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For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
Mars Report:

An Intimate Evening With Two Dozen iTunes Controllers

Published August 12th, 2007

iTunes Controllers

Update 8/12/07: I recently learned that one of the iTunes controllers I had recommended when this article was first published last December (12/3/06) is now “donationware” rather than shareware. Menuet and its sidekick Art Collector are now basically free… you have to donate some amount of your choice to a charity of your choice and get a registration code from the Specere website, but this is a bundle that’s definitely worth the effort. It’s only too bad that the developers have abandoned Menuet’s evolution.
In other iTunes controller news, I’ve now evaluated CoverSutra and am pleased to recommend it as well (see information in the table below). I still haven’t revisited iTunes Volume, which gave me trouble every time I tried it earlier in the year, but I will eventually.

One question that might pop into your head when you contemplate the fact that there are at least two dozen different software applications for Mac OS X that want to be your iTunes controller is, “So, why not just use iTunes to control iTunes?” If you’ve never used iTunes before, you might also be wondering, “What’s wrong with iTunes that makes so many people avoid using it directly?”

This is indeed a curious paradox at first blush. iTunes is the world’s most popular digital music jukebox software. It has a screaming wonderful interface that just gets better with each iteration. Its innovative design practically defines “ease of use” in this category. So, why have so many developers expended so much energy and creative imagination on redefining how we interact with it?

There isn’t just one answer to that question, but here are a few possible ones:

  • Mac users are too impatient to switch applications in order to change songs. They want an application that can overlay whatever they’re currently doing, providing immediate access. Call this a variation of the “Instant gratification” impulse.
  • Because the iTunes API makes building external interfaces to it so easy. You often get the impression that some iTunes controllers are their developers’ first foray into xCode and/or Cocoa programming. Call this a variation of the “Because we can” impulse.
  • Because a programmer had a new idea that was too cool to pass on. Either the idea was really new, or it was building on someone else’s idea. Some of the iTunes controllers are clearly attempts to improve other ones that already exist. Call this simply the “Urge to create.”

Notice that none of these possible motives is an attempt to remedy a shortcoming in iTunes, or even to add significant functionality to the application. The only thing that comes close is the addition of tools to fetch album art from the web, or to integrate with a social music networking system like Audioscrobbler. Instead, they’re simply tools that extend the iTunes interface into every aspect of a Mac user’s workflow… making it practically ubiquitous as we work.

A couple of weeks ago, I set out to survey the market to identify all of the iTunes controllers that are currently supported. (There are still old links to some phantom controllers on MacUpdate, but I won’t tell you which.) Having found 24 of them, I clearly don’t have the time to prepare a full snapshot of each as I’ve done for other software categories recently. In order to keep this workload sane for me, I have to skinny it down to the basics–my notes, a link, price info, a version number, and a recommendation.

Of the total options, 15 are freeware. This puts a pretty high standard on any app that wants you to actually pay for its services, and 9 of them attempt to go there. Two of the shareware options are choices from the “Launcher” category… these are tools that include an iTunes controller among their many other features, so they aren’t selling themselves simply on their iTunes chops. That leaves seven that do want your money, and I was curious to see how tempted they would make me.

Of the freeware options, one is iTunes itself, which provides a fully functional mini-controller that you can keep nearby at all times. The rest run the gamut from the launcher category to minimalist menubar controller, many of which are very much alike, but a few of which show incredible breadth and ingenuity.

With so many to choose from, I still had little difficulty identifying the ones I would pick for myself, and my notes on pros and cons probably explains the choices. In everyday use right now, I use a combination of an option that isn’t even on the list and Quicksilver. The missing option is simply AppleScript. You can use AppleScript scripts to do just about anything you want to in iTunes. Many moons ago, I got a set of scripts (from Apple, I think, or from Doug’s Scripts for iTunes) and assigned keyboard shortcuts to them in iKey. Now, my fingers automatically go to:

  • Cmd-Ctrl-Space to Play/Pause
  • Cmd-Ctrl-Right Arrow to Play Next
  • Cmd-Ctrl-Left Arrow to Play Previous
  • Cmd-Ctrl-5 to Rate 5 Stars (etc.)

And that pretty much sums up the extent of what I need to do with iTunes from other apps. These are great, because they don’t launch any other app, yet magically exert my will over my music. Aside from those shortcuts, I use Quicksilver to search my iTunes library. This is quick and easy, as others have documented well in the past… Here’s Blacktree’s page describing the iTunes plugin for Quicksilver.

Outside of this, I was very impressed with a few of the shareware and freeware products and am considering incorporating them into my desktop. Here’s my short list of the creme de la creme:

  1. Menuet IconMenuet. ($12.95 now free) Part of the appeal here is Specere’s bundling of its splendid Art Collector app for the price of the equally delightful Menuet. It’s simply the best tool for collecting and managing your album art collection I’ve yet seen.
  2. You Control Tunes IconYou Control Tunes. (Free) Many people overlook this one because it seems like merely an invitation to buy the company’s other products. I’m no fan of You Control in general, but their free iTunes controller is simply the best all-around tool available, and it’s free. The only thing it lacks, in my opinion, is an API for developing your own skins, and a search function (a common deficiency in most of these tools). But it still has plenty of nice skins, if none that quite match the best of Synergy’s or Menuet’s.
  3. ClawMenu IconClawMenu. ($19.95) ClawMenu is a frequently overlooked star performer in the Launcher category, but its joys are many and deep. As an iTunes controller, I find ClawMenu beats most of the competition… certainly, it’s far better than the functions in the similarly priced Launchbar and the free Butler. I might not buy ClawMenu just for its iTunes abilities, but they’re definitely worth writing home about.
  4. Quicksilver IconQuicksilver. (Free) Nuff said already. It’s free, so just get it and get to know it. You won’t be sorry.
  5. CoverSutra IconCoverSutra. ($14.95) A beautiful, unobtrusive controller with some nice extras like Apple Remote support. It doesn’t have great iTunes integration like the others, but what really snagged me (a die-hard 45 rpm vinyl collector) was its cool Laurent Baumann-designed 45 record sleeve, an option to the default CD jewel case, for displaying song artwork.

There were two tools that I categorized as a “Maybe,” meaning I still haven’t decided whether I’d actually use them, partly because they have a fairly narrow scope in the iTunes controller world. But I think they’re both pretty cool at what they do.

  1. Barquee IconBarquee. ($10) Barquee is the only menubar controller I’ve seen whose in-bar scroller is visually bearable. In fact, the more I live with Barquee, the more I like it. Plus, Barquee has a simple API for developing your own skins, which lets you incorporate them seamlessly into any Mac OS X theme you may be using. Plus it comes with a beginning inventory of some really nice ones. Still, it’s not something I really need.
  2. Krix IconKrix. (Free) Krix is less an iTunes controller than an alternative iTunes interface. Still, this open-source project is coming up with some really cool ideas, and it does one thing iTunes doesn’t: Let you browse your music files outside of the rigid structure of iTunes. Yet, it does this while still leverage meta data about the files that you’ve stored in iTunes. Pretty cool! It’s a maybe at this point, because I’ve found Krix a little too unstable for regular use.


Then, there are a couple of tools that are in development or in planning but aren’t really in a state that even lends itself to review at this point. But they’re worth keeping an eye on for the future:

  1. Synergy Advance. ($12.95) From the developer of the classic Synergy iTunes controller, this “next generation” Synergy still has too much “planned” functionality missing to fully evaluate it.
  2. Radion. (Free for now) In limbo for a long time, Radion had a lot of good ideas. The current version (1.2), if you can find it, clearly shows the lack of attention to details, but the developer recently launched a new website with a promise for a new version of Radion by the end of 2006.

Symphonic IconFinally, it would hardly be a complete review of iTunes controllers without mentioning the many Dashboard widgets that can help you out with iTunes. There are way too many to list here—especially since I haven’t reviewed most of them lately—but my all-time favorite is Symphonic, which uses a simple search field to do more than you’d suspect. If you try Symphonic, be sure to check out the Help page, which explains all Harmonic Icon the commands you can use to fine-tune your iTunes control. The same developer has a companion widget called Harmonic that downloads song lyrics and adds them to iTunes as you play them. If you’d like a controller that can help you find and add album art to your collection, my favorite is Album Art Widget. Album Art IconIt not only does album art, but includes controls for rating your tunes and for basic play/pause/previous/forward commands (even with keyboard shortcuts). But that’s just scratching the surface… Apple’s widget repository lists 118 widgets in the “Music” category, and most of those interact with iTunes in one way or another.

Now, without further ado, here’s the list:

Name Pros Cons
(Version 1.2, $10)
  • Nice in-menubar themes.
  • Themes are easily customizable, and developer provides good instructions.
  • Visually pleasing display of song info in menubar. First I’ve seen that isn’t just a bother. Part of this is because the content and style of the scroller are fully customizable.
  • Good preference pane for setting keyboard shortcuts which cover basic controller, ratings, and volume.
  • Provides no functions other than play, pause, forward, and back.
  • No ratings, search, browse, playlists, etc.
  • No display of album art.
(Version 4.1.2, Free)
  • Butler has many fine qualities, but its iTunes toolset is weak, especially when compared with You Control Tunes, which takes a very similar—but far more comprehensive and flexible—approach. Don’t get Butler just to control iTunes.
(Version 0.8.5, Free)
  • Skinnable menubar controller, a dozen or so skins provided to start
  • Supports Growl notification
  • Provides good assortment of keyboard shortcuts which work through Applescript
  • Provides no functions other than play, pause, forward, and back.
  • No ratings, search, browse, playlists, etc.
Yes! ClawMenu
(Version 2.6.3, $20)
  • I wish I had more time to show you the many ways you can set up ClawMenu to control iTunes. Suffice it to say you can do just about anything you’d want to in iTunes using ClawMenu, including search.
  • ClawMenu can live in your menubar or in a separate “dock.”
  • Any of its menus can be “torn off” and placed wherever you’d like as little tabs on your monitor. This includes a tab just for iTunes stuff.
  • Plus, ClawMenu is infinitely skinnable, because its menus can use not only colors but images as their background.
Yes! CoverSutra
(Version 1.1.6, $15)
  • Very nice design… beautiful to look at.
  • Provides two basic styles for the art displays: CD jewel case, 45 rpm vinyl! You know I’m ecstatic about the latter, which is a free add-on provided by icon designer Laurent Baumann.
  • Notification/art display is persistent and can be placed anywhere on the desktop.
  • Provides a bezel-style controller that you can display when needed using a key shortcut or the menubar or dock icon. The controller also acts as an art display and has an action menu with access to preferences, etc.
  • Incorporates support for
  • Full complement of keyboard shortcuts can be configured.
  • Optionally, CoverSutra is one of the few iTunes controllers that can use an Apple remote… cool!
  • Optional support for Growl notifications.
  • Uses Sparkle framework for application updates.
  • No access to playlists, artists, or other iTunes meta data. The only thing you can configure is a list of recently played tunes.
  • No search feature.
  • No support for adding artwork to your library.
  • Somewhat expensive.
  • No controls in the menubar itself.
  • Can’t display artwork at full size.
(Version 2.6, Free)
  • Support for hot keys
  • Can fetch artwork
  • Menubar icon has many functions, including ratings and iTunes controller
  • No indication that app is trying to fetch artwork
  • Main window keeps disappearing when I try to drag it after making it “draggable.”
  • Inconsistent user interface standards… e.g., Lyrics bezel stays visible and has a close button, whereas main window does not even do so if I specify that I want it to be persistent.
  • No customization for “mini controller” other than positioning.
  • Positioning options are too static.
  • Too many menubar functions are nested, so it takes too much navigation to get there–especially for ratings.
  • No search tool
(Version 0.5b, Free)
  • Basic controller functions only.
  • Keyboard shortcuts can’t set ratings.
  • Preferences pane wouldn’t close… kept “window-shading”
  • Menubar scrolling and Mid-screen “flashing” options for track info are annoying and ugly.
  • No options for controller look… just one basic set.
(Version 2.2.1, Free)
  • Menubar with many functions
  • Easy access to ratings, playlists
  • “Floater” panel is easily repositioned
  • Numerous customizations in preferences
  • Customizable hot keys for all iTunes functions
  • Caused SystemUIServer to repeatedly crash
  • Not skinnable
  • No artwork management tools
  • No search tool
iTunes Manager
(Version 2, Free)
  • Scary… the app would restart iTunes playing every time I switched to it, even though I didn’t ask it to.
  • App wouldn’t quit, and none of its window widgets would work. I had to force-quit it every time and then gave up.
Ivy (Illis)
(Version 1.0 rc2, Free)
  • Nice “find” panel for quick searches of iTunes library
  • Front row emulator mode is interesting.
  • Growl integration
  • Has a panel for artwork
  • Main controller doesn’t stay active in “single app” mode
  • No tools for ratings
  • No tool for browsing by playlist
  • No easy way to navigate to/from artwork panel, and no way to add artwork
(Version v16, Free)
  • Beautiful interface for browsing iTunes
  • Browse music files outside of iTunes hierarchy.
  • Krix magically matches up songs with artist and rating from iTunes.
  • Cool full-screen interface option
  • Works with Apple Remote (optionally), making Krix an alternative to FrontRow for your music collection
  • No search function
  • No menubar or other persistent interface option
  • Couldn’t get Krix to read my iTunes library directly. It’s choking either because I use a symbolic link or because the library is so big. Not sure which.
  • Slow to launch and somewhat slow to navigate hierarchy.
(Version 4.2 b1, $20)
  • I have always found Launchbar weak in comparison with Quicksilver and Butler as a “do everything” launcher, but many Mac users will swear by it. Launchbar’s iTunes abilities are especially weak and unintuitive.
(Version 1.2.3, Free)
  • App launched the first time with an AppleScript error warning and no window
  • The toolbar appeared on the first launch, and I set a couple of parameters (show window, dock), but no window appeared.I quit the app, and after that could never again get it to launch (even after trashing prefs)
Yes! Menuet (with Art Collector)
(Version 1.1 b2, $13 free with donation)
  • Many nice skins for menubar controller
  • Highly configurable keyboard shortcuts
  • Growl integration
  • Art Collector has excellent tools for adding album art.
  • Art Collector lets you search by artist
  • Menubar has many useful functions, such as access to genres and artists
  • Built in support for, a social music community related to Audioscrobbler
  • Best browse features of any menubar tools… including years, genres, artists, playlists, recent, albums…
  • Includes context browse feature, which puts the current artist and playlist at the top of the menu, so you can dig into more in those bins.
  • Reads ID3 info and displays existing art for mp3 files.
  • Art Collector can’t handle songs that have a title but no artist
  • Art Collector tended to crash.
  • No quick search a la Ivy
  • Couldn’t find additional “skins”, nor API for skin-making. Added 12/15/06: In reviewing some threads on Menuet in the MacThemes forum, this apparently is something that was originally planned but then dropped. I tried to get an answer from the developers about future skin-making possibilities, but never received a reply. In a preview of Menuet 2.0 that’s available on MacThemes, Menuet will apparently be able to use some Synergy skins in the next release… although the advantages of doing that seem questionable to me, since it reintroduces the Synergy problem of taking up space in your menubar.
Play MiniTunes(Version 1.2, Free)
  • Nice search feature… you can search by title or artist. Results show up in a separate window if there’s more than one.
  • Controller is nice-looking and functional, though basic (volume, play, pause, back, forward)
  • Option to display artwork in tiny window.
  • Menubar has more options (including ratings), but is a bit inconvenient
  • MiniTunes window stays on top even in single-app mode. (But artwork window doesn’t)
  • Pause function doesn’t change “play” icon to “pause” icon
  • Limited keyboard shortcut options… no customization.
  • No options for appearance.
  • Main window doesn’t remember its position on relaunch.
Yes! Quicksilver
(Version b51, Free)
  • As I mentioned in the intro, Quicksilver can do anything you want in iTunes, and it does so in beautiful style. Once you get the hang of browsing iTunes in Quicksilver, you can just let your fingers do the playing from then on. :-) If you’d like to read more about using Quicksilver’s iTunes plugin, here’s a good article on the topic.
(Version 2, Free)
  • Menubar has many functions
  • Easy to set up persistent window that shows artist, title, and art
  • Configurable hot keys
  • Some customizations for display pane
  • Can have computer announce the next song (this was a little strange in Leopard)
  • Menu has simple options for choosing next song in genre or by artist
  • No search
  • Limited “skinning”
  • No access to playlists in menubar
  • Ugly control buttons for “large” floating window
(Version 1.2, Free)
  • Free registration code available on website until version 2.0 is released
  • Software is not in a state that can’t be reviewed. Too much legacy stuff that doesn’t work or isn’t supported.
(Version 3.0.7, $5)
  • Excellent keyboard shortcut management
  • Optional floating pane with basic track info and art
  • Nice pop-up menu w/search for playlists
  • Nice pop-up search bezel, lets you search various aspects of your library
  • Floating menus for playlists and search are different look/feel… seems strange.
  • Search menu requires click on Play button, doesn’t respond to doubleclick on selection
  • “Floater” is visually pretty lame, few customization options
  • Provides no alternative to keyboard shortcuts, all of which can be accomplished more elegantly with most of the other apps on this list.
Synergy Classic
(Version 3.1 b2, $7)
  • Goo-gobs of skins. Synergy is the Firefox of iTunes controllers.
  • Good support for customizable hot keys
  • You can customize the information that appears in the info box as the tune changes
  • Nice that you can specify which controls to show in the menubar (i.e., play/pause, forward, back)
  • Optional access to playlists in menu
  • Supports Growl as an alternative to Synergy’s floater.
  • Supports Audioscrobbler accounts.
  • Limited options for customizing floater appearance (e.g., no control over color, border, shadow, bevel, font, etc)
  • Synergy doesn’t read id3 tag to see if file contains an image
  • No search tools
  • Limited browse functionality (e.g., while you can select playlists, you can’t browse to individual songs in the playlists)
  • No rating function in menu
(Version 0.4, $13)
  • Adds the browse features of Menuet and others, including adding ratings
  • Also includes control of visualizer and equalizer in iTunes
  • Too early to judge end product
  • A great deal of functionality is missing.
  • Crashes in Leopard when trying to access Preferences.
(Version 1.1, $10)
  • You can edit song meta data directly in TunesHound window, including artist, genre, and rating (Note: Can’t add image to window)
  • Displays album art and has basic controller functions
  • Window doesn’t stay on top when switching apps (in single app mode)
  • No skinning options, and default window is pretty ugly
  • No keyboard shortcuts, and no control options other than the floating window
(Version 2.5, $12)
  • Pretty interface.
  • Somewhat innovative design that’s similar to some Menuet skins.
  • Very unstable. More often than not, I had to force quit TuneX through Activity Monitor.
  • User interface is unreliable and intrusive when it doesn’t work
  • I wasn’t able to fully test TuneX because it stopped working so often, and then the time for the trial expired.
Yes! YouControl Tunes
(Version 1.4.1, Free)
  • Wide variety of in-menubar control buttons
  • Complete control over the look/feel/color/font of floating “overlay”
  • Excellent menu tools for browsing iTunes library, including context items for artist and album
  • “Add to favorites” menu item at top
  • Menu also shows some meta data about song (e.g., art (if any), time, genre, year,…etc)
  • Menu has numerous options for customizing its contents
  • Can include rating buttons in menubar, as well as optional, customizable “ticker”
  • Requires registration code via email even though it’s free
  • No keyboard shortcut customizing
  • No album art support
  • Rating buttons are ugly if you opt to put them in the menubar
  • Control buttons have no API for designing new ones, and no new ones have been added in years.
  • No search tool
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