this blog is

19 December 2007

Nerd Factor X Provocation

itunes windows ui


iDefend iTunes

Why do some Windows users hate iTunes so much?

I can't understand it myself. I think a lot of the angst directed towards iTunes is misguided. Or misinformed. Or overstated. Or just a matter of taste. Hear me out.

Resource Hog

A common complaint about iTunes is that it is a memory (or resource) hog. But compared to what?

I think you have to compare Apples with apples. Yes, Winamp 1.0 uses much less CPU than iTunes does during playback, but it's not exactly a fair comparison is it? Besides just playback, iTunes does importing, organisation, searching and browsing of your media library. Not to mention visualisation, device sync, podcast downloads, CD burning, metadata editing, etc etc. Now of course you could make an argument that iTunes does too much and I will agree, but this is different to saying that iTunes consumes too many system resources for what it does.

So if we pick Windows Media Player 11 as a comparable application, and import the same (fairly modest) collection of music into both WMP and iTunes, how many resources do they each consume?

  • iTunes 7.5: During playback, CPU usage doesn't get over 2%. Working set fairly constant at 58MB, of which 39MB is private.

  • WMP 11: Similar CPU usage during playback, 1-2%. Working set seems to vary a lot more. I initially observed it at about 47MB, with 23MB private. But then it seemed to drop down to around 32MB total with 16MB private.

Relatively, there's a fair bit of difference between the memory usage of these two, but in the scheme of things neither of these programs are using significant amounts of memory. iTunes increased memory usage can possibly be explained by the high-resolution cover art, which WMP only displays scaled down. Unless you're trying to run it on an ancient, low-memory, machine neither of these is going to be noticeable. If you load up a larger library into iTunes, I believe the memory usage will go up accordingly, but I haven't tried to quantify this. An exercise for the reader.

Ah but wait, you may be wondering, what about all of the other background processes that Apple have inflicted on its users? True enough, besides iTunes.exe I count 4 other Apple-sourced processes running on my Winbox: iTunesHelper.exe, iPodService.exe, AppleMobileDeviceService.exe, and mDNSResponder.exe. None of these are using more than about 4MB of working set total. Most of what they do use is shared; I'd be surprised if combined total memory usage was over 10MB. And the CPU use is negligible.

Again you could argue that 5 processes is too many (and I'd have some sympathy for this) but it's not as if you're going to notice their presence on any reasonable hardware.

Inconsistent User Interface

There's no doubt that iTunes does not look like any other Windows application, and in general this is a bad thing. The fact that almost no other media player seems to feel the need to follow the Windows UI standards is irrelevant (but hard to ignore). The point remains: each and every application should present an interface that is consistent with the relevant OS standards and guidelines.

However I would argue that much of the iTunes interface is consistent with the Windows UI standards, in position and approximate appearance. Overall there's the funky grey look designed to mimic the MacOS equivalent, but it's hardly a barrier to entry. OK it's different, but it's still roughly usable and (I think anyway) quite attractive. The scroll bars and window resize handle are straight outta Macdom, but they still look similar enough to their Windows equivalents (and also subjectively attractive) that, practically speaking, are not going to cause any significant usability problems.

Similarly, it's got a window close box which is easy to find and looks like a Windows close box. The menus are in the title bar, but they still look roughly like Windows menus (unlike some Microsoft applications I could name).

The menu structure mostly follows Windows UI guidelines. There's "File", "Edit" and "Help". The preferences dialog is in the "Edit" menu where Windows users should still be able to find it. You might be able to make a case that "Get Info" is too dissimilar from the standard "Properties", but overall it's pretty standard.

Where iTunes might deviate from expectations is in the UI elements that are specific to its domain of media playing. But here is where (I would argue) that the Windows standards are a lot less, well, standard. Look at Windows Media Player. Or, rather, don't. The point is that there really aren't any well-defined Windows UI standards for media players to follow, so it's hardly fair to criticise Apple for not following them.

In my opinion, it is absolutely fair to criticise Apple for designing new UI controls that don't look like they are controls. The status display at the top of the player window looks vaguely like an LCD display from a real-world device. But, unlike such real-world devices, it can be manipulated. Click the little "play" triangle to toggle the display. Drag the diamond (why a diamond?) to scrub back and forward in the current track. And so forth. These are (IMHO) quite unintuitive given the appearance, and are probably the worst of Apple's UI sins with iTunes.

Reading between the lines, I think this gets to the core of Julian's complaints. In absence of official UI standards, Apple have invented their own. And in my view there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. We can argue whether or not the invented UI elements are successful or not, but really Microsoft should be setting the standards for their platform in the first place.

It Messes Up My Beautiful Directory Structure!

Umm. No it doesn't.

Screenshot of iTunes Preferences dialog showing 'Keep iTunes Music Folder Organized' checkbox

Just uncheck the "Copy files" checkbox before you add your music to the library.

There may be an argument to make this checkbox unchecked by default, especially when importing a large music collection on first startup.

It's Ugly and it Smells Bad

Some other objections to iTunes are:

  • It doesn't understand WMA. No, it doesn't, and I'm this is frustrating for those with large collections of WMA-encoded music. Think of it this way: the sooner you convert your collection to an open non-proprietary format such as MP3, the happier you'll be.

  • It updates too frequently! Damn those Apple developers for continuing to improve and fix their product.

  • I hate the iTunes Store and their DRM! Don't use it then. Get your music from elsewhere, like bleep or Amazon, or those round plastic receipts you keep in the closet.

  • It doesn't support my (non-Apple) player! Oh please.

  • It is the bearer of bad tidings. Your iPod is going to die sometime. iTunes is likely to deliver this message to you. Don't shoot the messenger.

Does that cover everything? Look I'm not trying to say that iTunes is the be-all-and-end-all of music players, but it does seem a bit odd that Windows users are particularly sensitive to its flaws.

Please feel free to disagree below.


Posted by
2007-12-19 02:13:00 -0600

I don't hate iTunes, I accept it in all of its gradual restyling away from brushed metal glory. As a serial iPod user, I too am suffering a little from Stockholm syndrome, but that's not to say I don't have gripes:

  • Cryptic UI controls in odd places (What does the tick do again? There's no tooltip!)
  • Search gadget up the top, browse down the bottom
  • Subscribe to podcast under the "Advanced" menu (Next to Open stream... !?)
  • There's a nice tree-like thing on the left, but I can't use it for the one thing trees might be good for... organizing my play lists into a place where they're convenient to get to.
  • Insane CPU usage during pod cast downloads (2 pod casts = 30% of CPU on a dual core 2GHz)
  • Given N iTunes libraries. How do I sync them, or join them in such a way as to not lose my playlists and podcast subs?
  • 52MB installer!
  • I can only back up to DVD and CD, not a network or file system location?
  • iTunes help is full of long-broken URLs

Posted by
2007-12-19 02:13:00 -0600

Agree Chris. Actually it struck me when reading Julian's response that because I have been using iTunes for so long I was a bit blind to some of its flaws.

The stupid "minibrowser" for instance; when I was first confronted with this I sighed deeply, then found the command to disable it, and promptly dismissed it from sight and memory. Same with the silly iTunes store links that look like play buttons - I re-mapped them to link to artists/songs in the library and learned to overlook the confusing similarity with the play button.

So I've probably got Stockholm syndrome too. Having said that:

Cryptic UI controls in odd places (What does the tick do again? There’s no tooltip!)

Covered above mostly. The checkbox is used for fine-grained control over what tracks to load into an iPod. Completely useless when your iPod is larger than your library. Lack of tooltip is bad though I agree.

Search gadget up the top, browse down the bottom

Err, what? It's exactly the same layout as Firefox and IE. Incidentally I think the incremental search is one of the best features of iTunes.

Subscribe to podcast under the “Advanced” menu (Next to Open stream… !?)

Agree - I think this is another form of subtle iTunes store promotion.

I wish this wasn't the case but in coaching my mum through the process of subscribing to podcasts, I find it easier to tell her to go through the iTunes store. The copy/paste feed URL dance is more difficult to describe than a simple search. Not sure whether moving the "subscribe to podcast" item out of the Advanced menu would help significantly here.

There’s a nice tree-like thing on the left, but I can’t use it for the one thing trees might be good for… organizing my play lists into a place where they’re convenient to get to.

Err, sorry? You can certainly have hierarchical-ordered playlists. (File > New Folder)

Also note that the sources list is also straight outta Macdom and differs from a conventional Windows tree view in that there's no root for the tree. But as we have discussed many times, the "fake root node" is an endemic problem with Windows tree views. Lack of a root node is a feature not a bug IMHO.

Oh I suppose another difference is that iTunes uses triangles instead of plus signs to control the expansion of the tree. However I've been told that Vista does something similar now (never used Vista myself).

Insane CPU usage during pod cast downloads (2 pod casts = 30% of CPU on a dual core 2GHz)

Yes this is unacceptable.

Given N iTunes libraries. How do I sync them, or join them in such a way as to not lose my playlists and podcast subs?

Sync, dunno. But you can join them by doing an export/import (file menu).

52MB installer!

To be fair, this includes QuickTime.

I can only back up to DVD and CD, not a network or file system location?

Pretty sure that once you've backed up your playlists and meta-data (eg by export or just copying the relevant iTunes Library files) all you need to do to back up the tracks is copy them directly out of their original location. This is what I do anyway.

iTunes help is full of long-broken URLs

Never noticed this.

Posted by
2007-12-19 02:13:00 -0600


I want to move my stuff up the top and the store, library, ringtones down the bottom. I guess this is a minor niggle, but having to scroll all the time to get to what I want is annoying.


Sync is essential for anyone with computers/laptops and should really be a first class citizen in the UI. The opportunity to screw up your library and at best spend hours re-curating it is very very worrying.

52MB installer:

But I already have QuickTime! And the Apple updater keeps it up to date for me too!

Backup to DVD:

Who only has a couple of DVDs worth of media anymore? Making your library safe should be a primary concern of iTunes, and the lack of a UI-obvious method sucks.

Posted by
2007-12-19 02:13:00 -0600

Sync is essential for anyone with computers/laptops and should really be a first class citizen in the UI. The opportunity to screw up your library and at best spend hours re-curating it is very very worrying.


I assume your problem is pretty similar to mine: multiple computers, and the desire to have the same music library available at each.

My current solution is to simply carry my library on iPod. I plug the iPod into whatever computer I'm working with and access the music directly. I realise this isn't exactly ideal for everyone.

This solution also has some problems of its own. In fact my vote for the single most annoying limitation of iTunes would go to the following: In order to play the files on a connected iPod, I need to change the sync settings, specifically check the "Manually manage music and videos" checkbox. This also pops up a succession of warning dialogs (each and every time).

Even after doing this, there are other problems:

  • Checking this checkbox resets the play count of songs you have listened to since the last sync. In other words if you listen to a podcast on the way to work, when you get to work and click the "Manually manage" checkbox, that podcast will be marked as not-listened-to.

  • Some of the browsing features are mysteriously unavailable. Coverflow for instance. And party shuffle.

Fortunately however any changes you make to the song rating are synchronised when you plug back into the "master" iTunes library (consistent with making the ratings change on the iPod itself). This is handy for those of us who are compulsively preening our music libraries.

So I for one would rather a "play only" mode for a connected iPod rather than a method of syncing between iTunes Libraries.

Posted by
2007-12-19 02:13:00 -0600

Here's my US$0.02:

So you know where I'm coming from: I use iTunes on my PC primarily as podcast-catcher. It does the job well enough that I haven't been motivated to look for another program for this purpose. I like how well iTunes is integrated with sites that offer podcast feeds, and how the Apple Store offers to host so many free podcasts. I also use iTunes for ripping and burning music CDs, listening to streamed music, and managing downloaded (MP3) song files. I don't have an iPod, so except for a couple of occasions when I made party mixes for my sister, on her iPod and her Mac, this isn't an area of interest to me.

Most of the UI quirks are either things I was already used to from my Mac experience, or were not hard to get used to. As you point out, Alastair, the UI for a lot of Windows-specific programs is far worse. I'll be the 10 millionth person to agree that Windows Media Player is a horror, and I never use it. The ones that really get me are the programs that come with some bizarre skin, right out of the box. It makes me absolutely crazy when anti-malware programs install, by default, with a skin that looks like a game controller or media player, forcing me to hunt through preferences to figure out how to disable the skin, just to launch a scan or configure the schedule settings. Even if iTunes is quirky, at least it's not completely non-intuitive.

My main PC is an aging Win2K box with only 256 MB of RAM. iTunes takes a little longer than I'd like to launch (about 10 seconds) and if I'm running several other apps at the same time, switching between them can mean a bit of a delay, presumably, while things are swapped in and out of virtual memory. I'd have to give iTunes a win on this one, though, since I'm being borderline unreasonable with the set-up I'm asking it to run on.

I do have a few minor complaints, though.

  1. iTunes requires me to be logged in as Administrator to install it or to upgrade it. This is stupid. Win2K has the group called "Power Users," or whatever the exact name is, and this group has permission to install applications. My regular account is part of this group. Admittedly, iTunes is not the only program broken in this regard, but Apple still deserves criticism for this. Mozilla doesn't require me to be logged in as Administrator to install or update Firefox and Thunderbird, for example, and neither do many other third-party apps. I think there is a case to be made for requiring the Administrator to install system-critical software, like drivers and anti-malware software, but programs that are just for fun shouldn't be held to this same standard.

  2. Quicktime is included, and there is no way around it. Boo, hiss. I have no need for Quicktime -- I don't use the visualization thing when I'm running iTunes. Unless I'm managing songs or podcast feeds, the program spends its life minimized. It should be easy enough to set iTunes up so that if Quicktime is required, it would inform you of that at the appropriate time. The tightly bound integration makes me think of Quicktime as shovelware, and breaks the Unix-motivated ideal of apps that play well together without interdependencies.

  3. The update process is annoying. I don't understand why the whole program (plus Quicktime) has to be downloaded every time a security patch is issued. Granted, my connection is now speedy enough that this has become only a minor annoyance, but requiring a 50 MB download to fix a hole means lots of people put off keeping their software up to date. Why is Mozilla capable of issuing patches that are smaller than 1 MB, and Apple is not?

  4. The update process is really annoying. After downloading and installing a security patch, the shortcuts in the Quick Launch bar and my custom-built folder of frequently used apps are both broken, even though the program appears to live in the same place. I have to recreate two shortcuts every time I patch the program. No other application that I've ever used has this flaw.

  5. One UI gripe, to close: There should be a way to create more structure in the podcasts section. Since I have a fair amount of feeds, I'd like to be able to create folders. If I'm missing something here, please let me know. Thanks.