iTunes is Still Apple's Worst Software, But Now It's Much Better

Apple has been taking a lot of heat lately for iTunes. The user interface, which was stellar when it first launched, has become complex, confusing and opaque. Plus, many small problems have plagued its robustness over the years as its code base became bloated and tried to do too much. iTunes 12.4 takes two steps forward after many backwards steps, and restores some interface sanity. This is in itself notable.


When I first reviewed iTunes 12.0 back on November 3, 2014, I wrote: "iTunes 12 is Apple’s Worst Software Ever, Should Be Withdrawn." Not much had changed since then. In fact, things got worse for some users when Apple Music was thrown into the mix. An emerging meme on the internet has been that iTunes is a despised piece of software.

One reader told me that, at one time, the iPod and iTunes were the gateway into the Apple world. That joyous feeling has gone away. At one point, it appeared that Apple didn't care anymore. Pleas to fix the UI and/or break it up into logical components were everywhere, but nothing happened.

Now something has happened. Apple has released iTunes 12.4, and the visible changes to the UI go a long way towards a more logical, simplified user interface. Baby steps.

The Notable Changes

Here are some of the more notable items worth pointing out with a focus on music. It's not an exhaustive list.

1. The Time (LCD) Bar. In iTunes 12.0, Apple obscured the operation of the Repeat icon and merged everything into a popup that one had to hunt for. In 12.4, the Time Bar makes both controls, Shuffle and Repeat, logical and permanently visible again. They don't need to be right-clicked to operate with check boxes. Just click-toggle, as before.

2. View Options. In iTunes 12.0, the View Options were buried in a popup, and the elegant matrix of checkboxes was gone. I criticized Apple harshly here. Now it's back in all its glory with View > Show View Options. (CMD+J).

View Options is back in all its former glory.

3. iTunes 12.0 introduced an unbelievably complex trio of selectors at the top, the Media selector (picker) on the top left, the highlighted tabs in the middle and the view options on the top right. Mercifully, the confusing view options popup has been removed and its components properly put back in the Sidebar and the View Options described above. That also includes a better, centralized way to include album artwork in the playlists.

4. Playlist Controls. In an effort to clean up the visual appearance, the playlist controls and other options at the bottom of the sidebar have been replaced with a right-click contextual menu. Right-click below the last item in the Sidebar to bring this menu up. Or use the File menu > New.

5. Sidebar. The Sidebar was always a beloved feature of iTunes because it was an obvious visual navigational aid. In previous versions of iTune 12, you could only see the Sidebar if you selected Playlist from the tab bar and were in music mode. Now you can retain the sidebar in any of the major media libraries or even hide it, under your control, from the View menu. (OPT+CMD+S). Also, Sidebar options in Movies, TV Shows and Podcasts help better focus on and select the desired content.

SIdebar in Movie media

6. Forward/Back controls now work globally, not just in the iTunes Store.

7. Device management. It's a little thing, but a "Done" button on the device management page, bottom right, helps guide the user out of the device mode. It's a punctuation of "I'm done here. How do I get out?

All in all, the worst of the offenses in the original iTunes 12 have been eliminated, and many of the intuitive design elements of the previous versions have returned. While these changes go a long way towards making the UI less confusing, they're just a start. Only time (and perhaps WWDC in June) will tell if Apple plans to continue this long-awaited crusade to return iTunes to the days when it was beloved or whether these tweaks are a band-aid on the way to a suite of grander apps. Or something else.