Apple: A hate story

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To date, I have owned two iPods: An iPod video (5th Generation), and an iPod Touch (2nd Generation). I am going to start this post with a disclaimer: I like many things about my iPod Touch. It is lightweight, has a good battery life, and does most of what I need from it. Apps are cool too. If given a choice, I would probably buy it again, and when I get another MP3 player, there is a good chance it will be another iPod.

That said, I have some major gripes with iTunes, and to a lesser extent, the iPod. Here they are, in no particular order:


This has always been my main issue with iTunes, and I’m sorry to say that even after 5 years of using it (give or take), and 5 years of hardware updates to my own computers, this is one gripe that has not gone away. iTunes is bloated, runs like a dog, and has a very sluggish interface. I just ran iTunes on my home PC, which has more than enough grunt to run games, do video editing, run Visual Studio and Photoshop and other resource hogging applications — and yet iTunes still took in excess of 10 seconds to load fully and display on the screen. Winamp 5.5 takes 2 seconds. Another sign of excessive bloat: iTunes’ installer is 92MB, while Winamp weighs in at 10MB. This is a serious disconnect in size/performance for two pieces of software with very comparable feature sets. In fact, one could easily argue that Winamp is more customisable and more capable than iTunes.

I have iTunes loaded up with my entire music library, but I only use it for managing my iPod. However, even for this simple task I feel it falls over in terms of snappiness. For example, there is a good 3-5 seconds between clicking on my iPod in the navigation sidebar, and the iPod management interface actually appearing in the main window. During this pause, there is no indication that the application is doing anything. Moving around tabs and making changes within the interface results in similar sluggishness. Having used other applications (Winamp being my primary music player), it definitely feels like a major step backwards when I am forced to use iTunes for managing my iPod. There doesn’t seem to be any decent reason for such a performance hit or size difference to exist, and I can only assume it is due to wasteful or under-optimised source code, or the ridiculous amount of extra cruft that Apple likes to pack in with its software.

Clunky interface

Apple likes to tout its fare as being intuitive and user-friendly, while also taking a somewhat minimalist approach — with low configurability and ubiquitous interfaces. This is reflected in its insistence that iTunes not have the appearance of a normal Windows application. It is ironic, then, that there are so many interface oddities and quirks that mar its user-friendliness.

For example, to create a new playlist in iTunes, one can either go to File -> New Playlist, or click the little “plus” icon at bottom right. Follow me so far? Now, to create a “smart” playlist, one must go to File -> New Smart Playlist. However, there is no icon to do this… Or is there? Little known fact: by holding down the Shift key, the plus icon changes to a gear icon and allows the creation of a smart playlist. This interface behaviour (Shift + Click) is not consistent with virtually any other interface in Windows. I cannot for the life of me explain why they would implement such a feature. It doesn’t even appear to be used anywhere else within iTunes itself!

Apple: A hate story /2010/08/itunes-new-playlist.png

This is only nitpicking of course. But I’m a software engineer; how could I not get riled up about an interface element that 99% of users wouldn’t even know exists, simply because it’s implemented in such a bizarre way.

Ok, ok, I’ll give you a more serious problem to think about. If you’ve used iTunes for any length of time, you have more than likely seen a dialog like the following:

Apple: A hate story /2010/08/itunes-processing.png

This pops up whenever you add a large number of files to the library, and simultaneously stops you from doing anything else with the interface. You can’t even click the menus or the close button. Fortunately, many operations do get performed in the background, with this interface that also probably looks familiar if you have used iTunes:

Apple: A hate story /2010/08/itunes-processing-bg.png

They clearly have the technology in place to perform background operations, and enough knowhow/developers to produce a 92MB download worth of bloated software — is background processing for adding files too much to ask for?

Unnecessary software

Part of the reason for the sheer size of iTunes is no doubt due to the swathe of extraneous features it has to support from the Apple family. For example, Apple TV, iPod Touch/iPhone Remote, AirTunes speakers, etc. These are of course all turned on by default, with very few easily accessible options for disabling them. Unless you’re an Apple Fanboi™, you probably own either none or one of these things, and you are certainly not gaining anything by having the other features turned on.

Related to supporting all these extraneous features, is the extra software that iTunes likes to install that runs alongside it. Particularly Windows services. A clean install of iTunes installs the following services:

  • Apple Mobile Device
  • Bonjour Service
  • iPod Service

In other words, even when you don’t have iTunes running, just installing it is bogging down your system with extraneous services, the purpose of which is not particularly clear. Side note: stopping iPod Service and Apple Mobile Device results in iTunes not being able to talk to my iPod. Why the heck should I need to run a Windows service to talk to a USB device? It boggles the mind…

Another major gripe I have, is that iTunes likes to install the Apple Software Update. This “helpfully” pops up whenever iTunes has an update (which I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with), and then proceeds to “helpfully” preselect other Apple software for me to install when I click to update.

Apple: A hate story /2010/08/apple-software-update.png

No, screw you, if I wanted Safari I would install it myself. MobileMe Control Panel?! I don’t even know what that is!

Inconsistent iPod software updates

Ok, moving on from iTunes… Here’s my biggest gripe with my iPod at the moment: Software updates breaking/changing past functionality.

I love my iPod Touch. Really, I do. 99% of the time, it’s great. However, I used to love it even more. Back in either version 1 or 2 of the OS (I forget which, exactly), double-tapping the Home button would always bring up little music player controls over whatever you were doing. I could be in a game, double-tap to bring up the controls, pause the music temporarily to hear something in the game — and then when I was done, double-tap and unpause again, and carry on with the game. It was seamless, easy, and ultimately worked really well.

However, in version 3 of iOS, the functionality just disappeared completely. Double-tapping in an app would just throw you back to the home screen. Major annoyance; they had completely removed probably my most used shortcut on the phone in one fell swoop.

A later update brought the functionality back… Kind of. Now (in iOS 4 at the time of writing), if you have music playing and you double-tap, you get the player mini controls overlaid on what you are currently doing. But, if you pause the music, close the controls, and double-tap again, you get thrown out of what you’re doing and the Music application fires up. I’ve been trying to avoid swearing in this post, but I really have to ask… What in the FUCK were they thinking with that one?! So it shows mini player controls, but only if you actually have something playing? And there’s no way to start something playing again without exiting what you’re currently doing? It’s inconsistent, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and in my opinion, is worse than the older versions of the OS… And there doesn’t seem any significant reason for them to change it! At least give me the option of reverting to the old behaviour. But of course that would be just another option to clunk up the simplistic interface, am I right? (I’m being sarcastic — there is actually an option to set your desired double-tap behaviour, but frustratingly none of the options reinstate the old behaviour!)

Another major (MAJOR) gripe of mine with the iPod software, is the changes to how it handles compilations:

  • In the early versions of the OS, when viewing the Album list, it was grouped purely by album name. No matter what songs were present in that album, and by what artists, they would all appear under a single heading. This behaviour was perfect. It required no special maintenance of music tags (which are notorious for being inconsistent/inaccurate), and it just worked. I don’t know why they felt they had to change it, but they did…
  • In recent versions, albums are now by default grouped by album name, then artist name. Meaning that a compilation now appears not as a single album, but ~20 albums with the same name, just different artists, with one or two songs in each album/artist combination. This was a genuine annoyance (particularly as I had an “album” with 1000 songs in it by different artists — which was now taking up swathes of room in my album view), but it could still be somewhat circumvented. By playing a song, then hitting the album button at top right in the Now Playing view, then hitting play on the first track, you could still get the whole album to play in a roundabout way. (If you didn’t do this, it would just play the single song with your selected album/artist combination).
  • Then, in iOS4, they broke my workaround… It’s hard to explain, but if I played a song in a particular album/artist combination, then the album view (from Now Playing) would show only that single song. Meaning if I wanted to play a compilation in order without any interaction from me, I had to create an On-The-Go playlist, and add each song individually, a tedious process taking roughly a couple minutes and involving upwards of 65 taps (3 per song, plus the taps to create/save the playlist). Are you fucking kidding me?
  • This effectively rendered my compilations useless, unless I felt like thumbing through and selecting each song in turn as the previous one finished playing. Of course there is an official way to get it to work (described below), but I pose the question: if it’s not broke then why try to fix it? The old way worked perfectly and elegantly, was there really a good reason to change?
  • In order to get the old behaviour back (compilations grouped as a single album), iTunes added the helpful (hah!) option to tag your music as “Part of a compilation”. Thanks, iTunes. Just what my music collection was missing all these years. Basically, this involved a good half hour of hunting through my music library for albums that looked like compilations, selecting the songs, opening a context menu, hitting Get Info, going to the Options tab, ticking a box, hitting OK, twiddling my thumbs waiting for a blocking dialog (like the Add Files dialog above) to finish, then moving on to the next album. All in all, an extremely tedious and time consuming operation. An operation that shouldn’t have been required in the first place, I might add. And I still missed a bunch of compilations and had to go back and repeat the process after syncing my iPod.
  • And now for the worst part: The “Part of a compilation” tickbox didn’t even have an effect for a number of my albums, and I haven’t the first clue why. A number of compilations are still showing up in my album list as ~20 albums with the same name, even with the option ticked. And there is no simple way to play all 20 albums (which are actually THE SAME FUCKING ALBUM) without tediously creating an On-The-Go playlist, meaning that I simply do not bother listening to these albums any more — which is exceedingly sad. Again, IT WASN’T FUCKING BROKEN, WHY DID YOU CHANGE IT APPLE?!
Apple: A hate story /2010/08/FFFUUU-300x228.jpg

Sorry about the caps and swearing, I’m getting a bit riled up here. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

Device compatibility

Last on my list of gripes is Apple’s insistence on lack of backwards hardware support. As stated at the top of the article, I previously owned a 5th Generation iPod Video. Between that iPod and my current one, I have purchased a number of peripherals that have now effectively become expensive paperweights.

The first in this sad little list, is a wall charger. Since Apple helpfully neglects to include a wall charger with their products, I decided to buy one for my iPod Video. It worked great, although it had a USB female end, requiring me to use my iPod USB cord, plugging one end into the charger and the other into the iPod. A minor annoyance having to move around the cord all the time, but it was great on the road. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that the charger simply did not work with my iPod Touch. Maybe it doesn’t supply enough power, I’m not exactly sure; but for whatever reason, I can’t use it. It just doesn’t even recognise it’s plugged into anything. I can only assume it’s a change on Apple’s part.

Next up, a speaker dock. Thinking it would be handy to have a way to quickly drop my iPod Video into some speakers so that others could also enjoy my music, I purchased a speaker dock. It was great, sounded excellent for the size, and came with a remote that was able to control the docked iPod — so I could sit on my bed and change tracks, adjust the volume, etc. Enter the iPod Touch. Like the charger, the dock mysteriously just refused to work with the iPod Touch. The iPod didn’t acknowledge it was plugged into anything, and none of the controls on the dock worked. I don’t even know what to say here. I guess it’s not in Apple’s interests to have backwards compatibility, because then their Apple Fanbois™ would never have a reason to upgrade their peripherals (heaven forbid!) Another $100 down the drain, I guess. Thanks, Apple!

Finally, some Skullcandy Icon headphones. I’m not going to say much about them; they are ok for what they do, and weren’t too expensive (especially compared to some other Skullcandy offerings!) However, they did have the nice feature of having a button built into the cord that would let you play/pause the currently playing song, or skip to the next song with a double-tap. This was perfect for use on the mountain, as it meant I could pause the music to talk to someone, or skip a bad song, without having to unzip my jacket, unzip a pocket, get my glove off, etc etc. I actually purchased this item quite recently, so you can imagine my surprise when I upgraded to iOS 4, only to discover that the button no longer did anything. I cannot explain this. Basically, by “upgrading” the software in the same piece of hardware, I broke support for the device. In all honesty, I cannot see myself using the headphones without the use of the button — effectively rendering it just another paperweight. I might end up pulling the headphones apart and embedding the speakers in my helmet earpads — but that’s another story.

In conclusion

To summarise; I have a love/hate relationship with Apple. To be honest it’s mostly a hate relationship. My iPod is great, but even that is not without its significant flaws, and pretty much everything else about the Apple “experience” just leaves me with a horrid taste in my mouth. I was considering buying a Macbook Pro (and throwing Linux or Windows on it, of course), but I’m seriously reconsidering even that.

What are your thoughts on Apple (and particularly the iTunes/iPod platform)? Am I being too harsh?