Why iTunes Isn’t Bloated

ITunes iconThere’s a collocation that’s been going around for a while: the proximity of the words “iTunes” and “bloated.” Google those words and you’ll get about 370,000 results. As an author who specializes in explaining iTunes, I hear this often, yet many of the complaints I hear don’t go further than hurling that invective at the app. Few people actually explain why they feel the program is bloated, and those who do have reasons that aren’t easily justifiable. So I thought I’d take a look at this question, and the common answers, in an attempt to determine once and for all whether iTunes deserves to be called bloated.

First of all, how do you define “bloated?” Wikipedia offers the following in the introduction to its article about software bloat:

“Software bloat is a process whereby successive versions of a computer program become perceptibly slower, use more memory, disk space or processing power, or have higher hardware requirements than the previous version—whilst making only dubious user-perceptible improvements or suffering from feature creep. The term is not applied consistently; it is often used as a pejorative by end users (bloatware) to describe undesired user interface changes even if those changes had little or no effect on the hardware requirements. […] Most end users will feel they only need some limited subset of the available functions and will regard the others as unnecessary bloat, even if people with different requirements do use them.”

With this in mind, I asked the question “Do you think iTunes is bloated?” on my website back in June 2010, and I also asked the same question on several forums I frequent. I originally wrote this article for TidBITS that year, but realized that, now, five years later, with the many changes made to iTunes, it was time to revisit the question.

How Big Is iTunes?

The first two points to examine are those of the size and speed of iTunes. To be honest, iTunes isn’t often criticized for these issues any more; In fact, I rarely hear criticisms of iTunes not being fast enough any more, nor do I hear complaints about the size of the app these days.

While the Wikipedia definition of software bloat is partially valid, I think the first part of it to discount is that of using too much disk space. The iTunes 12 application on Mac OS X takes up 306.3 MB. In these days of terabyte hard disks – or disks offering several hundred gigabytes on older Macs – this is hardly a large application. Without looking at large-scale application suites such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite, I have several applications on my Mac that are much larger than iTunes. iMovie and iPhoto are respectively 2.9 GB and 1.7 GB, or nearly ten and six times the size of iTunes. Nisus Writer Pro is 469.1 MB, Adobe Reader takes up 387.3 MB; and the other two iWork programs – Pages and Keynote – are each larger than iTunes.

(It’s worth noting that when I wrote this article in 2010, all of these apps were much smaller. We now have retina displays, leading to much larger graphical elements in apps.)

Some people say that larger applications take more time to load, yet this is not necessarily the case. When you look under the hood of iTunes, you find some interesting numbers. The actual executable of the program and its libraries make up about 68 MB, which is by no means huge. The majority of the iTunes application is, in fact, made up of language resources. These are files containing texts for menus, alerts and even help, in the different languages the program supports. If you were to remove all the language resources you don’t need, the program is much smaller.

I’m discussing the Mac version of iTunes here; on Windows, things are probably similar. I haven’t looked at the actual file sizes on Windows, but Apple says that it requires “400 MB of available disk space,” which is the same thing they say for the Mac version. Journalist Ed Bott railed a lot against iTunes, back in the day, and he used to update his Unofficial guide to installing iTunes without bloatware for every new version. Yet I notice that even he gave up back in 2010 – when this original article was written – and hasn’t updated it since.

While Bott’s approach was a bit obsessive, it is true that Windows users do have to download some software elements that Mac users don’t. Things such as QuickTime, Bonjour, and Software Update are an integral part of Mac OS X, but need to be installed by the Windows version of iTunes for basic iTunes functionality to work. But worrying about a few dozen megabytes of software installed on a capacious, modern hard disk seems like overkill. The only reason I could see to go to the trouble of following his advice is if you want to run iTunes on a netbook with limited disk space, and want to save as much space as possible. But even the smallest hard drive today doesn’t even notice when you install iTunes.

RAM usage is a more complex issue. On Mac OS X, applications often ask for a lot of RAM, even if they don’t use it. And the amount of RAM they request depends on how much memory the Mac has. Right now, on my retina iMac, iTunes is using 437 MB RAM. The app has been running for several days, and I’ve got 24 GB on this iMac. I don’t consider 437 MB to be excessive. If I launch iTunes on my MacBook Pro, which has a much smaller music library, it starts out using about 150 MB, and this on a Mac with only 8 GB RAM. But OS X handles memory dynamically, and an app may request more RAM than it needs at launch, only to surrender some of it when the OS tells it that other apps need some.

How Fast Is iTunes?

The second factor to consider is speed. This can be seen in two ways: the time it takes to launch a program, and the time it takes to perform common operations. There was a time when we worried about launch times for apps. I remember when I was using a certain word processor back in the late 1990s, and it took some 45 seconds for the program to open. When Mac OS X came around, I remember people counting the number of times an icon bounced in the Dock and using that as a metric.

On both my Macs – a retina iMac and a late 2012 MacBook Pro – iTunes launches so fast that I don’t really notice it. Both of these Macs have SSDs, of course, so all app launch times are fast. If you’ve still got a hard disk, you may need to wait a few seconds for launch. But if you can’t wait a few seconds for an app to start up, you may need to rethink their priorities.

The speed of certain operations is a more important issue. With today’s multi-core processors and copious RAM, software should be able to do things quickly – not all tasks, of course, because some are very complex. But basic tasks should never take too long, though the definition of “too long” is subjective.

I’ve seen people complaining about the speed of ripping CDs with iTunes, or about the time it takes to sync an iPod or iPhone. Alas, neither of these tasks depend entirely on iTunes itself. While iTunes performance when ripping CDs is perplexing – sometimes it goes very slowly, other times more quickly, for no apparent reason – the two main factors affecting CD ripping are the speed of your optical drive and the speed of your processors. You can get a faster optical drive to speed up rips, but most optical drives these days peak at 24x. I remember back when the first Mac Pro was released in 2006. You could put two optical drives into that Mac, and I bought a 52x CD-only drive to rip CDs. That was very fast, but I haven’t found any drives that fast recently.

Syncing iOS devices is a totally different story. I’ve written a lot about sync problems (such as this article) and Apple has definitely dropped the ball on this. But these sync issues have nothing to do with iTunes bloat; they’re about some low-level issues that Apple simply can’t optimize.

Back in the day, iTunes lagged a bit with large libraries. This problem has been resolved, for the most part, and I don’t hear too many complaints about this any more. The speed of today’s processors means that iTunes has plenty of horsepower to do what it needs, and unless you have a very old computer, you shouldn’t see this problem.

But iTunes Certainly Seems Bloated to Me

One comment I have seen often is that iTunes is bloated because it does so much: that Apple should separate it into different applications. I would call this a subjective feeling of bloat, because all those features you don’t use don’t affect performance; the program runs only the code you need when you need it. In fact, now that computers are faster, and hard disks larger, most of the criticism of iTunes focuses on its features, and the various types of media it manages.

There is some validity to this opinion. From being initially just a music player, iTunes has added the capability to manage and play videos (movies and TV shows) and podcasts. More recently, iTunes added apps and ebooks to its library, but then spun off ebook management to the standalone iBooks app.

Many people suggest that the name itself should be changed: that iTunes has gone far beyond tunes. Alas, that will never happen. iTunes is a brand, not just an app. Apple has developed the iTunes brand over nearly 15 years, extending it to the iTunes Store. At least Apple shortened that name from the original “iTunes Music Store” after adding videos and avoided the iTunes name when creating the App Store and the iBookstore.

But what about all these content types and features? And the iTunes Store itself? Surely the presence of the iTunes Store is part of the program’s bloat, right? Actually, it isn’t. The iTunes Store is simply a Web browser in iTunes: pages from the iTunes Store are merely HTML pages that are rendered in iTunes using the same WebKit framework in Mac OS X that also renders HTML in Safari, Mail, and many other applications. While iTunes Store pages may be slow to load at times, this is more because they are graphically complex and require a certain amount of time to be downloaded and rendered, just like any other Web page.

The one complaint I would make is that the iTunes Store is too tightly integrated into iTunes. It’s far too common to click a button to view a different type of media and end up in the iTunes Store, rather than in your own library. This is, of course, intentional; Apple wants you to “accidentally” visit the iTunes Store, hoping that you might be attracted by some banner graphic displaying a new album, movie or song. I would love to see this part of iTunes altered: make the iTunes Store similar to a media library, and not have it accessible from each library.

If the iTunes Store really bothers you, you can get rid of it entirely. Choose iTunes > Preferences, click Parental Controls, and check the box to disable the iTunes Store. You won’t accidentally end up shopping, and you may find iTunes to be a bit easier to manage.

Itunes prefs

And if you don’t use all the media types in iTunes, you can eliminate some of them from the navigation bar at the top left of the app by clicking the … button, choosing Edit, and then unchecking the ones you don’t want to see.

Itunes slim

If you truly want a minimal app, and don’t use all the different media types, you can remove a lot of visible iTunes features with a few clicks.

That Syncing Feeling

Another common criticism of iTunes is that it syncs many different types of content to iOS devices. While it makes sense that iTunes would sync the music, videos, apps, and ebooks in its library, the program also manages photos, contacts, email accounts, and more. (Though much of this can be off-loaded to iCloud now.) Some people suggest that the syncing part of iTunes should be a separate application, such as the existing iSync. Others say that to sync even music, one should be able to mount the devices and just drag and drop files to them.

The drag-and-drop argument is commonly mentioned by those used to doing that type of synchronization with MP3 players back in the day; and that’s pretty far back. I’ve always found this a confusing idea: every time you change tags in a file, or add new music to your library, you need to remember which files you’ve changed or added to be able to sync them. Isn’t that what we have computers for?

One of the reasons the iPod was so successful early on is because iTunes handles all this for users. When you buy music, rip CDs, or add other content to your media library, you don’t need to manipulate the actual files. You don’t need to know where they’re stored, and you don’t have to worry about moving them: iTunes takes care of all this for you. The file system becomes an abstraction, and, in fact, disappears behind the iTunes database.

And to those who suggest splitting iTunes, I wonder why people would want to have to use two applications to sync an iPod or iPhone? Even if the syncing application handled the transfer of media files, there would still be one program for managing those files, and another to sync them. Surely one integrated program is better than two that would frequently need to be used in quick succession?

Some people have even suggested that iTunes be split into numerous single-media type apps, as on iOS. So you’d have Music, Videos, Apps, Podcasts, etc. This makes absolutely no sense. On an iOS device, where you only single-task (you only see one app at a time, and other apps you’ve opened are hidden from you), there is a logic to this. But on a desktop computer, where each app is a window, this would quickly become untenable.

Creeping Featuritis

It’s certainly true that iTunes is a complex program. I’ve been using iTunes since the very first version, and I’ve been writing about the program for many years, notably for Macworld, where I’ve written more than 100 articles explaining how to get the most out of iTunes. (To be fair, you could accuse me of having a vested interest in the complexity of iTunes.)

The program has a lot of features, and this feature list is often criticized. iTunes does a lot; it offers you unequaled features for organizing and managing media. Yet many people feel that it doesn’t do enough, hence the success of the Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes website, with its oodles of script to enhance the program’s functionality.

iTunes is one of those programs that offers a wide range of features according to how a user wants to interact with his or her content. For basic users, it may be enough to dump media files into their libraries and sync their iPods. Their libraries may be smaller than the capacity of their iOS devices, so they don’t even have to worry about choosing what to sync.

For others, though, the small but growing percentage of users with large libraries (I count myself in this group), the capability to create complex smart playlists based on tags gives great power in organizing content.

The Verdict Is?

I think it’s fair to say that this whole question is a bit moot; it’s a geek debate. For most users, iTunes is simply a program they use to manage an average-sized media library and some apps. Those who are confronted with the more-complex features have much larger libraries, and have different ways of working with media files.

I can understand that many people have a subjective feeling of bloat when looking at iTunes because of the many types of media it manages, but it seems no more bloated to me than, say, a word processor that contains finicky page layout features.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I think Apple has done an excellent job over the years of grafting new types of media and new features onto the program, it is by no means perfect. Valid criticisms can be leveled at specific features and interface elements: the buttons you use to switch media libraries, the removal of the very useful sidebar, and, of course, the horrid sync experience.

But, in the end, I suspect that people accuse iTunes of being bloated because it has evolved from a simple music player into a complex media and device management program designed to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of users. It’s interesting to note that the criticism of iTunes bloat has shifted from app size and speed to issues of multiple media libraries. It’s almost as though people were searching for ways to criticize iTunes, and, even as some valid issues – size and speed – have become moot over time, others need to be found the replace them.

As with any complex app, one user’s bloat is another user’s favorite feature. Perhaps people need to simply let go of these complaints and understand that Apple did not write iTunes for them, but for hundreds of millions of people. To become more comfortable with iTunes, therefore, may require learning a bit more about how it works in order to master those features you use every day and ignore those you don’t. And use the techniques I explained above to slim down some of what iTunes displays. Your anxiety about iTunes bloat may fade away.