iTunes 10: First Impressions

The new iTunes 10 interface sports a few (very) subtle changes and some minor improvements.

January 17, 2004 was a day like any other with one minor exception. On this day I would take a small step that would trigger a relationship that continues to grow and consume my time to the present day. On that chilly winter Saturday I had Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) for lunch, then went home and sat in front of my aging G4 tower, launched iTunes, plugged the 10,000 Maniacs disc (Our Time In Eden) into the CD drive and clicked “Import Disc” for the very first time. My chosen bit rate was 192kbps MP3, which seemed more than adequate to capture the true sound of the CD.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but iTunes was about to become a big part of my life. Over the coming years I would repeat this process thousands of times as I converted my vast collection of CDs to virtual format. I now have a massive iTunes collection consisting of tens of thousands of tracks, videos, podcasts, WAV files, PDFs and AIFF files that pretty much fills it’s own 500gb hard drive. On average I spend about 15 hours a week working in iTunes adding, subtracting, re-ripping and otherwise preening my collection!

The need for speed

So, what do I think about iTunes 10? I’ve been running Apple’s latest iteration for about a week now and I’ve noticed a few things. Firstly, its faster… in fact in my case MUCH faster in handling basic library chores such as searching, renaming, changing labels, etc. Both iTunes 8 and 9 were bulky, sluggish beasts that didn’t play nicely with large libraries. While iTunes 10 has yet to be fully re-written utilizing Cocoa, Apple has certainly done something under the hood to perk things up… I like this very much! Maybe iTunes 11 will finally ditch the Carbon API for good and we can see some real speed gains.

Next up… the interface.

iTunes 10 has received a minor make-over starting with the application icon. Steve Jobs quipped at the product launch that since digital downloads now surpassed CD sales, it was time to lose the disc from the product icon. I like the new icon — it’s easy to see, even in a crowded dock… but really, it’s just an icon, who cares? More important, the GUI has been cleaned up, tweaked and streamlined in subtle ways. For example, when viewed in “Album List Mode”, the Album title column disappears from the description area to save space. At first I really liked this, but I soon realized that I actually click on the Album column quite a bit to return the songs to their proper sequence. You can still do this, of course, but now you have to click on the new Album column… a minor inconvenience.

A smattering of GUI preferences, click the picture for a closer look.

The Source Icons within the application have changed as well and sport a new minimalist look. If you like shopping at Ikea, you’ll probably appreciate their sparse look despite the lack of colour. And, in a nod to us older folks, you can now make the Source and List Text a bit larger and make the Grid View a tad darker. Actually, maybe you could do that before and I just didn’t see it? Overall I found the new GUI to be easier to read, though many folks are complaining about the lack of colour in the interface.

It’s all about the Service!

Increasingly, iTunes has become a portal for Apple services… starting with the iTunes Store, followed with the addition of Genius in iTunes 8 and various other things like iBook support in subsequent versions. iTunes 10 introduces Ping, Apple’s social network for music and media lovers. I’ve turned Ping on, but frankly don’t have time to mess with yet another social network. We’ll see if I change my mind down the road. As for Genius, I turned this service off in iTunes 9 because of the abysmally sluggish performance (likely due to my large library). I’ve just this minute turned Genius back on in iTunes 10 and will report on its performance in a future blog posting. And, the iTunes Store still takes my money when I click on some music I want, so that’s unchanged. Many had anticipated some kind of music subscription model to be announced with iTunes 10, but I suspect Apple’s tenuous relationship with the record labels will prevent this from happening anytime soon.

Still buggy

Surprisingly Apple has still not addressed some longstanding iTunes flaws. For example, when streaming audio to external speakers through AirPlay (formerly AirTunes), you still can’t watch a video in it’s own iTunes window. How lame is that? And while we’re on the topic of video, playback is still a stuttering affair with sluggish performance even on fairly robust hardware. Interestingly, playing the same video on the same hardware with VLC is flawless. Again, this might be due to my large library, but still seems pretty Mickey Mouse™ to me. As a result, I rarely use iTunes for video playback.

We’ll see if this changes with the upcoming release of the new Apple TV – I certainly hope so as I’d like to move more of my everyday TV viewing over this platform.

If I had my druthers…

Apple knows iTunes 10 is far from perfect, but they also know that anyone entangled in the Apple hardware/software web really has no other option but to use their app. If you have an iPhone/iPod, iTunes is the only viable tool for managing content. With their other applications, Apple has produced the easy version for everyman (iMovie for example), then a “pro” version for power users (Final Cut). I would really like to see this thinking applied to iTunes in a pro version with enhanced features for managing large libraries, the ability to manage multiple libraries simultaneously and complete customization of the GUI. I mean how hard could it be to give the user control over background colours of the list and font style to improve readability? Hell, I’d even PAY for it!

Anyways, as I said earlier, I don’t really have a viable alternative right now… because of the hundreds of hours (read: thousands of hours) I’ve invested in building my library, I have to use iTunes. But that won’t stop me looking for a better way. Maybe its finally time to give SongBird or Plex a try and see if they are any better. Stay iTuned…

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