show on one computer or device and pick up where you left off on another.

iTunes for the New Apple Ecosystem
This one-stop-media purchaser and player still includes a wealth of features we haven’t discussed that could fill books—iTunes U, podcast playing, Genius, Home Sharing, and a book store, and movie and TV show rentals as well as purchases. One thing it doesn’t include is any sign of Apple’s ill-fated music social network, Ping. iTunes 11′s integration with iOS devices is tighter than ever, especially with the new iCloud functionality. But this would not be a PCMag review of iTunes without a gripe about the lack of a subscription music store: Come on, Apple, if Spotify, Rdio, and even Microsoft’s Xbox Music can do it, surely you can!

iTunes 11 is an impressive step forward for Apple’s masterful media player. The changes in iTunes 11 address some interface clutter, performance issues, and make it a near perfect vehicle for its mission. Its emphasis on iCloud and the Store meshes well with Apple’s strategy going forward. For some, iTunes 11′s faster operation will be the most compelling new feature. In any case, this is a must-upgrade for anyone who uses Apple’s enormous virtual store for music and videos. Apple iTunes 11′s wealth of features and content, slick design, and fast performance all strengthen its hold on PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for media playing software.

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OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS, Windows 7

Apple's iTunes media playing software has long offered the most in listening and viewing options. This major overhaul is faster and cleaner than ever.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc