Editors' note (September 27, 2013): This review was updated with new features in iTunes 11.1.
Apple's iTunes 11 (Mac | Windows) is a complete makeover to Apple's media hub, simplifying the interface, adding more iCloud integration, and adding a new MiniPlayer. The design is intuitive and visually pleasing, but as the first rollout of the new version, there are still a few problems.
What we get now is a complete redesign without Ping, without the need for as much iOS device management (now that much of that is done with iCloud), and without many of the interface elements that were doing little more than taking up space. iTunes 11 is certainly a lot more streamlined visually over past versions, but this early version uses a lot of computer services. Hopefully Apple will follow up with a bug fix update to patch some of the more-troubling problems.
Still, there's little question iTunes needed a refresh, and Apple appears to be on the right path.
The full-screen desktop player
This is the first time iTunes has had a major change to the design scheme since its inception 12 years ago. As such, it will probably take some getting used to, but my initial reaction is positive.
When you open iTunes in the full window, the left-side navigation that housed your various media libraries from earlier versions is no longer the main interface to look at all your content. Now, you have only a drop-down menu on the left to pick the type of media, and buttons across the top to drill down in each category. All you see in the main window is content from that specific category. So if you choose Music from the drop-down menu, for example, the buttons across the top let you sort by songs, albums, artists, genres, videos, playlists, and radio. Below you'll see only content from your music collection. When you choose other media libraries, you get buttons across the top appropriate to that media type. You can also go back to the traditional sidebar view, if you'd like.
iTunes still uses a left-side navigation bar for some things, however. Switch to Artists in the buttons at the top, and you'll get album covers with song lists over on the right, with artist names in a scrollable window for quick navigation on the left. It's the same when you switch to genres, with albums and song lists on the right and with genres you can choose in a scrollable window on the left. Only when you view your entire library, playlists, or radio stations do you see the list-type interface found in earlier versions of iTunes, but for these categories the list view makes more sense.
The most impressive new features are when you look at your music in Album view. When you click an album, it expands in place to show the track list on a backdrop with the same theme as the album cover. From here you can click to play songs, add a track to "Up Next" in the MiniPlayer (more on this below), or get more content from he iTunes Store. Clicking "In The Store" matches your currently selected album with the same content in the iTunes Store to show you top songs and albums from the artist, and recommended songs and artists that have a similar style. It makes for a great way to discover new music or get more from the artists you already know.
Even after using the software for only a short time, it's easy to see how the interface tweaks make navigating the many features of iTunes more intuitive.
The iTunes MiniPlayer
Even with the big, colorful album icons and music discovery features, at some point you'll need to get back to work. To get the full-screen interface out of the way, you can switch to the iTunes MiniPlayer by clicking a box (in the upper right on the Mac and in the upper left via a menu on Windows).
The MiniPlayer has basic controls for play, pause, and skip forward and back, but it also has options for controlling your iTunes library with only a couple of buttons.
With a song playing you can see a small icon of the album cover on the left side of the MiniPlayer and the name of the song with basic playback controls. You have buttons for sending the music to another device via AirPlay and a search field for quickly grabbing a new song without opening the main interface. But the best feature is the ability to add songs to your playlist without ever opening the main interface. This "Up Next" list, which I mentioned above, lets you add, remove, or move songs around to create the perfect playlist for what you're doing right now. From the list you also have the option to jump back into full-screen mode to view all the albums by the current artist, all the songs in the current album, or view the artist in the iTunes Store.
iTunes has sorely needed a way to control music for a long time (usually left up to third-party apps) so it's nice to see this addition in the software. Learn more about using the Up Next feature.