iTunes: Pasting letters in numeric fields

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes
January 9th, 2007 • 2:13 pm

I have been waiting for a major revamp of the iTunes interface for editing track information for a long time. As of iTunes 7.0.2, the interface (“File > Get Info”) is still an antiquated, slow-to-respond modal dialog box with multiple tabs and numerous fields for entering text and numbers.

My beef today is with the behaviour of the number fields, more specifically the fields for track numbers and disc numbers.

Obviously, these fields are only meant to contain numeric information, such as track “3” of “11” on disc “1” of “3.”

Accordingly, when you try to press a letter key on your keyboard while your cursor is in one of these fields, nothing happens. This is meant to prevent you from accidentally entering letters in these number fields. It’s a pretty standard behaviour for database-driven applications with record fields that are meant to contain only specific kinds of information.

What is interesting in this particular case, however, is that iTunes only prevents you from entering letters in these number fields by typing them with your keyboard. But it does nothing to prevent you from entering letters in the number fields by pasting them.

This means that you can copy some text in another field or in another application, put the focus on one of these number fields, and then press command-V to paste the text you’ve just copied:

Letters in number field


What’s worse, if you try to exit the field with those letters in it, thereby “validating” the contents that you’ve just entered, iTunes doesn’t complain one bit. It gladly takes what you’ve just entered as a valid entry for the field.

Internally, however, the field is obviously not designed to hold textual content. So iTunes actually takes the text that you’ve just entered and converts it to a seemingly unpredictable numeric value.

In the example above, I pasted the text string “Parker” into the track number field and closed the track information window. Then I reopened the track information window, and the value in the track number field had become… “13152.”

I don’t know where it got that number from. But I sure as hell hope I don’t ever encounter a CD with over 13,000 tracks on it, even now that I know that its 13,152th track would actually be known as its “Parker track.”

Seriously, though, the problem here is that Apple’s strategy for preventing users from entering letters in number fields is obviously too simplistic and fails to take into account the variety of ways in which values can be entered into these fields. (I tried dragging-and-dropping text into the fields, but that doesn’t work at all in the track information dialog box in iTunes. In fact, you cannot even use text drag-and-drop within fields where it would be valid. Yet another indication of how antiquated this dialog box actually is.)

It’s a small thing, and one unlikely to cause major problems for any iTunes user, but I find it symptomatic of the larger problem with iTunes, which is very real: The track information dialog box simply has to go. It’s modal. It’s slow. It doesn’t support drag-and-drop. Its AutoComplete scheme sucks when it comes to capitalization issues. Etc. Etc.

We have now been through a number of supposedly major revisions of the iTunes application. Yet this dialog box has remained pretty much unchanged. And it’s not worthy of the so-called user interface experts at Apple.

10 Responses to “iTunes: Pasting letters in numeric fields”

  1. ssp says:

    To be honest, I’m not that unhappy with iTunes’ Info window. I think it’s reasonably good. And I really love its image drag and drop support (that automatically focuses on the cover art field wherever you drag on the window). That’s really the kind of detail where I suspect the programmers had to go a little bit out of their way to make it work (at least in Cocoa it’s considerably easier to just let the field that will accept the drag do all the magic).

    As you’re mentioning the track number field. There’s another fun quirk with it: While it won’t let you enter letters it will let you press the accent key – presumably be cause the accent itself isn’t really entered into the text field and still awaits composition with a vowel at that stage, thus preventing the validation from saving you. After pressing that key, it’s rather tricky to get out of that situation because iTunes won’t let you enter a vowel and if you hadn’t entered a number before, pressing backspace won’t do anything either. Admittedly I only came across this problem recently after many years of iTunes usage, so it’s probably not a big problem, but it’s still a strange quirk.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    One of my main issues with the dialog is that it’s modal. Yes, there are the Next and Previous buttons that let you work around it somewhat, but it’s not really helpful in the context of editing a variety of tracks. Plus it is really quite sluggish. And I don’t see why I cannot do a simple text drag-and-drop within a text field.

    My idea would be to have an “inspector” type of window or drawer, whose contents would update automatically as soon as you select a track in the main iTunes window. The “Album Artwork” pane is already one step in that direction. Why not extend the concept to include the main ID3 tags, in editable form?

    As for the deadkey thing, I don’t have any problems getting out of the situation by just pressing the Delete key or any other key for that matter. I can see how preventing users from even pressing a deadkey accent in number fields would be a problem…

  3. danridley says:

    I’m with you, Pierre; while I don’t really object to the dialog as such, using a modal dialog for this purpose is painful. An inspector (or an Aperture-style Metadata panel) would be very nice.

  4. danridley says:

    Hmm. I didn’t phrase that very well. Take ‘I don’t really object to the dialog as such’ to mean that I don’t think the dialog’s *layout or functionality* are that bad.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    I do have some problems with the layout and functionality as well (notably the AutoComplete feature and how it deals with capitalization issues), but my main beef is with the modality of the interface. It’s just not appropriate when you are trying to edit the tags of a number of tracks. And since many tracks come with improper tags, this is an on-going problem, which is not going away any time soon.

  6. danridley says:

    Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten about the AutoComplete capitalization problems. That’s one broken feature.

  7. ssp says:

    I fully agree on the capitalisation issues of ITunes’ auto-completion. Software pretending to be smart and then being dumb is definitely worse than software that doesn’t try to be smart to begin with.

    I’m really not too concerned about the modality of the dialogue, though. Coming to think of it – having in mind the differing info dialogues for single and multiple file selections, I even guess that having an inspector panel that adapts to the current selection would prove to be rather difficult. And when thinking that Apple would much rather have you buy their (poorly) tagged files than using your own, it seems unlikely that they come up with something clever to give us an interface for this that is sleek and versatile.

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    We already have an inspector in the Finder that is flexible enough to accommodate multiple selections. All you need to do is adapt the content of the inspector based on the selection. I don’t think it would be particularly difficult.

    I also don’t think that Apple expects me to replace my entire collection of CDs with digital tracks from the iTunes Store. Even though they are obviously pushing their offerings, they know that many people simple rip their own CDs, and they have to know that the track information provided by the CDDB is not always adequate.

    And then there are the many digital files that can be obtained legitimately from other sources, again with tags that might need editing.

    Lots of reasons to move forward on this and exit the modal age for good.

  9. ssp says:

    Frankly, the Finder Info windows with their countless sections that always tend to display the stuff I’m not interested in or expand beneath the lower border of my screen irritate me. (And the floating Finder Info window pretty much does what you ask for already – by minimising its features to the lowest common denominator)

    they have to know that the track information provided by the CDDB is not always adequate.

    That’s a very polite way to put the facts about CDDB. But I still think Apple can easily ignore those problems – they have proven that they are equally ‘relaxed’ on the quality of the metadata in their own store.

    And while there is no good reason for iTunes’ info window to be modal (I’m not sure you really mean modal, as you seem to be wanting an Inspector more than a non-modal dialogue) I don’t think it’s particularly limiting as I very rarely need to do other things in iTunes while editing metadata.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    The inspector would be one way to eliminate modality. But it’s not the only one—we could also have non-modal track information windows like the Get Information windows in the Finder. I am not saying the inspector is the only solution. But it’s the most obviously non-modal one :).

    I am also not saying that the Finder inspector is perfect, far from it. But I do use it precisely because of its inspector nature—which is why I tend to think that an inspector-type of window in iTunes would be useful as well. And the Finder supports both the inspector and the one-off non-modal windows at the same time, so we could also have both in iTunes.

    I am not particularly shocked by the quality of the metadata in the iTunes Store. But maybe it’s because I buy very little from it :).

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