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iOS 5 features: Changes in Music app for iPad

With iOS 5, the iPad's Music app has been completely overhauled. The first clue is in the name; rather than being called the "iPod" app, complete with an increasingly anachronistic classic iPod icon, it's been re-branded as the same "Music" app the iPod touch has had since day one. However, the changes don't stop there, because the Music app's interface is almost completely different from the iPod app it replaces.

Not all of these changes are for the better. In fact, some of them are big steps backward for the app's usability. The iPad's iPod app was once my favorite way to browse music on any device, but the new Music app on the iPad is the worst music browsing experience I've had since Winamp 2.

Apple's newfound obsession with skeuomorphism continues, with the Music app's interface seeming like it tries to emulate physical elements from a high-end audio system. The friendly, round controls of the old iPod app are gone, replaced by stark and rectangular playback controls framed by faux wood panelling at the edges. It looks a bit goofy to me, but it's at least nowhere near as visually objectionable as the faux-leather UI elements of the Calendar app. The bigger visual changes to the app are in how you navigate through it.

The old iPod app's UI was very similar to iTunes on the Mac, with a sidebar containing multiple categories that you could quickly browse through. The main area on the old app had a largely text-driven interface that was both easily navigable and understated; at no point did I ever feel like any "glam" was getting in my way on the iPod app.

The process of navigating between playlists, albums, and artists has been completely changed for the Music app, and not for the better. The interface is now almost exclusively image-driven, with long lists of albums and playlists differentiated by album art. For some people this might be an easier way to navigate through the app, since albums and playlists are more visually distinct than before -- assuming you have album art for your music, that is. While others may find the new paradigm an improvement, I find it incredibly confusing, unintuitive, and cumbersome compared to the old, text-driven UI.

Fortunately you can still have nested folders within your playlists, but the interface doesn't provide any distinct identifiers between nested playlists and regular playlists. In other words, there's no way to tell the difference between a playlist that contains only songs or a playlist that branches out into subordinate playlists; my "Smart Playlists" folder contains over a dozen subfolders, but you wouldn't know it by the app's interface. The overall result is a confusing mess that makes navigation a chore.

On the plus side, the new UI for the "Now Playing" screen does feel a bit more "grown up" than the old version, and it's the one area of the Music app that does feel like a real improvement over the old iPod app. The same controls that looked stodgy and out of place on the Music app's navigation screens seem right at home when, in a very slick-looking animation, they "squeeze" in with a tap on the Now Playing screen.

Unfortunately, the UI confusion doesn't end at this screen. A single tap on album artwork used to bring up lyrics info, but that's been deprecated; tapping instead brings up the controls, with no lyrics info at all. Inexplicably, Apple has removed lyrics support entirely from the iPad's Music app in iOS 5; it feels like an intentional move, since multiple betas came and went without the feature being restored, and lyrics support hasn't returned for the public release. Even the iPod nano is capable of displaying lyrics, so the iPad is now the only Apple device other than the iPod shuffle that has no lyrics support. It's baffling.

One UI decision that also seems somewhat baffling is that tapping on album artwork in the control bar backs you out to the navigation screen instead of rotating album artwork around so you can see all album songs. This behavior is somewhat inconsistent compared to the UI in the iPhone version of the Music app. To see album songs on the iPad, you instead either have to double-tap the main album artwork or touch a dedicated button in the lower right corner.

I've saved the worst change for last. It's the kind of thing that has me scratching my head and going "What were they thinking?" every time I come up against it. On the old iPod app (and still the case in the iPhone's version of the Music app), controls for things like AirPlay, Repeat, and Shuffle are white when inactive and bright blue when active. You can tell instantly, and at a glance, what the state of a certain control is.

In the new Music app on the iPad, you can say farewell to all that. Check out the control screenshots below and see if you can tell whether AirPlay or Shuffle is active or inactive.


AirPlay Controls: Active vs. Inactive


Nav screen: Shuffle


Now Playing screen: Shuffle

I'll save you some eyestrain with the cheat sheet below.

  • There is no difference in coloration for AirPlay controls indicating whether it's active or not.
  • On the nav screen, white = control is inactive, black = control is active.
  • On the Now Playing screen, white = control is active, light grey/almost white = control is inactive.

Apple's war on colored controls has simply gone too far this time. Not only is the color differentiation itself confusing, difficult to discern, or at times completely absent, it's also woefully inconsistent. On one screen a white control means a control is inactive, but on another screen in the same app, the same color on the same control means exactly the opposite thing. This is the kind of bumbling, foolish interface fumble I've come to expect from just about anyone other than Apple, so seeing it in what's supposed to be a high-usage app on Apple's premier mobile device is nothing less than shocking.

If it hasn't become clear by now, I hate the new Music app on the iPad. If this were a third-party music player app I wouldn't recommend downloading it, but since it's a built-in app we're pretty much stuck with it (unless, like me, you start using something like Planetary instead). The interface certainly looks "snazzier" than the iPod app it replaces, but it comes with far too many compromises in basic usability. If Apple had at least given users the option to switch away from the new art-driven UI and back to the old text-driven interface (an option that is available in iTunes on the Mac), that'd be one very major gripe of mine wiped out.

As for the lack of lyrics support and the inconsistent control colors, I seriously hope these are bugs and not features. The former is a lost feature I don't miss much, but the latter badly mars the experience of music playback on the iPad.

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