iTunes 10.5: Usable again

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes
October 15th, 2011 • 5:47 pm

I’ve been complaining about performance issues in iTunes for years. Just check out my posts under the “Macintosh › iTunes” categories to get an idea. For example, two years ago, I expressed the wish for an iTunes Pro for serious music collectors. Of course, such a thing has yet to see the light of day.

I realize that iTunes is much more than a music player these days and indeed, even I use it for a number of other things, including purchasing digital music, books, and apps from the iTunes Store and managing my various iOS devices (several older iPods and a 2010 iPad). But that’s not by choice. It’s the only way to do these things… The fact remains that my primary use of iTunes is as a music player, and here again, I have little choice, if I want to be able to use and manage my iPods the way that they are meant to be used.

But I also have a huge music library (over 80,000 tracks) that keeps growing, and I want to have access to all of it at all times. This means that I have to suffer through iTunes’s performance issues on a daily basis. Given that I am using a fairly powerful machine (a 2009 Mac Pro with 12 GB of RAM) and that most of these files are relatively small MP3 or AAC files stored on a fast internal hard drive, I really think that it’s not too much to ask that things work relatively smoothly… But iTunes has a long history of struggling with larger music collections, and really you can tell that parts of the software have not been revamped in a long time. Compared to other OS X applications, it makes poor use of the multiple cores available on my machine. (I keep an eye on things at all times with MenuMeters.)

I know that lots of what I try to do is hard-drive based and that I have to accept the limitations of hard drive performance, but when I compare iTunes to, for instance, the way that third-party applications like Amadeus Pro and Fission can breeze through large numbers of music files in various formats, making full use of available CPU power, I can just tell that iTunes is not as optimized as it should be.

So my frustation with performance issues in iTunes is nothing new. But when iTunes 10.4 came out, things took a decidedly worse turn. As I wrote at the time, all at once, I started experiencing several new issues, including much worse overall responsiveness and a very problematic behaviour when attempting to import hard-drive based music files. This made the software almost unusable for me, and for a while that’s exactly what I did: I stopped using it almost entirely. I happen to have been extremely busy with work lately, and so other activities were on the back burner for a while, including iTunes-related stuff.

But still… I am not one to give up so easily when faced with software issues. So I still tried to see if there was anything I can do to make things better. I found some workarounds for the worst problems. I reported obvious bugs to Apple. And I scoured the net to try and find out how many other people were experiencing similar issues. Keep in mind here that I might not be your typical iTunes user, because of the size of my music library. So I tend to encounter issues — especially performance issues — that might not affect other people as severely. Still, I did find some reports of similar issues, unfortunately without any easy solutions.

One thing that I did come across is a suggestion that maybe my iTunes library had somehow become corrupted, with a link to an Apple Knowledge Base article about how to “re-create” one’s iTunes library and playlists. I was very wary of attempting such a thing, partly because I was not sure that library corruption was indeed the problem (the fact that it occurred at the same time as I upgraded to iTunes 10.4 was more that a bit suspicious), partly because I definitely did not want to lose any of my existing playlists, and partly because I just knew that it would be a challenging task for iTunes, due to the size of my library.

But try it I did, albeit with some precautions: I kept copies of the crucial files on the desktop, just in case something went wrong. And then I went through the procedure recommended by Apple. And iTunes started doing its thing… For a while it looked like it would work. iTunes went slowly through all my files and the progress bar… progressed, albeit slowly. And then after about an hour or so iTunes just threw a useless error message in my face saying that the rebuilding had failed. And of course I was left with only a partially-rebuilt library and no custom playlists. I quit iTunes and replaced the crucial files with the backup I had kept on the desktop, and fortunately everything went back to the way it was.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, iTunes 10.4 still demonstrated the same range of performance issues and bugs, so I had not made any progress. At that point, I had already had spent more time on this than I really had available, so I simply gave up and went back to my work.

Things remained the same for a few weeks, and then Apple released iTunes 10.5 earlier this week, ostensibly for compatibility with iOS 5 and all the new features and products launched this week on the “Massive Wednesday” of October 12th. While the new stuff interests me somewhat, I secretly hoped that the version number change indicated that the new iTunes featured more than just compatibility updates.

And after fooling around with my music library for a couple of hours this afternoon, I am happy to report that it is indeed the case and that the most egregious issues introduced by iTunes 10.4 appear to have been fixed. In fact, things even appear to be somewhat better that in the last iTunes version before iTunes 10.3. The performance is significantly better, the importing of files works as expected again, and even third-party iTunes scripts that I use a lot seem to perform somewhat better.

Mind you, things are not perfect. There are still inexplicable and unjustified slow-downs and temporary (but long) freezes at times. However, on the whole things are much better, and iTunes is indeed usable again for me.

I should also note that, although Mac OS X 10.7.2 came out at the same time, I am certain that the improvements were due to the iTunes 10.5 update itself, because I had been using early builds of Mac OS X 10.7.2 for several weeks now as part of the AppleSeed program, and the latest build (also the official release) for several days, and things were definitely not better until I actually installed iTunes 10.5 on Wednesday.

So, back to normal at least with iTunes 10.5, and even maybe a bit better than with iTunes 10.3… I still dream of an iTunes Pro, but I also realize that, unlike the situation with other, simpler applications that are part of Mac OS X (like iCal and Address Book), this pro-level replacement application cannot come from a third-party developer (that would offer a better application while maintaining compatibility with the built-in Mac OS X stuff, like Contactizer Pro for Address Book and BusyCal for iCal), because of DRM issues, and the tight integration with iOS devices, and the fact that iTunes is used for so many things beyond music playing.

I doubt very much that Apple will ever come up with an iTunes Pro (I for one would be willing to pay for it!), but at least I know that every one’s library will keep growing in years to come and that Apple will be constantly forced to improve iTunes so that it performs better with larger numbers of files.

One Response to “iTunes 10.5: Usable again”

  1. Betalogue » iTunes Performance Tip: Stay away from separate windows for playlists says:

    […] I have a very large music collection and for years now I have been struggling with iTunes’s poor performance levels. Things have been fluctuating somewhat over time, with some releases being nearly unusable and others somewhat better. […]