iTunes — It Goes To 11. (In Design, If Not Performance.)

Yes, that headline. Obvious. But appropriate.

Yes, after much delay (about a month), iTunes 11 is here today. And yes, it is one of the biggest overhauls of the media management service yet. Perhaps the biggest. And yes, it is now better positioned to compete in the era of the cloud. And yes, they even made the icon a bit better.

It was back at the iPhone 5 event in September, when Apple first previewed the latest version of iTunes, pointing out many of the new/revised features on stage. But how does it hold up in terms of actual usage? Pretty good. Not perfect. But better than any of the previous versions of the software.

Probably the biggest issue that people have had in recent years with iTunes is that it has become bloated. What started as a simple music player now is the center hub for other media like movies, TV shows, and books as well. More significantly, iTunes is also the homebase of the App Store on the Mac/PC. And it has been the way to manage all of your iDevices. First iPods, then iPhones, and now iPads too.

At the same time, Apple has been working to move everything into the cloud. Your iTunes music can now reside there as well as your other media, and you can choose to keep it there and call it on demand if you don’t want to take up space on your various machines, or if you have many different machines you use.

In the previous versions of iTunes, the iCloud elements felt very tacked-on — because they were. With iTunes 11, the software finally looks and feels like it was designed to fully take advantage of the cloud. I actually recently got a new Mac and didn’t bother to transfer my dozens of gigabytes of music and video files over to the machine since it all resides in iTunes in the Cloud. So I’m using this new iTunes as a full cloud player.

Again, it works a lot better than the previous versions of iTunes for this, though performance still leaves a bit to be desired. For example, clicking a track to play it from the cloud always seems to result in a couple-to-few second delay. Not huge, but not as fast as say, Rdio.

If you let a song load and play through to the end from the cloud, then the song transition is seamless (Apple is undoubtedly starting to load that next track before you get to it). In other words, the loading delay is only something you’re going to notice if you jump around a lot. But that tends to be what I do — certainly in testing out the software.

I’m not sure what the technical reason is for the delay — I assume Apple is calling up to their servers to make sure you own the song and then starting to download it to ensure continuous playback. That’s the thing, unlike services like Rdio and Spotify, which are subscription-based and give you access to their entire library, you still only have access to music you’ve actually purchased with iTunes in the Cloud.

The upside of this, of course, is that you can put all the music on your machine and do basically anything you want to it. And if the music resides on your machine, there are obviously not going to be delays and performance is great. But it seems pretty clear that the writing is on the wall for the end of this era, and eventually Apple will have to move to some sort of subscription-based fully cloud-centric approach.

Beyond the deeper cloud integration, the biggest change you’ll notice in iTunes 11 is the look of the software. Music playback is now less focused around the list, spreadsheet-like model (though that’s still there if you want it) and more around a visual approach. In particular, the album view is fantastic. When you click on an album, you’ll get a drop down featuring all the tracks and the album artwork stylized to blend into the background. The text colors in that area will even match the album artwork. It’s one of those classic, small details that Apple always seems to nail.

The player itself now features an “Up Next” area where you can see exactly what songs are coming up. You can manage the order and/or remove songs from here as well. You also have quick access to any music you previously played. This is all very useful.

Also useful is the fully revamped search. Unlike playback, where you will see small delays if you’re streaming from the cloud, search is lightning-fast and happens as you type. Type one letter and you’ll see artists, albums, song, music videos, movies, etc, that you own immediately, even if they are in the cloud.

Also much improved is playlist creation. It’s now much more of a drag-and-drop idea, and again, much more visual.

One feature Apple is highly touting is the new mini player. With the click of a button, you can shrink iTunes to a fraction of its size and get it out of the way while you use your computer (which you could do before, but it’s much better). This player is great because it now features the Up Next and search funtionality that I just went over. If you’re just interested in listening to music, you can do pretty music everything you want from this view.

But again, name not withstanding, iTunes isn’t just about music anymore. A new button in the upper left of the software now lets you switch to your movies, TV shows, podcasts, apps, and home sharing. It’s a way to make it seem like there are several different stand-alone versions of iTunes for each of these media types, all packed into one piece of software. Again, much better and less cluttered.

Unfortunately, the delays for listening to music in the cloud are far worse for movies and television shows. This makes sense since these files are so much larger, but it’s no less annoying when all you want to do is watch something quick. You basically have to wait for it to download enough to start playing. And if you want to jump anywhere else in the film, it’s going to take some time.

Movies and TV shows are given the same beautiful artwork-centric treatment in the new iTunes. Also useful in these drop-downs is the “In the Store” area, where you can see (and, of course, buy) related films and shows. This is great for music as well, obviously.

Speaking of the iTunes Store, it’s here as well and also looking better than ever. To get to the store, you click on the button in the upper right corner (which also takes you back to your library if you’re in the store). Everything is basically the same, but the design has been tweaked to be yes, more image-centric.

Management of the various iDevices is also improved in the new iTunes. When you plug in one of them, it appears in the upper right area next to the iTunes Store/Library button. Clicking here takes you to the device management screen you’re used to, but again, with a design refresh. Notably, it’s finally easy to get an individual album onto your iPod/iPhone as you can just drag-and-drop (I used to make ridiculous album playlists to be able to “easily” do this).

While I talked a bit about bloat above (and how iTunes 11 fixes quite a bit of it through design), there’s still the issue of performance that has driven many users crazy throughout the years. It also seems better in iTunes 11, but not perfect.

Beyond the streaming delays, a number of things I’ve tried to do within iTunes 11 have led to the dreaded beachball. There is a lot of media to handle here, so that’s somewhat understandable, but come on, I’m running this on one of the latest 15” Retina MacBook Pros with a 2.6 GHz i7 and 8 GB of RAM. In other words, it’s a faster machine than most users are going to have. And still, I see beachballs.

I also hear my fan kick on from time to time, especially during video playback. In the past several years, there have been only two things that I’ve found can trigger a Mac’s fan consistently: Flash and iTunes. Sadly, that’s still the case here.

Overall, there’s a lot to like in this new iTunes. It certainly feels new and looks great. Several annoying processes in the older versions have been streamlined, with search and the Up Next area being particularly amazing. And the iCloud elements no longer feel tacked-on — I doubt I’ll ever keep my entire library of media on a computer again.

But there are still some performance issues. And the performance from the cloud in particular is just not what it should be. I have to imagine that this is the last version of iTunes before Apple flips to a different type of model (or at least the option for one) more along the lines of Rdio, Spotify, and yes, maybe even Pandora. Those services just make more sense in the always-connected age we now live in.

Of course, many users will still want to option to download and sync media when traveling, but it will become less and less the norm — something nice to fall back upon. Many of us are already manage that media — including apps — through our devices now anyway.

Also taking more of a backseat here are social element. Yes, Ping is dead. And while you can share iTunes media from the store, it’s still buried in small drop downs. There had been whispers of Facebook in particularly working with Apple recently to make iTunes more social, so it’s a little surprising to see none of that here. Maybe iTunes 11.5…

So yes, iTunes now goes to 11. And that may be the highest it goes before everything truly changes.

You can find iTunes 11 here for download.