This is an update to my earlier post, in which I smugly and fecklessly skewer Apple’s visual redesign of their cross-platform music store/music management mega-app, iTunes.
Here’s the update: It’s still ugly, still visually inconsistent with both Microsoft and Apple operating systems, and the ‘fade to pale’ action when the app is not in focus is still terrible.
Fortunately, there are at least a dozen apps out there that allow you to control iTunes without ever having to look at it. Here, I’m quickly covering three programs with three different approaches:
- ExTray – has hotkeys and album art, but is somewhat clumsy.
- hktunes – has basic hotkeys, is super small and focused, but limited.
- bbBroamTunes plugin for Blackbox (my personal choice) – offers more flexibility over the other two and is bug-free. But, it’s not as easy to configure, and only works in Blackbox.
ExTray is actually my least favorite hotkey method of the three, but probably the most attractive to the greatest number of users. This is due to the album art popup feature, which briefly displays the art associated with the current track in a little toaster popup. This is nice, though I find it distracting, and left it disabled. Also, iTunes 9 now has a similar popup that changes based on the currently played track, though it isn’t as configurable.
Hotkey support is decent, but oddly limited. Support for the basic controls are all there (pause/play, next/previous, vol up/down), but you can only assign CTRL, SHIFT, and WIN to the hotkey combinations. If you want to use WIN+ALT, or, CTRL+ALT or any other combination thereof, you’re out of luck.
Further on the bad side, shutting down ExTray kills iTunes instantly, effectively crashing it, taking your recent play history with it. In my trials, iTunes didn’t ‘remember’ which tracks it had recently played, resulting in replays on dynamic playlists. If you use play counts, or “Last Played” as variables in your dynamic playlists, steer clear or take care.
NOTE: I tested this software a few days ago when it was still called “ihk.” Thus, some things may have changed between then and the time of this review.
From what I can tell, hktunes is a recent release. In fact, up until yesterday, it was named ihk. It’s dead simple, and that’s attractive: just an AutoIt script wrapped in an executable. (AutoIt is a great little suite that allows you to compile a simple scripting language into Windows-executable programs.)
The hotkeys are entirely configurable and work exactly as expected. As a convenience, a number of virtual keycodes are available in a handy dropdown menu, so you can use the multimedia keys that came with your keyboard. Also, if you start hktunes without iTunes already running, it starts the app for you. (ExTray does this as well, but maximizes the application for some reason.)
An app so simple has few edges to be rough in the first place. The only bone I can really pick with it is that, when iTunes shuts down, it takes a very long time, because it detects that hktunes is accessing its COM interface. Therefore, you have to first close hktunes, then iTunes, an irritating inconvenience. (Note: This delay has been resolved in the latest version of hktunes. Instead, it now pops up with a dialog stating that it will now close, which is a little odd, but better.) Ideally, hktunes should have a hotkey that allows you to close both it and iTunes in with a single keystroke.
I’ve also had problems where iTunes randomly stops recognizing my hotkeys, or instead of skipping to the next track, it simply stops playing. On the positive side, these little nits are likely to disappear, as the app is new and clearly under development.
Overall, this is a solid, basic hotkey solution. It’s what I’d be using if the bblean plugin bbBroamTunes wasn’t fuller-featured, more reliable, and lighter on RAM.
bbBroamTunes (for Blackbox/bblean)
Unlike the previous two hotkey solutions, bbBroamTunes is actually a plugin for the shell Blackbox for Windows, or bb4win, and its variants, the most evolved of which is bblean (which is what I use).
In Windows, the shell is the taskbar, Start button, those colorful window skins, desktop icons, and so forth. Blackbox replaces all of these with a fast, minimal, highly configurable interface, with a sharp retro look. More than a hundred plugins are available for this shell, among them is bbBroamTunes. I really like bblean, though admittedly it isn’t for everyone.
Unlike the other solutions I’ve outlined, bbBroamTunes doesn’t have an interface of its own. Instead, it makes available a number of “broadcast messages” available to the Blackbox shell. In effect, Blackbox itself directly controls iTunes. This means you can use any method to control iTunes: hotkeys, buttons, little drop down menus, or even designing your own little remote control.
Of course, I use hotkeys. Blackbox has extensive hotkey support built into the shell, so I simply added calls to bbBroamTunes in my list of hotkeys (see the screenshot above. The syntax is fairly simple). I could just as easily have used my keyboard’s multimedia keys, or even mouse buttons if I desired.
bbBroamTunes works the smartest out of the other options I’ve tried. All I have to do is press my hotkey for “Play,” and iTunes is launched (if it isn’t open yet) and starts playing. (With hktunes, I had to wait for iTunes to fully load, then I could send the hotkey for ‘Play.’) In addition to the expected controls, there is also support for: forcing an iPod sync, toggling between full and ‘mini player’ modes, sending iTunes to and from the tray, and quitting iTunes. Not only can I control iTunes without having it in the foreground, it never has to be in the foreground in the first place.
Finally, since the plugin is integrated with Blackbox, it uses almost no RAM and never needs to be started or closed in the way other apps do. (As of this writing, I’ve been running Blackbox all day, and all of its functionality, including window skinning and plugins, adds up to around 7MB.
The downsides are pretty steep for most users, since the vast majority of people are happy enough with the default Windows shell, and are unlikely to switch to Blackbox, which has something of a learning curve, and has a very specific look and feel that doesn’t appeal to everyone. Still, it’s a solution that’ll make the most sense to a Blackbox user.
As I previously stated, there are many programs out there that allow you to remotely control iTunes, each with their own approach. This indicates that users often wish to control their music players without interacting with them directly. Users may also prefer the look and feel of the remote controls over the music players themselves. It’d be nice to have more control over how iTunes looks, or at least have it match my chosen operating system, but I’m not holding my breath.
Fortunately, iTunes does come with the ability to add such plugins, so Apple isn’t completely blind to user demands. In the meantime, it’s convenient and visually pleasing to keep iTunes far, far in the background while it plays.