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Is iTunes Bloated?

There’s a collocation that’s becoming increasingly common: the proximity of the words “iTunes” and “bloated.” Google those words and you’ll get about 220,000 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 program. Few people actually explain why they feel the program is bloated, and those who do have reasons that I tend to disagree with. 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 term used to describe the tendency of newer computer programs to have a larger installation footprint, or have many unnecessary features that are not used by end users, or just generally use more system resources than necessary, while offering little or no benefit to its users.

With this in mind, I asked the question “Do you think iTunes is bloated?” on my Web site in June 2010, and I have also asked the same question on several forums I frequent. I’ve taken into account many of the answers I’ve seen, and the following is an attempt to address this question.

How Big Is iTunes? While the Wikipedia definition of software bloat is partially valid, I think the first part of it to discount is that of a “larger installation footprint.” The iTunes 10.0 application on Mac OS X takes up 146.6 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 larger than iTunes. Adobe Reader takes up 219 MB; Bento is 188 MB; and two of the iWork programs – Pages and Keynote – each exceed 290 MB.

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 33 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’re an English speaker and remove all the language resources you don’t need, the program becomes a mere 65 MB.

(You can use the free utility iCleanLanguage to remove language files from iTunes and your other applications. Doing so could save you as much as a couple of gigabytes, depending on how many applications you have installed.)

Now I’m discussing the Mac version of iTunes here; on Windows, things are probably similar, but I haven’t looked at the actual file sizes on Windows. Journalist Ed Bott seems to have made a career out of railing against iTunes in that world, and he updates his “Unofficial guide to installing iTunes without bloatware” for every new version.

While Bott’s approach is 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.

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. If you have, say, 8 GB of RAM, any program will ask for more RAM than on a Mac with 2 GB. On my 4 GB Mac mini, the Finder is currently using 140 MB RAM; on my 2 GB MacBook Air, only 84 MB. iTunes, on my Mac mini, regularly asks for 200 MB or more, which, out of 4 GB, seems acceptable; when I launch the program on my MacBook Air, with a much smaller library, it asks for only 63 MB. So what you see is not always what you get: you may see iTunes claiming it’s using a lot of RAM, but once other applications need that RAM, iTunes will give some back.

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. On my Mac mini, with a library of nearly 60,000 items, iTunes launches in 7 seconds; on my MacBook Air, with a much smaller library, it takes only 4 seconds. In my opinion, neither of these is problematic. 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. People who cannot wait 7 seconds for a program to open 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. Back when I owned a Mac Pro, I bought a CD-only drive that read discs at up to 52x because I buy and rip a lot of CDs. This led to rips that were almost twice as fast as with the Mac Pro’s internal 24x CD/DVD drive. With my current Mac, a Mac mini, I bought an external CD drive for the same reason.

Syncing iOS devices depends, in part, on how long it takes iTunes to scan your library (bigger libraries naturally take longer), but file transfer is limited to the throughput offered by USB 2.0. The only way to make syncing more rapid would be for Apple to move to the soon-to-be-available USB 3.0 or a similar data transfer standard.

Some people will find that iTunes lags a bit with large libraries. This was a notable problem back with iTunes 7, and one that I wrote about on my blog. But when iTunes 8 came out, Apple changed the way the iTunes Library file is written, reducing it in size by about 75 percent, and changing the way iTunes works with the library file. Operations that lagged back in 2007 and 2008 are snappier now (and I’m working with a slower Mac), though there are still some slowdowns with large libraries.

There may be some operations that take longer than a user wants, but does one now expect everything to happen immediately? I find that changing tags for a lot of files takes some time, but that’s because the files are being written to disk. Saving downloaded files produces a slight delay of a few seconds, but this is likely related to the size of my library and the speed of my Mac mini’s hard disk.

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.

However, this is a valid complaint. 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 has also added apps and ebooks to its library. 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 a program. Apple has developed the iTunes brand over nearly ten years, extending it even 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. (For more on Apple’s success in the branding arena, see the 2002 series “Branding Apple.”)

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 – and the new Ping – 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 thing is, many people want a program to do only what they need it to do. If you don’t listen to podcasts or buy movies, you may think iTunes should handle only music. If the presence of these different libraries in the iTunes sidebar bothers you, you can hide them. Choose iTunes > Preferences, and in the Show section of the General preference pane, deselect the libraries you don’t want to see. Want to get rid of the iTunes Store? In the Parental preference pane, select Disable iTunes Store. You’ll have a minimal iTunes interface. Does the program now seem more svelte?

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. 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.

To the former argument, 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?

The drag-and-drop argument is commonly mentioned by those used to doing that type of synchronization with MP3 players back in the day. 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?

I think 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.

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 dozens of articles about 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 Web site, 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. There have been ups and downs over the years, as I mentioned earlier, but Apple has resolved most of those issues.

And if you still have that nagging feeling of unnecessary features staring you in the face, I’ve explained above how to change the iTunes interface so you don’t have to see the types of media you don’t use; this alone can make the program seem more simple.

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 – iOS app file sharing, I’m looking at you, along with the way iTunes 10 removed all color from the sidebar in favor of a drab, uniform gray.

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. 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 turn off those you don’t.

[Kirk McElhearn is a Senior Contributor to Macworld, an occasional contributor to TidBITS, and writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. Kirk’s latest book is “Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ.”]

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