Review: hands on with iTunes 11

Make no mistake: When you first launch iTunes 11, it's going to feel awfully different from the iTunes you've grown accustomed to. That's because it is awfully different, from many of the user interface choices right down to the brand new icon, which now even more strongly resembles that of the Mac App Store.

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Edge-to-edge design

The first thing you'll notice upon opening the new iTunes is that the sidebar--the one with links to your playlists, the iTunes Store, Books, Movies, Podcasts, and such--is gone. Apple describes the new look as an "edge-to-edge" design. Instead of using the sidebar, you rely on a dropdown for navigating between sections of the app, and a button at the upper right of the window takes you to the iTunes Store. But here's a quick spoiler: If you can't stand the dropdown approach, you can get the sidebar of old back. Go to the View menu and choose Show Sidebar. Bonus: The icons in the sidebar, which went to a faded grayscale in iTunes 10, regain their saturation in iTunes 11.

Another casualty of the "edge-to-edge" design is the status bar--you know, the one at the bottom that lists the number of songs in your library, or the current playlist, or what have you, along with how long it would take to play those songs and how much disk space they use. You can restore that as well with a trip to the View menu, by choosing Show Status Bar.

There's a host of new user interface conceits in iTunes 11, making it seem almost like a testbed for Apple's design. For example, the pop-up menus that appear when you click the black arrow button next to a song that you've selected feels more like something out of iOS than OS X. Clicking on a sub-menu item--Genius Suggestions, for example--doesn't pop-open a sub-menu, but rather slides into a separate screen. Likewise, clicking on an album in the Album view slides open a list of songs in that album that resembles the iTunes Store (and includes a button that lets you quickly toggle over to that album in the store, as well).

You'll see those pop-up menus all over, too. They don't just show up when you click on the caret that appears when you mouse over songs in iTunes; they show up when you use new features like the Up Next option (see below), or when you hold the mouse over the currently playing song in the Now Playing header.

Up Next

Up Next, accessible from an icon on the right edge of the header as well as the View menu, shows the next songs up in your queue. When it's open, you can see the songs iTunes intends to play next, remove the ones you don't want to hear, and reorder upcoming tunes as well. You can also click to see the most recently played songs.

You can click on the caret menu on an individual track and choose to add it to the Up Next list, or get more specific and specifically choose to play the chosen track next. You can also drag individual tracks to the Now Playing section to add it to the Up Next list.

Manually adding tracks to Up Next comes with an unusual caveat: When you do so, iTunes warns you if you try to switch playlists. Switching playlists, of course, means gaining a whole new set of songs to play "Up Next," so you'll see a dialog box prompting you to confirm whether you'd like to wipe out the current Up Next selection in favor of the new playlist you've selected. It's a confusing if understandable interruption; you're essentially saying yes, I want to play the songs I just said, not the songs I previously said I wanted to hear next. We expect this element of the iTunes 11 interface to evolve over time.

When you navigate to other playlists, you'll see a playlist-specific Play button. Press it, and the music will either start right away, or after you deal with the Up Next clarification dialog described above. If you hold down Option, the Play button becomes a Plus instead; clicking it now adds the contents of the selected playlist to Up Next.

Album view

When you click onto an album, you get an expanded view stylized to match the album cover. iTunes 11 pulls out a color from the album cover, and uses that as the background color, with the font colors tweaked to look readable atop that color.

The expanded album view offers two toggles on the right side: Songs and In The Store. The former lists all the tracks you own for the selected album. The latter view moves the tracks you own to the left edge of the screen, sliding in iTunes Store items to fill the rest of the screen: top songs and albums from the artist in question, and recommended songs based on your theoretical enjoyment of the album in question. Disappointingly, however, the In The Store section happily lists songs for purchase even when you already own them--even when they're listed directly adjacent on the track listing for the album you're looking at.

If you do see an item you're interested in owning, you can click to buy it without leaving the screen, or click to get more information from the iTunes Store. When you choose that latter option, though, there's no easy way to get back to the album view you were in before you entered the store; the Back button navigates only the store, and doesn't take you back to your music. When you click to go back to your music manually, the once-expanded album no longer is.

In earlier versions of iTunes, you could uncheck tracks as desired. Unchecked tracks could be skipped when shuffled, used in Smart Playlist creation, and such. That feature still exists in iTunes 11, with a tweak: In the expanded album view, you can't see the checkboxes, but unchecked songs will appear grayed out. That's mildly confusing, since such songs are still selectable, despite their gray appearance. (You can still toggle their checked or unchecked statuses via the Control-click/right-click contextual menu.)

When you're finished looking at the expanded album view, you can click on an embedded close button, click on a different album, or run from your computer screaming.

MiniPlayer

Fans of the much neglected iTunes MiniPlayer have something to be psyched about in iTunes 11. The shrunken-size playback window is one of the marquee features of the new release; instead of being triggered by the green Zoom button, there's now a dedicated MiniPlayer button in the upper right-hand corner of the window. By default, clicking that causes the main iTunes window to disappear and be replaced by the MiniPlayer, but you can also view both windows simultaneously: While the main window is open, go to Window menu and choose MiniPlayer.

The MiniPlayer is far more functional than its predecessor, too. In its initial form, it displays the album art, track name, and artist, but as soon as you mouse over the window, it'll switch to showing you playback controls: Previous Track, Play/Pause, and Next Track. There's also an AirPlay speaker control, and a carat menu that lets you rate tracks, view them in the store, and more.

In addition, the MiniPlayer gives you constant access to the Up Next feature, as well as an integrated search feature. Click the magnifying glass icon and you'll get a search field; enter a term in it, and you'll get a list of matching items, displayed right in the MiniPlayer window. You can navigate through these via the keyboard for the most part, but sometimes you'll need to use your mouse to show results beyond the initial few.

At any time you can dismiss the MiniPlayer by hitting the x button in its top left corner, or toggle back to the full screen by clicking the rectangular icon below it. You can also opt to have the MiniPlayer always float above all other windows by checking an option in the Advanced tab of Settings.

TV, movies, and streaming

Perhaps the most significant feature in iTunes 11--one that we can't help but feel optimistic about because of its potential future impact--is its new support for streaming video content from iCloud. (This applies to podcasts and even music, too.)

Any content you purchase from the iTunes Store should appear playable (in the appropriate view), even if you haven't downloaded it to (or have removed it from) your computer. That means that, for the first time, you can use iTunes to stream movies and TV shows that you've purchased, without downloading them first.

For music, this essentially functions as a pseudo (and very basic) iTunes Match implementation: You can stream songs that you purchased from the iTunes Store, even if they're not your computer.

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