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iTunes 4.5, and I’m cranky

The usual channels are abuzz with happy reviews of iTunes 4.5… and for the most part they’re right on the money. Lossless encoding is a nice addition, WMA conversion (although Windows–only) is welcome, wishlists and playlist sharing look good, free downloads are a nice trap, and I’m sure somebody will find radio charts useful… but I find myself annoyed by most of the other new features introduced. Y’know, the ones that actually relate to me and my music when I’m listening to it. Let me elaborate.

When we’re importing CDs, we can now join tracks so that the ‘arty’ songs that require a zero–gap between them can do just that… by being one big track. Handy for eliminating the ability to isolate single tracks, or the ability to shuffle tracks, or the ability to listen to more than one different artist for an hour.

Here’s a better idea.

Get the computer (and the iPod) to start reading the next track before the current one finishes, and eliminate the gap altogether. This isn’t a crossfade, it isn’t a special effect, it’s what we like to call “working the way we expect it to work”. When we want zero gaps between songs, we shouldn’t have to rip entire albums as a single track, it should Just Work™.

There’s a new sheriff in town whose sole aim is to clog up your playlists… link buttons.

Then there are the iTMS links in your music library: huzzah. Step back and looking at it sanely for a second… there’s a button next to the track name, artist name, composer name, and album name of every track in your library. Four buttons on every line, for several thousand lines… and they all do the same thing.

Clicking the Track–link–button searches the iTMS for the track information, artist information, composer information, and album information of that single track… taking you to the Store so you can buy it again. Clicking the Album link does the same, thereby returning precisely the same results as clicking on the track link. The Artist link performs the same search, but will take you to the artist’s biography and discography instead, and clicking the Composer link will take you to the artist’s bio as well, even if (say…) the composer and the performer aren’t the same person. Confused? Great.

Now, unfortunately for everyone, everywhere, ever; the only way to remove these link buttons is to turn them off in preferences, and it’s an all–or–nothing affair. There is, of course, an easier solution. One that…

  1. doesn’t clog up the interface so much,
  2. is infinitely more customizable, and
  3. doesn’t add new preferences in places they shouldn’t be.

So once again, in the grand tradition of giving UI advice to people who are much better paid than I am, here’s my suggestion: get the linky buttons out of the artist/album/track/composer columns and into their own column. A single column that can be dragged and arranged any way you like it, and even hidden via the view options. Simple. No duplication of links, no clogging up of application preferences for what is clearly a view preference, and a little flexibility as to where the link goes. Bam.

iTunes’ print pane versus a mockup “standard” print pane

Then there’s the Print pane… and you’re wondering what in the hell could be wrong with this feature. Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, exactly, but I have an even better idea: use a standard Print pane. Integrate the print–theme options into a normal, everyday, everybody–know–what–it–looks–like print pane, and there’ll never be a complaint of “how do I choose a non–default printer to print to?” or “how do I export it as a PDF?”, because they already know. It’s familiar, and it’s exactly what we expect to see in Mac OS X when we hit ‘Print’. iTunes may be Carbon, but it’s no longer a Mac OS 9–compatible application… so let’s get real about using Mac OS X interface widgets.

Party Shuffle is an unbelievably stupid feature: it’s a randomized playlist with a unique interface; and when I say “unique”, I mean it in the way that your crazy Aunt May is unique. Maybe “eccentric” would be a better way to describe it. And her. So what does this unique new feature do for us?

  1. Lets us play the contents of our music library, or any predefined playlist, at random.
  2. Allows us to display only a certain number of upcoming (and recently played) tracks in the window at any one time.
  3. Greys out the already–played tracks.
  4. Puts a big blue bar over the currently playing track.
  5. Allows us to reorder or remove upcoming tracks as we please.
  6. Has a “Play higher rated tracks more often” feature.

Now, discounting the fact that ‘Shuffle’ is a standard feature of every MP3 player in the world, the fact that the little loudspeaker icon already tells us which track is currently playing, and the fact that tracks in ordinary playlists can already be reorganized and removed at will; we’re left with the “limited tracks on screen” thing and the “play higher rated tracks more often” thing in the list of ‘new stuff’ introduced by Party Shuffle. On the other hand, if they’d just added rating bias and the ability to reorder upcoming tracks in Smart playlists, we’d be set all the same.

I’m starting to get a headache.

I like to believe that all of this crap is the product of iTunes’ head interface engineer coming down with the flu; that things will be fixed right up again in the next release, but I’ve always been fond of impossible fantasies. In truth, this is all the product of a particularly potent case of feature creep, as Sven pointed out earlier. As the version numbers tick by, there are fewer and fewer possible features to add to iTunes… so they invent ridiculous ones. Things cannot get better from here. This is why great people quit while they’re ahead.

But hey — at least multiple users can run iTunes at once now, right?