iTunes – A Big Pile of Stink

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This isn’t an article complaining about changes iTunes 11 made. In fact, I held off writing this article in the futile hope that iTunes 11 would be more than lipstick on a pig (apologies to pigs). It wasn’t, so I waited for update 1. No better. This also isn’t an article about how iTunes stinks on Windows. I run it on a Mac. So here goes…

First, I really like iTunes as a music manager. It’s what helped bring me to Apple and the iPod back when it was just for music. I rarely use it to actually play music directly but I love the flexible smart playlist feature. I make heavy use of playlists based on the date last played in order to keep playlists fresh without any effort. I also made the effort long ago to rate all my songs. This was more to manage playlists than and actual rating against other songs. For example, “Best of” for an artist or genre are 5’s. Songs that really suck and need to be kept out of playlists are 2’s. One’s are reserved for spoken audio that I’ve listened to but don’t want to delete. Three’s and fours are a mishmash and more or less the same. But iTunes has slowly beaten me down and those features aren’t worth the frustration.

Rant 1 – Video Handling

I recently returned to trying video from the iTunes store. I bought and watched the video on my Apple TV or iPad. Yet when I sync the iPad to iTunes, iTunes wants to download the video yet again.

iTunes has the option to turn off automatic downloads or purchased music, apps or books and I’ve turned them off. But the LARGEST FILES can’t be turned off. Automatic download of videos can’t be turned off and those files are measured in gigabytes. If I cancel the download and mark the library entry as watched it will try to download again sometime in the future.

But that’s not all. I tell iTunes not to sync video on my iPad. So what’s it do if it finds a video on my iPad that it doesn’t have? Ignore it since I don’t want video synced? Of course not. It asks if I want to transfer purchases. If I say no it deletes it from the iPad and enables sync of future videos. If I say yes it copies the video to iTunes and enables sync for video. In the ultimate frustration iTunes 10 would then tell me the video wasn’t playable on the iPad it just copied it from and would delete it. I don’t know if that last “unplayable video” issue exists in iTunes 11 or on my fresh, new Mac since I’ve avoided the condition that syncs video.

My current solution to both these problems is to stayed logged out of the store in iTunes and cancel the login prompt along with limiting my syncing. My ultimate solution is to dump iTunes.

Bug 1 – App Updates in iTunes

This was introduces in iTunes 11.0 and remains in iTunes 11.0.1. I’m told I have 53 app updates (and growing). Neither the “Check for updates” button or the “Get More Apps” button do anything when clicked. Others have reported this happened to them but went away. It’s been with me since I installed iTunes 11. I update my devices directly so this is more a frustration than a real problem. But new software on a new Mac, come on Apple. I already re-installed iTunes once to fix Bug 2 (listed below). Another reason to give up on iTunes.

Rant 2 – iTunes Match

Where to start? This made a mess of my library. Songs that were unchecked got checked. Songs were duplicated. Songs were deleted (a failed match update maybe?). The last played date eliminated or set to some distant past date on many sons. The only plus side is I’ve gotten a bunch of older iTunes store songs updated to non-DRM and better quality. So I consider that my money’s worth. But Match itself  is off, never to be turned on again. And I’m going through a cleanup. Thankfully CrashPlan backups never delete the deleted files so as I find missing files I can at least restore the pre-match version.

Bug 2 – Constant Firewall Prompt

After I upgraded to iTunes 11 I’d be prompted to allow it through the firewall every time I started iTunes. I deleted the firewall preferences, rebooted and saw iTunes add the exclusion but I would still get prompted at each iTunes launch. I deleted iTunes (the app, not library) and re-installed. Then the problem went away. An Apple program installing on a new Mac should just work. Yes, problems happen but they should be rare. With iTunes it’s the fixes that are rare.

Solutions?

I’m convinced iTunes is two big for Apple to handle. Or they feel the solution will cause too much pain among users.  It’s arguable whether the new interface changed much. Each screen looks better. But it it really easier to use? I’m skeptical, but even if the answer is yes it’s just not worth it. So what are my alternatives?

I took a look at Media Monkey (for Windows). The free version seems to give me nearly all the features I would want and the paid version seems to give me everything. The price is reasonable but the real cost is re-rating all my songs. Plus I’d lose the play history. I’m not sure I really want to go through the effort of recreating everything and recreating playlists. So it’s time to rethink music.

Time to simplify. I’m thinking of Synology for my local music management and player. While it has smart playlists, they are no where near as smart as the iTunes playlists so I’d use them little if at all. There’s a music player for my iPhone which is my primary music device. It also works on the iPad. There’s also apps for Android and Windows Phone (including 8) so I’m covered for any change. The Synology NAS also has several other playback options and includes Internet radio. Since I have already have it, I’ve begun to copy music to it and I’m giving it a try.

Then there’s cloud players in general Amazon and Google both have cloud experience I trust. I’m not adverse to having my music in the cloud, but I do have data caps. While the Comcast cap is suspended it will return. No sense using the data if I don’t have to. The Synology player, and most cloud players will cache songs locally and some provide the ability to pre-cache (download) songs so I won’t have to stream when I’m out and about. They do seem to stream by default so I may have to take action to play local files. I picked Amazon to give a try first, despite earlier problems with the player. It tends to be where I buy most music these days so it will add songs automatically.

I have to give up on my obsession about listening to songs I haven’t heard in a long time and keeping the play information in sync. I need to just enjoy the music.

Cloud Music: iTunes Match

iTunes Match Settings

iTunes Match SettingsIn the past I stored my music on Amazon cloud storage more as a backup than as a way to play it “from the cloud”. I purchased much of my music through Amazon and storing it was free (now all music stored there is free). Google also redid their cloud music offering and then there’s iTunes Match. I took a look at all three, this article gives my impression of iTunes Match.

I held off subscribing to iTunes Match until a couple months ago. Then my primary reason was to get the DRM off some old iTunes purchases, a secondary reason being to upgrade some lower quality songs. I never enabled Match on any iDevices until the past week.

iTunes Match PlaylistI started off with enabling it on my iPhone (it’s already enabled on my Mac Mini that has me entire music library). I was warned that it would replace my local music library. Since the local library was just a subset of my Mac Mini’s library I didn’t expect much change. I got a brief scare when my playlists disappeared, but they eventually came back. It looks like match did the right thing and kept the music that was already on the iPhone and marked the rest as being in the cloud. As the picture to the left shows, the first 3 songs are in the cloud while the last 4 are already on the iPhone.

There is no option to exclude unchecked songs, they are all available. I do have the option to only included checked items enabled in all my smart playlists created in iTunes, but this is ignored in Match on the iPhone.

Match will manage what songs are cached locally, using the songs already there as a starting point. I can also have it download all songs in a playlist, for an artist, or on an album (probably other criteria too, but those are the obvious ones) so they would be available when I’m offline or if I want to avoid using cell data. Cell data usage can also be turned off for iTunes Match to avoid eating up a data plan.

There was a noticeable delay in playing a cloud based song when it wasn’t in the queue. For example, when the first song in a playlist was cloud based. But once the songs were queued up it was seamless. Most of my usage was over my home wi-fi but I didn’t have any issues when I ventured off wireless. Admittedly, I didn’t use it much on 3G and most of that was in my house with wi-fi off for testing. The 3G performance will only be as good as the local network. I use Verizon which has been a solid performer for me locally.

I’m not a fan of the iTunes Music player interface on the iPad so I use Diner Jukebox instead. Diner Jukebox ad no problem playing songs using iTunes Match. I played songs that were local on the iPad and those in the cloud.

While I can’t create or edit smart playlists on my iDevice, the playlists are updated as songs move in and out of matching the criteria and these changes are synced across iTunes Match devices (as expected).

As someone who likes iTunes and the iPhone as a music player I find that iTunes Match enhances the experience. Anything that eliminates a reason to fire up iTunes simply to manage a device already starts out on the plus side. It does cost $25 a year which is a minus, but for this first year I got the added bonus of removing DRM from my older iTunes purchases. This was less than I would have paid under Apple’s old upgrade policy.

I would like the ability to create and edit smart playlists on my iPad. I suspect the iPhone screen size would make the UI for that too cumbersome but it should fit fine on the iPad. I don’t add or edit smart playlists much these days so this isn’t a big drawback for me. Since Amazon and Google don’t have a smart playlist concept for their players they probably won’t be much of a contender for iTunes Match. But I’ll be giving them a try.

The other interesting thing I encountered was that iTunes Match seemed to turn itself off in iTunes. My account says the computer is associated with iTunes match, but it’s not available in iTunes and I had to re-enable it. When it was added back it quickly saw it had all but 4 songs, which it uploaded. This was considerably less than when I first enabled iTunes Match. Now I could delete all those unchecked songs from iCloud to get them off my iDevices but I’m not sure I want to do that. While I could keep the physical files they’d be gone from iTunes and iCloud. Even though I don’t play them my packrate nature keeps me from clicking delete. I could create multiple libraries and I may eventually do that, but a first glance it seems like more effort than I’m willing to make.

Do you use iTunes Match as a cloud player? User another cloud player?