3245 words on iTunes
iTunes 5 is out. We see quite a number of changes for the better in it. Most notably it doesn’t have metal windows anymore. Altogether the bump of the version number seems to be overdoing it, though.
And now on to the nitpicking.
Coming (to Mac users at least) via Mac OS X’s software update, iTunes 5’s installation was smooth and without problems. Despite the bump of the version number to a new full number rather than 4.10, iTunes’ icon didn’t get a new colour this time around. This could be the first indication that there are no major changes in this upgrade. Perhaps we can just assume that a version number of 4.10 was just considered to be too complicated for most users.
After launching the application a backup of your music library is made and iTunes’ database is upgraded for the new version. This went smoothly for me but I really like how iTunes makes (and has been making for a while) a backup copy, so your data are preserved in case things go wrong.
Once the application is launched, it looks unfamiliar. A bit angular and metal free. Metal free! Joy. Give me a five minute break for jumping around excitedly. QuickTime Player and iTunes were the first applications to bring us the curse of metal windows and now iTunes dropped the metal. And now excuse me for a minute please while I dance around my de-metallifised iTunes shaking my iPod…
Oh and keep in mind the screenshot above as you should be able to see most of the things I describe below in it.
But is the metal gone for good? Yes because it’s gone and has been replaced by something much cleaner. No because Apple chose to introduce yet another unique window style with it. A window style that looks more angular than your typical Mac window. And that has slightly more angular buttons in iTunes to go with it. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I am willing (not that I have much choice…) to give those windows a go. Generally I think Mac windows might be a bit too round, so having more angular windows isn’t a bad thing. On the other hand, having a single less angular window amidst the usual ones looks very strange.
What I really like about the window style is how it removed all the fat borders from iTunes. Generally those metal applications which don’t show much metal because they fill most of the window with lists or other displays – e.g. Safari – are the better ones. Not only because you see less metal but also because they make good use of the screen real estate they get. And in iTunes 5, we got the best of both worlds: No waste of space… and no metal either. With there not being a discernible border for the window, I do wonder, though, whether the windows’ drop shadows aren’t a bit too weak in Mac OS X.4.
Peeking into iTunes’ resources shows that Apple just equipped iTunes with a few textures to make windows look this way. No fancy gradient computing or anything. Just textures for the main window, the equaliser window and the film window. Ironically this may also mean that drawing the window should, now that computers are fast enough to do live resizing of metal window, require less computational resources than it does for brushed metal windows.
In total the new window style looks like a darker sibling of the new ‘unified’ look in Mac OS X.4. Naturally that window style isn’t available on all platforms that iTunes supports, so they had to ‘simulate’ it. And perhaps the ‘unified’ look was a bit too light to give us a good-looking iTunes and so people ended up at what iTunes looks like.
And while it isn’t really urgent at this stage, something I keep wondering about is why they implemented the new window textures using bitmap graphics. From what you hear people say, both the Mac and the Windows platform are in a slow process of moving their user interfaces from fixed size ones to scalable ones. So we’ll probably have to see another redesign or at least reimplementation of iTunes windows and other user interface components once those technologies come to life.
But the new windows aren’t all changes we have. They are joined by new, more angular buttons which are slightly rearranged. Those are small changes, but significant ones. In my opinion they make iTunes look cleaner and they save space. My most favourite change is that iTunes’ volume slider has been moved from beneath the play button to it’s right. This saves vertical space which is great.
The next obvious change is iTunes’ main display. It’s more angular now and it’s more shiny. I am not a big fan of the ultra-shiny look that Apple are so keen on these days. But unlike the ultra-shiny looking computers and iPods the on-screen one doesn’t scratch, so it’s not the worst thing I’ve seen. The display being more angular looks a bit strange after years of roundness, but it makes sense. Not only because it goes well with the more angular window but also because it gives iTunes more space to display long song titles without having to scroll them around – and yes, that extra space is actually used!
But there’s more: In previous versions of iTunes the three lines of display were used to show (1) the Title, Artist and Album of the current track, (2) the current location in the song and (3) the ‘progress bar’. In iTunes 5, the textual information about the current location in the song has been moved to be at the left and the right of the progress bar, freeing up an extra line. Perhaps having two sets of numbers there is slightly overdoing it, but at least it’s symmetric. And the right number can be clicked to toggle between display of the remaining and the total time of the song. The newly won line of display is put to good use by always showing the song’s title on the first line and alternating between the artist and album on the second one. Small changes that make the display much better.
And the progress indicator itself has been updated as well to display a slightly darker pattern in the area that has already been played. Not strictly necessary but a nice thing to have. The only thing striking me as odd is that the little diamond which indicates the current position in the song will stick out of the progress bar at the very beginning and end of a song. Compare this to previous versions of iTunes where the left corner of the diamond touched the left side of the progress bar when a song started and the right corner of the diamond touched the right side of the progress bar when it stopped. Or compare it to the iPod where the diamond is simply cut off to not reach outside the progress bar. I think the iPod’s solution is the best here as it is both logical and good-looking.
The next change is that the button for jumping between chapters in AAC files (e.g. audio books or podcasts) has been moved to be at the right of iTunes’ main display. While I still don’t really like that button, I at least prefer it’s new location. Going a bit further to the right brings us to the filter field. iTunes 5 fixes its problems with accented characters which I mentioned last Friday. It also lost its little arrow and popup menu that let you select which fields you wanted to filter for. I never used it anyway and think removing it was a good idea as those arrows should indicate some kind of search history instead.
But that doesn’t mean the power-searchers can’t do those more specific searches anymore. As soon as you type into the filter field, a new button bar will appear above iTunes’ music browser which lets you filter the display by a number of categories, giving you just results which iTunes considers to be either of Music, Audio books, Podcasts, Videos or Booklets. And within those categories you get further options to narrow down the filtering. E.g. when looking in music only, you can limit the filtering to the composer. While I don’t think this feature is the worst idea ever, it isn’t particularly well done.
It’s not particularly intuitive and some features such as the filtering by composer are hard to find. In addition, iTunes isn’t particularly good at determining which files are audio books (it just goes the dumb path of listing all ‘m4b’ files rather than listing the audio books I ripped from CD as well). I also think it shouldn’t display the ‘Booklet’ section on my computer as my library doesn’t contain any booklets.
In total that new filtering bar that tries to be in line with what Apple offer in the Finder and Mail of Mac OS X.4, needs some more refinement at least. But if you like it, be sure to look in the Edit menu where it can be activated permanently to give you instant filtering in your library or playlists. Or just try hitting Command-Shift-B. Finally iTunes seems to have problems with the little arrows it displays next to album titles and artist names. While the filtering bar is shown clicks that are supposed to take you to the album or artist in your library don’t seem to work.
The next improvement is one of the most obvious ones: iTunes’ source list has been changed to look like Mail’s (blue background) and work quite similarly to that in Mail or iPhoto. Finally folders can be created within the list and even nested folders are possible. But just like in iPhoto you cannot chose the order in which folders and playlists appear. At each level of the hierarchy things remain ordered by type and alphabet.
Perhaps a word on drag and drop is a good idea here. It may be due to the faster computer I am using now – but dragging things around iTunes feels smoother in iTunes 5. The highlighting of drag targets in the source list is more in line with Mail now but unlike in Mail you cannot drag songs onto a folder which then automatically opens to let you drag it into a playlist the folder contains.
Another improvement of drag and drop is that when dragging multiple items iTunes will now display a cursor with a music file icon and the typical red badge known from Mail while you’re dragging the items. When this will cause the creation of an extra reference to the tracks, the typical green ‘plus’ blob will appear as well. Nice. But not particularly well done.
Why doesn’t it work for single item drags as well? Why doesn’t the ‘plus’ blob appear for drags to the Finder? Wouldn’t two minutes of testing have made this look mildly inconsistent at least?
Then we quickly note that there is now a ‘Podcast’ artist right next to the ‘Compilations’ one in the artist list. This can be quite useful although it’s a bit strange that the compilations one has to be turned on and off manually while the Podcast one appears automatically. Not very consistent. (I’d just drop the option for the compilations and have them always-on.)
Finally there are slight changes to the buttons at the bottom of iTunes’ window. The number of buttons has grown over years and I always thought that wasn’t too useful. With iTunes 5 at least the latest addition to the collection of buttons, the ‘full screen’ button for films, now – just like the iPod button – only appears when a film is selected or a visualiser is running. Nothing huge but an improvement that makes things look less cluttered. What strangely didn’t happen is that holding the option and shift keys turns the new playlist button into a new folder button. That’d be a logical extension of the behaviour they have for option-clicking and they’ve even had the icon for that button around since iTunes 4.5.
So much for iTunes’ main window. Quite a few changes which affect the look, some long overdue ones like folders and some nice improvements particularly in the main display area.
Just like other parts of iTunes, its preferences had become quite cluttered as well over years. And iTunes 5 makes a little effort to improve that a little bit. The main feat here is that the overly technical preferences with details about importing music or your CD burner have been grouped together in the Advanced section of the preferences. As most people will want to use those at most once, this is a good step – although it does make iTunes’ music importing capabilities less visible.
I also quite like that they changed the technically sounding ‘Audio’ preferences to be ‘Wiedergabe’ (Playback?) preferences and added a feature to it for the shuffling people. It seems that the new feature lets you bias the shuffling a bit by giving preference to songs by the same artist or off the same album. You can also specify whether you want iTunes to shuffle things by song, by album or by oevre. I hardly ever use iTunes’ shuffle feature and my first intuition would be that this preference should be made on a per-source basis rather than globally, but it might be helpful for people who have all of their library on shuffle.
The final novelty in Preferences are parental controls. Personally I don’t need them. But I guess people must have asked for them. To keep their kids from buying all of iTMS or from downloading porn podcasts or something. While this feature amusingly lets you get rid of the ugly Podcast icon in the source list (but disabling the whole download feature at the same time), it seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. There should be a separate preference to turn off Podcasts and – on Mac OS X.4 at least the rest of the parental controls should be integrated with the parental controls you get in System Preferences. Another feature that’ll take months or years to mature.
The other novelty in iTunes’ information window is a tab for lyrics – using the rather strange translation
Lyrik in the German version. It’s nice that iTunes can now handle lyrics as metadata but the support is limited to storing text at this stage. Just as with cover art, iTunes only provides the infrastructure for storing and reading the data but you’ll have to collect the lyrics yourself – or hope that people are already in the process of writing AppleScripts for the task. In fact, iTunes doesn’t even seem to use the lyrics you entered in filter actions. And neither does Spotlight index the lyrics.
iTunes upgrades have the crappy habit of making the wonderful library sharing feature less and less useful. And it looked like iTunes 5 completely kills sharing at first because I couldn’t see any shared libraries. Luckily blech had investigated this already and found out that – rather stupidly, I’d say – shared libraries only appear in iTunes 5 if you have chosen to turn on the radio option. I hope this is another proof of Apple’s superb quality control rather than a hint that their iTunes team is going nuts.
After that was sorted things went smoothly and I haven’t heard any major complaints about things stopping to work yet and local checks suggest that sharing with iTunes 4.9 will still work at least. When sharing between iTunes 5 versions, you’ll even get the new hierarchy transferred over the network. Although, amusingly, the otherwise strict folder - smart playlist - playlist order is ignored in that case and replaced by a strictly alphabetical one.
There’s an unfortunate regression in iTunes 5’s German localisation. Back in the bad old days iTunes had the unfortunate habit of not being localised in the way it smartly sorts band names, i.e. the feature that makes ‘The White Stripes’ appear with the bands whose names start with ‘W’ rather than clutter all the ‘The’ bands together. Of course there are also German bands whose names start with ‘Die’, like Die Sterne, Die Aeronauten or Die Ärzte and they should be sorted with the S and A in the German Version of iTunes, rather than all being cluttered together. Apple got that right for iTunes at some stage and iPods handle it correctly. With English music being predominant these days, they also did the re-sorting for band names starting with ‘The’.
But in iTunes 5 there is a regression and iTunes will only re-sort the band names starting with ‘Die’ and not re-sort the English ‘The’ bands. And unfortunately that makes it hard to find things. Luckily this problem is quite easy to fix until Apple come up with a fix. In fact Apple have moved the relevant string resources from a
STR# resource in iTunes’ resource files to a simple text file called ‘Localizable.strings’ in each language’s folder which makes things a lot easier and lets you add the missing strings à la
"146.007" = "The "; "146.008" = "%1, The"; "146.009" = "THE "; "146.010" = "%1, THE";to the text file using your favourite text editor. Quite a simple thing to do.
iTunes 5 gives us many changes. Changes for the better. But it doesn’t bring anything genuinely new to the program. Not the big cleanup I would have expected from version 5. Not the great integration with internet services for lyrics and cover art. Not the handling of films or PDFs that looks like more than a tacked on afterthought. So while it’s nice, it’s far from being revolutionary.
They also apparently added a VBR encoding option for AAC, for the audio geeks out there.
Not that I care excessively but that sounds like a good thing.
Thanks for the sharing tip. I couldn’t see the libraries!
Great tip about changing the localization strings to change the sort order. My system runs in French, but most of my music is English, so I added “The” to the French localization. While doing so, I noticed that the default French localization only moves “Le” to the end, but not “La” or “Les”, which is about as unhelpful as only moving “Der” and not “Das” or “Die” for you! Soon fixed that. Thanks!
Thanks for the tip on file sharing & turning on radio.
I couldn’t figure out why the heck sharing isn’t on.
(Now they force Radio AND Music store on us.)
Two things that don’t work in the new version:
when playing AIFF files iTunes5 only displays the cover art in ‘selected song’ mode. in ‘playing now’ mode the covert art window shows the text “drag artwork here” as if the file didn’t have an image attached.
(at least in my case) quicktime mpeg videos wont play any more and iTunes5 won’t import any new ones.
i hope they’ll fix this soon.
In the US iTunes there is that localization problem, too.