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Hands on with iTunes 11: Is this Apple’s best iTunes to date?

iTunes 11 apple ios ipodAfter a month delay, iTunes 11 was finally released yesterday. As we previously reported, the updated version was postponed due to an engineering problem that forced Apple developers to take some time to rebuild the program.The company had announced the new update and many of the expected features back in September at its iPhone 5 event, but it wasn’t until we actually got some hands-on time with the new iTunes that we were really able to grasp what a major change this is for the music app.

An app used by both Mac and PC users alike; iTunes gets a lot of use, so let’s see what an extra month allowed Apple to do. Here are some of iTunes 11’s new features.

apple iTunes 11 miniplayerNew MiniPlayer

The MiniPlayer could be one of the biggest changes or one of the most minuscule – depending on how many people realize it has actually been updated. MiniPlayer is one iTunes feature that often went unused simply because it didn’t have much functionality before. In previous versions of iTunes, the MiniPlayer simply allowed users to minimize their iTunes screen and turn it into a small widget. The MiniPlayer showed the song name and allowed users to pause, play, and flip forward or backward between songs – and that’s about it. With iTunes 11, MiniPlayer has not only increased its functionality but it also updated its look.

Apple has hidden the forward and backward buttons, the play/pause button, and the volume buttons so that they only appear when you hover over the MiniPlayer. Other new additions include a search bar, which searches your entire library; an audio menu, which allows you to select your speakers via AirPlay; and a list of songs you’ve added to your Up Next menu (more on Up Next below). The updated MiniPlayer might be one of the most underrated features on iTunes 11.

No more library sidebar

The way you navigate through the library is probably the biggest change to iTunes. The sidebar, which has been a staple in the application’s history, is gone, leaving a huge mass of space for your album art to take over. If you want to switch between music, movies, TV shows, home sharing, or network libraries, there’s a thin drop-down menu in the upper-left corner of the app. The only problem is, it makes it more difficult to navigate through videos, music, TV shows, apps, and the iTunes store. It’s a small sacrifice for the added screen space and, after you see how much better the app is, aesthetically, you’ll be wishing Apple implemented this feature years ago.

Since the sidebar is gone, the playlists feature has changed. On the top of the library, there are tabs that allow you to navigate between artists, genres, songs, albums, and playlists. The artists and playlist menu bring up a smaller sidebar, which provides a list of whatever playlist or artist you’re looking for. We use playlists a lot and found this change to be just as efficient as the old sidebar.

For those of you who love the sidebar and can’t live without it, Apple hasn’t gotten rid of it completely. By going to the View menu and clicking “Show Sidebar,” the sidebar will reappear in iTunes. You can also use the menu to bring back the status bar on the bottom that tells you how many songs, hours of music, and megabytes of music you have uploaded on iTunes. You’ll also find an option to view “Up Next,” a new feature that shows you what’s coming up after your current song. You can add songs to Up Next by right-clicking on the song and selecting “Add to Up Next.” The song will be added to the bottom of your playlist, but if you want to listen to it directly after the song you’re currently jamming out to, then you can select “Play Next.”

Both the iTunes Store and iTunes Match are also accessible from the top of the library. iTunes Match costs $25 a year and stores your entire library in iCloud, which lets you play your music and videos on any iOS device and your Apple TV.

iTunes Store looks the same on all iOS devices … finally

Speaking of the iTunes Store, for some reason, the OS X version was different from the iOS version in previous iterations of Tunes. Not a big deal for some, but kind of a pet peeve for others. Now, Apple’s synced up the iTunes design so that it looks the same on all devices, no matter if they’re running iOS or OS X.

Expanded view: a new way to browse through music

apple iTunes 11 redesigned album player

Expanded view changes the way you sift through music. It works a lot like the iOS folder mechanism: click on the album cover, and a list of songs open below the album. Also, the columns that have been a staple of iTunes, which allowed users to sort their data through various categories, like last played, date added, year, rating, and more, are completely gone. However, you can get them back using the View menu while you’re in the Songs section.

Preview history

itunes 11 sidebar apple ipod iphone iosJust like with iOS 6, Apple has added preview history, allowing users to view the songs they’ve previewed on one device on another device. So, if you’re browsing through songs on your iPhone while on the go, you can actually download the song on your computer once you get home and save yourself the hassle of trying to remember what it was. Thanks to iCloud, the song will be saved in your preview history.

More iCloud functionality

iTunes 11 lets you access your iTunes content on all of your iOS devices. Users can now download songs from their library for offline use, which can be useful when traveling. iCloud also remembers where you left off, so if you’re watching a movie on your MacBook but have to run out the door, you can continue watching on your iPhone and start from the exact spot you left off. Apple’s iBooks and Safari – and even popular third-party services like Netflix – have had this feature for years, and while it’s taken some time for iTunes to jump on board, it’s certainly a welcome addition.

Speed

iTunes 11 is probably the fastest version of the program we’ve seen yet. From loading up and selecting music, to downloading and playing videos, iTunes 11 is much faster than its predecessors. However, Apple did slightly increase the amount of CPU it uses in order to make the app faster. According to our tests, when playing music on iTunes 10, the program took around 5 percent of our CPU. In iTunes 11, iTunes takes up to 7.5 percent. We did a similar test for videos by playing the pilot episode of “Revolution.” The copy we used was downloaded from the iTunes Store and is high-def quality. The program took up about 20 percent of our CPU with iTunes 10, and 21 percent with iTunes 11. Clearly, this isn’t a big change, but it’s important for users with slower, older, computers.

Devices

With the sidebar gone, your devices are now accessible in their own little tab in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. If you have more than one device, you’ll be able to manage them by clicking on the devices tab, which brings up a drop-down menu of all of your connected devices. A very familiar screen comes up that resembles the device page from older versions of iTunes. There is one addition: a tab that says “On This Device,” which gives you a rundown of exactly what’s on each device. It’s a welcome addition that puts everything on your iPad, iPod, or iPhone into a simple list that’s easy to navigate.

Gift card scanner to come?

iTunes gift card scanner itunes 11 update

According to CNET, there’s one more feature coming out in the next incremental update: a gift card scanner. Reportedly, the feature will let you use your iSight camera to add gift cards to your account. Though it’s not currently available, iTunes will pull the alphanumeric code on the gift card so that you don’t have to type it in. In order for it to work, the code must be printed within a rectangular box for the camera to recognize it. Users can still type in the code in case the iSight camera doesn’t pick it up. 

Should you get iTunes 11?

In a word, yes. iTunes 11 is a fantastic update. Apple has made it a lot faster, sleeker, and added many new features. The removal of data-filled columns and the sidebar leave the screen uncluttered and much easier to navigate. iTunes 11 looks like something modeled after Apple’s iOS design, which is just a continuation of Apple’s quest to create a unified operating system between its mobile devices and computers. It worked with Mountain Lion, which added key iOS features like Notification Center and iMessages, and it certainly works with the new iTunes update. Clearly, CEO Tim Cook, and Apple executives Jony Ive and Eddy Cue are working diligently to push Apple into the future. And, if the future of Apple looks as great as iTunes 11, we can’t help but be excited.

If you’re not entirely thrilled with the new design and long for the look of past iTunes versions, we have a few tips that’ll help you make iTunes 11 look more like iTunes 10.