iTunes has been Apple's desktop hub for getting all your media and iOS apps -- but in 2017, the company removed the app store, which is the biggest change the program's seen in years. Let's talk about the new user experience.
High-quality curated recommendations: When you shop the TV or movie sections of the store, you'll see an Essentials link off to the right. This will display a version of the store that feels a lot like Netflix, with horizontally scrolling categories based on different themes and genres. We found this shopping experience effective at guiding us to accurately selected, high-quality purchases and rentals.
Genius Mixes: It's not a new feature, but it's something that we still haven't seen replicated elsewhere. When you enable Genius, which is the Apple AI that analyzes your library and generates recommendations from it, you'll automatically get multiple themed playlists of songs you already own. And Genius will guide you to specific purchases in the iTunes store that it thinks you would be interested in.
Technical difficulties: During our testing, the contents of our music library disappeared. We did not have any content downloaded from iTunes in the library, but all previous references to past purchases in the library were gone, and Genius-based iTunes purchase recommendations disappeared, which is still kind of alarming. Our playlists remained intact, from which we could download individual tracks, and going to the Account menu and clicking on Purchased showed everything we've ever bought. But there's no bulk method to restore your media from the cloud to your computer. If you have a large library, the tools within the app are impractical.
This is not an isolated issue, so there are apps and instructions floating around on the web that can help you. But the instructions we found were unsuccessful, and third-party apps that interact with iTunes are notoriously hit-or-miss and legally ambiguous.
Underwhelming navigation and video recommendations: A tiny menu in the upper left is labeled "Music." You'll need to click on that to open a drop-down menu listing the other sections. Hiding the other store sections behind this menu is puzzling, and dividing TV and movies into two separate mini-stores feels arbitrary in a streaming environment where Hulu and Netflix blend the two formats -- and personalized recommendations -- interchangeably.
The Windows version of iTunes does not personalize the TV or movie shopping experience, so it can take longer to find the content you like. You get music recommendations, but only based on what you've downloaded to that device, rather than your overall catalog of purchases. For all media, customer ratings only appear on the individual purchase pages, so it takes longer to sift through your options.
Device-specific shopping requirements: The movie section proudly highlights 4K UHD options, but in both the Mac and Windows versions of the iTunes store, you can't actually buy or rent in 4K unless you are actually shopping the store on the Apple TV 4K, which starts at $179. Since you can get competing high-quality 4K HDR streaming devices at half the cost, like the Roku Streaming Stick and the Amazon Fire TV -- and most 4K TVs these days have built-in streaming apps -- the entry fee feels unreasonably high.
However, we do appreciate that Apple offers 4K movies at the same price as 1080p, whereas its competition adds another 30-40 percent. So the extra cost of the Apple device may end up paying for itself in the long run, provided that you rent or buy 4K content on a regular basis.
The Windows version of iTunes also does not grant access to iBooks, which is Apple's competitor to Amazon Kindle, the major player in the digital book market. To shop for that content, you must be using a Mac, iPhone, or iPad.
Miscellaneous user experience frustrations: iTunes invites us to pre-order an album but does not articulate the incentive. Many albums are labeled with "Mastered for iTunes," but we couldn't find an explanation within the app for what this entailed. Downloading music into our wiped-out library did not enable Genius recommendations in the iTunes music store, whereas we had them before the wipe.
Despite having the store set up to require a password to make a purchase, we nevertheless had a purchase go through by clicking on the price of a song. The process to undo this mistake takes you to a support website which returns you to the app, which takes you back to your web browser for the actual refund request. Then it takes five to seven business days to get the refund. This is not a good user flow.
Bypassing iTunes to sync devices requires a paid subscription: Not only does iTunes have some design issues, but it's also the only free and authorized method to sync music in iCloud with your iPhone or iPad. If you want to go to your iCloud directly, you must pay $25 a year for "Apple Match" or $10 a month for Apple Music, the company's competitor to Spotify.
The Apple Match fee is manageable for most people, but it does feel like paying a librarian to let you sort through your own bookshelf. The iCloud mobile app is also not available for Android devices either way.
The desktop version of iTunes gives the impression that Apple's interests have largely transitioned elsewhere; that it would rather deal directly with iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs, and that it values apps and services more highly than movie and music sales. While this may make financial sense for the company in the long run, it's a disappointing feeling for those who feel left behind.