From Jason Snell at Macworld:

So this is where we are: Apple’s decision to put things that are not songs amid its collections of songs have made Apple Music’s curated playlists and algorithmic radio stations substantially worse. And at the same time, the Music app has proven utterly unable to help people who don’t want their music mixed in with promos and happy talk.

The way forward for Apple Music is simple: Turn off the ads and promos until your app is capable of letting us opt out from hearing them. But until then, if you insist on foisting this not-music on us, I curse you to an eternity of listening to nothing but the Kars for Kids jingle. You heard me.

I really hope we get the option to disable this type of content in stations and playlists. I haven’t encountered any of this so far but it’s a slippery slope to Apple Music becoming what Spotify is – an app focused on engagement instead of music.

Apple Music has betrayed its most loyal listeners

From Jason Snell at Macworld:

So this is where we are: Apple’s decision to put things that are not songs amid its collections of songs have made Apple Music’s curated playlists and algorithmic radio stations substantially worse. And at the same time, the Music app has proven utterly unable to help people who don’t want their music mixed in with promos and happy talk.

The way forward for Apple Music is simple: Turn off the ads and promos until your app is capable of letting us opt out from hearing them. But until then, if you insist on foisting this not-music on us, I curse you to an eternity of listening to nothing but the Kars for Kids jingle. You heard me.

I really hope we get the option to disable this type of content in stations and playlists. I haven’t encountered any of this so far but it’s a slippery slope to Apple Music becoming what Spotify is – an app focused on engagement instead of music.

Albums 4.4 was released this week, and it’s another feature-packed one. The 2 biggest additions for me is the ability to rate songs from within the app and the last.fm history import. The last.fm import in particular is awesome, as it gives the app the ability to build up a list of albums you have played but aren’t in your library as well as build up a historical “top albums played” in years prior to you using the app. As you may know, the way Apple Music tracks plays is simply incrementing play counts by 1, so frequency of listens is hard to do without a custom database. Fortunately, Albums does just that, and now it can backfill previous album listens along with the way it already tracks listening frequency.

Over the past few years Albums has become one of my most-used apps and I’ve really enjoyed seeing all of the love and attention Adam Linder has put into the app. I wrote about this a little while ago, but for me the ability to work through albums and see stats on what I’ve listened to and when has really made Apple Music that much better of a service to me. I rediscover music I haven’t heard in a long time as well as get insight into my listening habits in a way I haven’t been able to in other apps/services.

Albums is free for most of the functionality, and a $0.99/mo subscription for all of the bells and whistles.

Albums 4.4 Released

Albums 4.4 was released this week, and it’s another feature-packed one. The 2 biggest additions for me is the ability to rate songs from within the app and the last.fm history import. The last.fm import in particular is awesome, as it gives the app the ability to build up a list of albums you have played but aren’t in your library as well as build up a historical “top albums played” in years prior to you using the app. As you may know, the way Apple Music tracks plays is simply incrementing play counts by 1, so frequency of listens is hard to do without a custom database. Fortunately, Albums does just that, and now it can backfill previous album listens along with the way it already tracks listening frequency.

Over the past few years Albums has become one of my most-used apps and I’ve really enjoyed seeing all of the love and attention Adam Linder has put into the app. I wrote about this a little while ago, but for me the ability to work through albums and see stats on what I’ve listened to and when has really made Apple Music that much better of a service to me. I rediscover music I haven’t heard in a long time as well as get insight into my listening habits in a way I haven’t been able to in other apps/services.

Albums is free for most of the functionality, and a $0.99/mo subscription for all of the bells and whistles.

Call me old fashioned, but I love queueing up albums and listening to them all the way through. Nowadays, playlists are all the rage, but because listening to Albums in a CD-changer was the way I grew up listening to music I still enjoy hearing the entire album from start to finish. For me, it tends to invoke more memories than the random song showing up on a playlist. While one of the primary reasons I switched to Apple Music earlier this year was around better album support, the app (especially on iOS) still could use some work to make albums feel like first class citizens.

But there’s good news! As the Apple Music API has gotten more robust, more apps have been released to deliver niche music experiences on iOS. In the past month, 2 such apps have come out – Albums and Longplay. To my delight, both focus on allowing users to play their library in a way that’s “album first” – sorting albums based on certain criteria and playing them in their entirety. Both of these apps do a lot of similar things, but I thought it’d be worthwhile to highlight the pros and cons of both.

Albums 3.0

Albums is over a year old but the 3.0 release is a big one. Adam Linder, the developer of the app, has added a ton to the latest version. You have a few views at your disposal:

The main view in Albums 3

  • Albums – the traditional grid based layout that lets you perform basic filtering based on album play count, date added, etc. Tapping on any album starts playing it.
  • Library – a more granular breakdown that allows you to drill down by genre, decade, artist and more.
  • Insights – These are ‘smart playlists’ of albums that meet criteria like unplayed albums, old favorites, only listened once, and more.
  • Stats – Here are some dashboards that allow you to see which albums have been played the most.

The good:

  • Super active development gives me hope that the stability issues (see below) will be worked out eventually.
  • I love all of the ways you can sort and visualize albums.
  • Tons of settings you can adjust to your style.
  • You can view different sorts of stats for an album (play ranking for the year, compared to other albums by the same artist, etc).
  • The now playing view gives you a track listing, album metadata as well as stats about the album. The progress bar is also very interesting, as it shows you each songs progress as part of the album.
The now playing screen

The not so good:

  • It’s pretty glitchy. The app crashes a decent amount, things jump around at times (especially on an iPad where I use it in split view from time to time), and there’s a lot of room to improve the UX and the visual consistency is lacking.
  • It’s yet-another-subscription if you want all of the features. It’s only a buck a month but the mental overhead of subscribing for yet another app isn’t ideal for me. Still, I signed up for a 1-year subscription ($10) to see where things are going and to support development.
  • Due to some limitations around the way the Apple Music API works, a lot of the play recency stats seem to be tied to your device. Uou may have out-of-sync sorting between the iPhone and the iPad.

Longplay

Longplay is an app I just found out about in the past few days. This app is a lot simpler but approaches the job in a similar fashion. There are no stats or advanced sorting options so this is a bit more like Albums 2.0 was. Still, There’s a lot to like here.

This is the extent of the UI, but it gives you about everything that you need

The good:

  • It’s only $2.99. Sold.
  • Playlists are included along with albums!
  • You can long press and hide an album or playlist from the wall of art.
  • Visually, it’s very clean.

The not so good:

  • This app is really basic right now. The now playing screen is essentially a blown up version of the album art.
  • Appears to be iPad only right now. Apparently it’s on the phone, so scratch that from the list.

Anyway, I’d recommend either of these apps if you’re looking for a way to sort through, rediscover and shuffle your albums.

Album-focused Music Apps

Call me old fashioned, but I love queueing up albums and listening to them all the way through. Nowadays, playlists are all the rage, but because listening to Albums in a CD-changer was the way I grew up listening to music I still enjoy hearing the entire album from start to finish. For me, it […]

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See what I did there?

As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it turns out, by looking to invest in nicer speakers I ended up switching services and voice assistants along the way. I thought it’d be worth discussion as to why I decided to move to Sonos from the Chromecast setup we had, and some of the pros and cons I’ve noticed in the past few months.

Google stops playing (and sounding) nice

Something funny happened in the past year or so. Google, long known as the ‘open’ ecosystem, became a bit less so. With continued integration between the Nest and Google lines, it’s becoming less open and more of an ecosystem play with Google’s products. That’s fine, but it’s not why I initially bought Chromecasts, Google (now Nest) Hubs, etc. I was hopeful they’d give me the best shot of buying nearly any smart home product and they’d work.

Combine that with an increasing discomfort with Google’s data collection across more and more areas and mediocre sound quality on the Google Homes (and especially the Nest Hub & Home Minis), and I was interested in checking out a different approach to whole-home audio.

A few months ago I had posted an article about Google slowly locking down their smart assistant ecosystem and how I felt like it was time to explore a change. My home setup was a few Google Home & Minis, 2 Chromecast Audios plugged into existing speaker setups on our deck and patio areas, and a Google Nest Hub in our kitchen. We used Spotify for the most part, but I missed the feeling I used to have when using iTunes / Apple Music in years prior. Specifically, I’ve always been more interested in albums and Spotify is very playlist and “mood” centric. I think there’s a time an place for that but in general I was questioning the value of paying for Spotify despite its strengths compared to Apple Music.

Outside of the Google Home stuff, most of our “smart home” stuff is pretty platform agnostic:

  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • A bunch of Wemo and iHome smart plug
  • MyQ garage door
  • A Roomba
  • A HomePod (obviously the biggest outlier)

I’ve mostly relied on using Homebridge via a Raspberry Pi to stitch everything together so that we can use HomeKit scenes to automate most of our scenes (morning, evening, leaving & arriving home). We don’t really automate a ton, but I like being able to make sure the garage is closed if we’re both not home for a certain period of time, the lights are off if we’re away, or they come on if we are home and it’s almost sunset. Overall, pretty basic stuff – I’ve grown kind of sour on most of the stuff “smart” home devices offer these days so we’ve kept things pretty simple at our new house.

If we were going to ditch the Google Homes, we needed something to replace them with something that provided great sound, integrated with whatever music service we wanted, and worked in multiple rooms. Enter Sonos.

Why did I choose Sonos?

I’d been thinking about getting Sonos speakers for years now, as I wanted to get something that was service and platform agnostic. Sonos nails that – they integrate with all of the major streaming services, podcast services, audiobook vendors and even offer multiple options for voice assistants (Google Assistant and Alexa). Throw in Airplay 2 support and it was a no-brainer to upgrade most of our Google Home devices with Sonos Ones. One of my favorite things about the Sonos ecosystem is that you can control the speakers via their app or most services’ default apps (Apple Music is an exception, no huge surprise there).

There was a catch with our house – we have outdoor speakers that wouldn’t be easy to hook up to a Sonos speaker. To get our deck wired up, we replaced the Chromecast Audios we were using with 2 Airport Express units that I bought off of eBay. They’re AirPlay 2 compatible, so I was able to plug them straight into the amps for the 2 outdoor speakers we have and we had an Airplay 2 optimized home. Instead of spending hundreds for a Sonos amp, I was able to get something “good enough” for around $45.

Comparing AirPlay 2 to Casting

Previously, we had an entire setup that was all Google Cast powered, so we could ask any speaker to play music and it’d start playing Spotify wherever we wanted. With Sonos speakers, we introduced some small trade offs for the additional flexibility and sound quality. Some of the key differences between Airplay 2 and Casting:

  • Casting isn’t tied to your device at all. Airplay 2 still relies on a source to stream to each audio source, so that means if you were to stray too far away from your WiFi while controlling music it’d stop playing eventually. That’s not the case with Sonos, only Airplay 2 based streams.
  • Native iOS integration of Airplay 2 means that management of whole-home audio is much easier than it was from Spotify or the Google Home app (from control center or the Apple Watch now playing screen you can control any speaker that’s playing music)
  • Google Cast allows you to create named groups to send music to, while Airplay 2 uses your house layout to dictate grouping. Invoking an entire floor is pretty easy on both platforms but if I want to only call on a subset of speakers I could name that subset with Cast, where on Airplay I’d need to ask for each room when invoking that subset. Hoping I can eventually use HomePod shortcuts integration to fix this.
  • I use apps to invoke music way more than by voice now. This is actually a good thing because previously I’d typically ask for the same few playlists over and over. It’s similar to how I panic and order the same meal every time at a restaurant when pressed. Now, I find myself queueing up different albums and playlists all the time.

Add a dash of HomePod

Airplay 2 stuff won’t work with the Sonos system so I have to control them with my phone or iPad if I want to play music everywhere, but this really isn’t a big deal. If we ever want to go 100% into the Sonos world, we can always get something like the Sonos Amp, but I can’t really imagine that happening, to be honest. The only time we really need whole-home audio are if we’re having some sort of group gathering and want to play music everywhere. For now, if I want to play anything on our Sonos setup, outdoor speakers and my office don’t fit into the picture. But as previously mentioned, Sonos speakers are all Airplay 2 compatible, so if I want to play a song everywhere I just have to invoke the music from my phone, iPad or Mac.

Or a HomePod.

Another purchase I made about a year ago was a HomePod. They were on sale at Best Buy, so I picked on up, figuring I’d either return it or sell it eventually. The sound is fantastic, filling my office with very rich sound and serving as a HomeKit hub. Obviously, there are limitations to using a HomePod as well – currently it’s very ecosystem-limited. You can Airplay nearly anything to it but as far as native integration goes, it’s Apple Music or the highway. But it’s by far the best sounding speaker I own. It has smarts to auto tune itself for the room that it’s in, and it shows.

For a while, I just used it when I was working from home but once we made the Sonos switch, I started thinking more about moving to Apple Music. Originally, moving to Sonos wasn’t really about moving away from Spotify. That happened after messing around with the possibilities of an AirPlay 2 based whole-home audio setup. With HomePod + AirPlay 2 you can use your phone to control the HomePod and make that the primary audio source, sending music to the other speakers throughout the house. That way, you don’t run into most of the limitations that AirPlay 2 has compared to Chromecast. Since the HomePod is streaming music to all of the other speakers in our house instead of my phone, it’s really the best of both worlds. If Apple ends up allowing Spotify as a native HomePod integration later this year, it’ll be an even more elegant solution.

Google Assistant to Alexa

My original goals were to replace the Google Homes with better sounding speakers but leave nearly everything else in tact. However, one that original choice was set into motion I found myself making other tweaks as I went – integration with the HomePod, focusing more on Airplay 2, and then switching the default assistant on the Sonos speakers to use Alexa.

The reason is simply the cascading effects of moving to Apple Music. Alexa works with Apple, while Google does not. It’s still too early to have a ton of observations about Alexa vs Google Assistant but I will say that the UX of the Alexa app is light years better than the nested options hellscape Google has put out.

Conclusion

I’ve definitely added a little bit of short term complexity to how we were playing music in our house by making this switch. I know my wife has had a few instances where she throws her hands up with my constant experimentation with this sort of stuff. However, the trade offs have been worth it so far for me:

Pros

  • Way better sounding speakers overall.
  • More choices & service integration.
  • I’ve been really happy with Apple Music as a Spotify convert.
  • More music variety as a result of me invoking music via apps instead of voice.
  • Moving to Alexa puts my tech eggs in more baskets, and reduces my dependence on Google.

Cons

  • The previous setup was more streamlined compared to what we have right now. We could invoke music to any speaker via voice and it just worked.

I’ll be interested to see what Apple has in store for the HomePod as opening it up will further improve the flexibility of what we can play across the entire home. If Apple ends up releasing a mini version or one with a screen (my dream product), then we’d really be cooking.

Casting Google’s Speakers Aside

See what I did there? As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it […]

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Well, it finally happened. After a few years of bouncing between Spotify and Apple Music (and even Google Play Music / YouTube Music for a bit), I’ve mostly moved over to Apple Music as my main music service. The cataylst turned out to be sales on both HomePods and Sonos One speakers, but I’ll address how I handle multi room audio in a future post. For a better understanding of what I value in a music service, a few older posts are still pretty relevant.

Reasons I switched to Apple Music

I switched back to Apple Music mainly because I find myself to be someone who likes listening to albums instead of playlists, and Spotify isn’t as good for that. Most of the streaming music features that align with that in my mind – queueing, library management and discovery – work better on Apple Music.

The biggest reasons I stuck with Spotify for so long was mood-based playlists, integration with Google Home / Chromecast, and the fact that the desktop app was so superior to iTunes at the time. Apple’s playlists have caught up (and in some places surpassed), I’ve switched to Sonos / Airplay 2 speakers, and I don’t really use the desktop for music given where I am in my career. I’ve never valued the social aspect of Spotify or the way its library works, so switching wasn’t too hard once I cleared a few hurdles.

Library management

Apple Music has tons of great playlists just like Spotify and others do, but where it really shines is the way that it allows you to do nearly anything you want with your music – you can tag it, change metadata, make smart playlists and manage your queue in ways that just aren’t possible in Spotify or others.

Smart Playlists are what keeps me coming back to Apple Music.

From a library management standpoint, I’ve been using Smart Playlists for years now, and it’s the thing that tends to bring me back every time I stray away. I have a few playlists that really help me feel more connected to my library and Spotify doesn’t really offer anything that matches this yet. Uploading my own music is still a differentiator compared to most other services, as it helps me to fill in the gaps any streaming service has with some unreleased / non digital releases.

(re)Discovery

Now hear me out. I think Spotify is actually the king of algorithm-based recommendations by a mile. When it comes to a robot telling you other new music you should be listening to, there’s still work to be done to catch up with the breadth and accuracy of what you get from Spotify. Add in the ‘Daily Mix’ feature, and Apple is definitely behind in a lot of places. However, where I think Apple Music shines is surfacing old favorites.

Apple has a weekly “Favorites Mix” that plays songs it knows you already love but haven’t heard in a while. It’s 25 songs long so every week it’s a perfect hour or two of old favorites. I also use the aforementioned Smart Playlists to do something similar, surfacing loved tracks that haven’t been played in the past year. More often than not, I end up using a Siri Shortcut to play the current track’s album in it’s entirety.

In general, the service focuses more on albums rather than playlist suggestions. Apple Music also does a great job of showing you the albums that friends are listening to, rather than the Spotify approach of an endless stream of songs flying by. And finally, 3rd party apps that focus more on albums (more on that below)

This brings back memories of Rdio. RIP, Rdio.

Integrations and ecosystem

Obviously, all of the Apple integration is a big win as well. Lyrics showing in Apple TV is like insta-karaoke mode, and my kids love having dance parties in the media room. The Apple Watch app is great for runs or walks outside as I can leave my phone behind and play directly from my watch. Spotify could do this, they just haven’t. Siri integration & shortcuts integration are a fantastic feature, too.

Another thing about Apple Music that I didn’t quite expect but have grown to love is the thriving ecosystem of apps around the service. I use a few of them pretty regularly, and it definitely helps fill some of the gaps in Apple Music. First up, I use an app called Albums for playing full albums and sorting them by genre, decade as well as criteria like play count. I love doing this during my workday as I have certain albums tagged by whether or not they have lyrics and it’s nice to just shuffle a few instrumental albums when I’m heads down. I use MusicHarbor to keep up with new releases. With direct Apple Music integration it’s super easy to quickly add new releases to my library so they’re waiting for me next time I open the app. In addition, I can add stuff I might just want to check out but not commit on to a playlist instead. Finally, there are a number of fantastic 3rd party Apple Music clients that have different takes on a music player’s UX (SongOwl, SoorMarvis are the 3 best in my opinion). Marvis has a unique gesture based interface, more customization than you can image, last.fm integration, and a very active developer. Soor and SongOwl both focus on surfacing your library content in unique ways.

But nothing’s perfect

There are a few paper cut issues that still frustrate me after being on Spotify for so long, but I’m hopeful that most will be taken care of in short order.

The Mac app is still a bit of a dumpster fire compared to the iOS apps in my mind. There are countless times where it displays content incorrectly, behaves like a mixture of a web app and a desktop app, and just feels “flimsy” compared to the iOS counterparts. Honestly, it feels to me how I feel when I use Android apps – an uncanny valley situation where I can tell there’s a web wrapper hiding in there somewhere.

Fortunately, I do most of my interaction with the service on my phone, iPad and via Sonos speakers throughout the house. Things like smart playlist setup and a few other key features aren’t doable (yet?) on iOS so it’s something you have to keep around, but not use that often honestly.

My wishlist

There’s also a lot of small enhancements to the service that I hope to see as it matures. They’re still playing catchup to Spotify in a lot of ways as they’ve only really been around for about 4 years.

  • Allow for collaborative playlists. This is by far the biggest request I have right now. I have a family plan and would love to have a shared family playlist we can all add to (generally, for songs my kids love)
  • The ability to see all songs that I’ve liked, not just the ones that I’ve liked in my library.
  • More “car friendly” actions would be nice (swipe for next track)
  • Better integrated calendar in all apps/on the web for Beats 1 shows. I’d love to be able to pick shows I like and have them notify me when they are about to play.
  • True last.fm integration at the API level so I don’t have to manage it from one or multiple apps.
  • Something similar to the way that Spotify creates “Daily Mix” playlists based on genres you frequently listen to. We already get a number of pretty solid playlists a week, but nothing really broken down by genre.
  • I’d like to be able to make and edit smart playlists on iOS.
  • Better sorting options within the iOS app in particular. I’d love to be able to sort albums by release date, for example.
  • Allow ‘For You’ to be the first page I see instead of ‘Library’.
  • Filtering within my library so that I could easily go to the list of playlists, albums or artists and pull down a search menu from the top of that list. I could then quickly do a library search from there.
  • Invest more in the Mac app. Using it is rarely something that sparks joy. There needs to be more polish around the entire experience, especially when it comes to things like polish around the navigation experience and consistency around keyboard shortcuts.

Conclusion

Overall the good about Apple Music’s system integration, album rediscovery and social aspects outweighs the things it’s missing. But just barely. I’m hopeful that iOS 14 brings more enhancements to the service along with a rethink of the Mac app.

Switching to Apple Music

Well, it finally happened. After a few years of bouncing between Spotify and Apple Music (and even Google Play Music / YouTube Music for a bit), I’ve mostly moved over to Apple Music as my main music service. The cataylst turned out to be sales on both HomePods and Sonos One speakers, but I’ll address […]

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Apple has been a little late getting their HomePods out to consumers, but it looks like 2/9 is the big day. In short, it looks like these 7 inch tall speakers are Apple’s take on the smart speaker, but with a heavy focus on the speaker part and less on the assistant side. It has a lot of the basics (Apple Music support and basic Siri smarts along with HomeKit integration) but is way more concerned with being a kick ass speaker system for your home.

I’m pretty solidly entrenched in the Google Home / Chromecast Audio ecosystem so I don’t think I’m their ideal customer at this time. However, I am interested as I’d like to upgrade eventually to Sonos or something similar and both simplify our setup and also add more options for services like Apple Music.

Most early reviews have backed up the initial claims that the HomePod sounds fantastic and runs circles around the competition, but I am concerned only the true Apple faithful will pull the trigger on these day one.

The price doesn’t bother me, really. Based on the reviews I have seen it appears one of these can fill up most any room. If you bought a few of these you’d be able to easily provide coverage for a floor of most homes. The thing that does bother me is most of the technical side of things.

I worry that Apple won’t open this thing up at all, and won’t ever add SiriKit integration for competing services to latch on to. Apple Music is fine and it’s getting better for sure, but I’m a Spotify person and would hate to constrict my options just for better sounding speakers than what Google or Amazon offer.  Also, the  more that I read about AirPlay 2, the less excited I get. I still feel that Google nailed it with their approach to Casting, which effectively is passing a stream URL to the devices and letting them handle it from there. Airplay 2 still requires proximity, it just enables multi room audio and performs better than v1. Still, not a major leap forward that I was expecting. Oh, and it won’t even be in the first software version with shipping units. This won’t matter for single HomePod owners who use Apple Music but could be a deal breaker for others.

There’s lots of other small questions about how Siri will work, future plans for multi user support and what sort of new SiriKit stuff in iOS 12 might allow (Lyft ride hailing, music and podcasts etc). For now though this seems like a great speaker that creates more questions than it answers at this time. I can’t wait to see how this changes the conversation about these smart speakers and asks companies to think more about the quality of sound and not just the smarts under the hood. In the medium term I have my eyes on the HomePod and the Sonos One as solutions to get great sound around the house, so I’m rooting for Apple to get this right.

HomePod questions

Apple has been a little late getting their HomePods out to consumers, but it looks like 2/9 is the big day. In short, it looks like these 7 inch tall speakers are Apple’s take on the smart speaker, but with a heavy focus on the speaker part and less on the assistant side. It has […]

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Apple Music is slowly being exposed as a bit of a shitshow under the covers. I’ve been fortunate not to have run into many of the issues folks are bringing up, but I definitely feel the pain of a poorly executed user experience, especially on the desktop. The bad news is that a lot of the structural issues, especially those related to the Match portion of Apple Music, are big and difficult problems to solve. However, the good news is that I think there are a lot of smaller issues that can be solved in way that’s independent of a lot of the data issues.

Big picture stuff

I still think that the way Google Music handles their service is the best approach. Their only real drawback from an architecture standpoint is the fact that we won’t see a desktop application anytime soon, which leaves us with a good web version but nothing more. This is a downer for me as I like to stream music throughout my house using AirPlay (although I’ll be switching to Sonos sometime soon, so I might be back). Google asks you to install a small client on your computer that looks at your iTunes library and has a ‘match’ process much like Apple’s where they copy unique songs to their servers but otherwise just add songs to their library. The nice thing about this is that it’s nondestructive given Google can’t actually use your iTunes library for their service. Hindsight is 20/20 but I wish Apple had created a separate ‘Apple Music’ app that would have scanned my library and simply added everything to my new Apple Music account, in a different application, without actually touching my iTunes music.

There are a lot of reasons why iTunes has to exist and why it has to exist in the fairly janky state that it’s in right now. Think of the dozen or so tasks it has to handle – iOS App Store, iOS sync, iTunes Store, iTunes Match/Apple Music, device backup, and more. While I think Apple could break these tasks into smaller apps on the Mac, it’d be a much tougher task on the Windows side. However, I feel like this was their one chance to break with the past and create a new application that could have slowly added new features like they did with iWork and are doing with Photos. I talked about this a little bit in my initial impressions of Apple Music, and given the way things have gone out of the gate, this poor decision on their part is even more glaring now. Even if your library completely shot with the new service, long time users would have known their iTunes library is intact.

The main issues other than the ‘junk drawer’ approach taken by trying to cram all of this alongside existing iTunes Store are more skin deep and hopefully can be resolved over time. I’ve bucketed those into the following categories: UX/Design, Search, Integration, Consistency and Reliability. Forgive me for being a little lazy here – in an effort to make this fairly short, I’ve just listed items in bulleted lists.

UX and Design

In my mind, the UX decisions made are part of a larger and troubling trend in Apple-land, which is to focus on design for design’s sake rather than creating easy-to-use products. Below is a list of things that need to be fixed or rethought by the team to make the experience easier to understand for end users.

  • I should be able to add songs to a playlist without adding to my library.
  • The search UI should not have multiple tabs. Instead, it should separate what is in my library vs what is in Apple Music. Alternatively, make 3 tabs that have “all”, “my music” and “apple music” with “all” being the default.
  • Better integrated calendar in all apps/on the web for Beats 1 shows. I’d love to be able to pick shows I like and have them notify me when they are about to play.
  • Ability to have folders with both Apple Music and my own playlists. Currently these are broken out into 2 groups and Apple Music playlists are first. It means you have to scroll down very far on the desktop
  • Rename “new” to “discover”, “browse” or “explore”. “New” makes no sense.
  • Some sort of badge or color difference between tracks I own and tracks from Apple Music
  • The order of the tabs should match we we see on iOS in iTunes. Currently they are different between iPhone, iPad and Mac.
  • I should be able to like any song played on beats one and add to my library.
  • There should also be a list of all songs I’ve ‘loved’, regardless of if they are in my library or not.

Mac-specific issues

The Mac is where Apple Music really shows how flimsy the entire system is. The good news is that my initial list was about twice as long as what I have now, so I do know they’re working to squash issues within Apple Music.

  • As long as you have songs that you don’t have in your collection visible in iTunes (expanded via the ‘show songs not in my music), you can add them to ‘up next’. If you close this (clicking the ‘hide songs not in my collection’), the song instantly stops playing and it is removed from your queue along with other songs in the album.
  • Can’t click on the ‘related artists’ to view their page sometimes.
  • Can’t see artist’s Connect posts from their page at times. This is very unpredictable.
  • If I close something in iTunes (I’m looking at you, Apple Music Playlists), it should stay closed when I come back to that tab.
  • On iTunes, everything should be a link – artist names, albums, composers, etc. All of the other major services nail this and it makes discovery much easier.
  • Better persist scroll position when navigating back within iTunes. Currently, if I view a playlist from within the ‘For you’ section and then click back, I jump to the top of the list.
  • When I search for an artist and view their results, i’d like to easily be able to queue some or all of the ‘top songs’ listed. No way to multi-select from this view.
  • I constantly run into issues where there is a network error presented in a blocking modal, which means the remote app won’t work while the modal is in place. I can typically know how many times may laptop has woken up based on how many of these are stacked up when I open my laptop.

iOS-specific

  • The now playing tab needs to be larger, I often click on the play/pause button when trying to click on one of the tabs below it.
  • ‘Up Next’ shouldn’t be a small little modal, it should be an entire view on iOS.
  • Offline tracks need clearer iconography to show what is and isn’t downloaded.  I have a playlist of 100 songs that I have asked to download and I know for a fact I’ve downloaded the entire playlist but they don’t show up as downloaded. If I set the library to only show offline tracks, they still show up so I assume they are.
  • Make better use of iconography and spacing, especially on popup dialogs in iOS. A lot of the labels aren’t easily scannable.
  • Swipe between tracks on album and playlists
  • Ability to put playlists into folders from iOS
  • The ‘Up Next’ queue should persist until it’s played through or I clear it. I’ve made a little ‘drive to work’ playlist ahead of time
  • When I set my library to only show offline tracks, it’d be preferable to hide any empty playlists. Currently it shows all of the playlists but the contents are empty as there are no offline tracks.
  • Search results screen should live load results, don’t make me choose a search term first.
  • As I mentioned above, make the results one screen, not a tabbed result.

Integration

  • Apple watch needs heart button so I can quickly rate tracks while running or playing music at home.
  • There should be a global history of what I have listened to – I know iTunes metadata has this but I mean radio, playlists and my music. There should be a unified view that allows me to see every song I’ve ever listened to.
  • I’d like a section that shows you new releases from artists you follow/have in your library. Maybe a tab in connect? Ideally, I’d get push notifications every time a new artist releases a new album that I follow. Spotify and Rdio do this and it’s indispensable.

Consistency

  • Anything should be queue-able by a quick click/hold or right click – both songs in my library and part of Apple Music.
  • Anything should be easily addable to a playlist or library by the same action. This is currently fairly inconsistent.
  • Make it easier and consistent to view an artist or the album a song is in from any instance of a song or album being displayed.
  • Heart-ing a track should add to library, maybe add to a playlist of all songs that I’ve loved (regardless of if they are in my library or not)
  • Shuffle doesn’t seem to work very well. If I’m shuffling a playlist of, say, 100 songs, I’ll hear the same song play twice before I hear other songs for the first time.
  • Albums that I own should be clearly reflected as such on all platforms. Right now, albums I know I have bought from Apple sometimes don’t show up as something in my collection when browsing Apple Music’s library.
  • Phase out the star rating system in favor of what Beats & Google Music have: love, neutral, hate.

Reliability

  • Fix issues where service has network issues and cannot continue playback
  • Sync play counts, metadata changes and ratings more quickly. At times, it takes a day or more for play counts and other metadata to properly sync. This is a relic of iTunes Match so I have little hope it’ll change any time soon. The odd thing is that ratings and ‘hearts’ sync in near real-time while play counts / playlists sometimes take a day (if ever) to sync up properly.
  • Lots of times my up next queue just disappears and playback stops. My guess is that this is a separate process that has some stability issues.
  • Switching to a radio station shouldn’t clear your up next queue.
  • Seeing / hearing horror stories from smart folks that had their library ruined by Apple terrifies me. This should not happen. Simple as that.

It’s not all bad, but can it all be fixed?

I have discovered more new music in the past few months than I ever have with any other service I’ve ever used (Rdio is a close second). Beats 1 is way better than I thought it would be. However, the iTunes team really needs to focus on user experience and reliability – it’s amazing that after nearly 3 months of using this service I still feel lost much of the time. Every time I click on something I’m not quite sure what I’m going to get. Spotify lacks some of the features I want in a streaming service, but it’s a consistent, usable suite of apps. If Apple wants to truly win me over, iOS 9’s Music app and iTunes 13 (or whatever they call the next big release) needs to be a massive improvement.

I don’t expect to wake up one day to a suite of applications that have all of these problems solved for, but my confidence in Apple’s ability to write quality software has diminished a lot lately. Can they right the ship? I realize how difficult of a challenge they are up against – their user base is massive, the number of functions iTunes has to support is huge, and the expectation from each audience is large. Apple is a smart company and has a ton of talented designers and engineers. However, I feel like this might be a scenario much akin to Microsoft in the early 2000s – they’ve accumulated too much technical debt and may not be able to dig out without a complete rewrite of their client software (especially on the desktop). Their lack of desire to do this at the one time where it makes the most sense gives me pause. We’ll certainly see incremental improvements but this might be what we’re dealing with for the foreseeable future. If that’s the case, I might be back on Spotify or even Google Music. I still think I’m going to subscribe as it nails a lot of what I’m looking for in a service and I also feel like this has to be the worst state Apple Music will ever be in, so sticking it out will be a constant improvement over time … right?

Can Apple Music be fixed?

Apple Music is slowly being exposed as a bit of a shitshow under the covers. I’ve been fortunate not to have run into many of the issues folks are bringing up, but I definitely feel the pain of a poorly executed user experience, especially on the desktop. The bad news is that a lot of […]

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Spotify and Apple Music Side By Side

Nice little comparison of a lot of the main screens in both apps.

apple-music-logo

On June 30th at around 10am, the switch was flipped on the iOS 8.4 upgrade that contained the new Apple Music app and about an hour later, Beats 1 went live on the new streaming service. Overall, it’s been a fairly smooth launch from what I gather, and I’ve had a chance to kick the tires on most of the service to report my initial findings. This is by no means a full review, but I thought it might be helpful for people a bit less obsessed than I am with music and especially streaming music services.

What is Apple Music?

Like Rdio, Spotify, Google Music and others, Apple Music is a streaming music service that allows users to pay $9.99 a month for the ability to stream any song, on demand, from the nearly 30 million songs in their catalog. In short, you’re renting the ability to play any song or album, when you want it. On mobile devices, users can download and ‘save’ songs, albums or playlists so that they don’t use up their mobile bandwidth. While Apple Music is pretty run of the mill when it comes to this part of their service, they offer a few components that aren’t Earth shattering on their own, but the little differences add up to make something pretty compelling.

iTunes Match is dead, long live iCloud Music Library

Apple has had this kinda-sorta cloud music solution called iTunes Match for a while now. Basically, you pay $25/year and iTunes will scan your library, matching the tracks that you own with those in the cloud, and will upload tracks you own that may not be in the iTunes Store catalog. Conceptually, it is pretty solid and I’ve used it on and off over the past few years. You can sync playlists between devices and access all your music on any Apple device you own. However, sync wasn’t always reliable or fast. But for the price it was a pretty good value all things considered.

With Apple Music, we now have the iCloud Music Library, which is pretty much the same thing as Match.

Curation & For You

for-you

The thing I loved about Beats Music when I gave it a shot last year was the way they curated playlists based on moods, history or influences and recommended them to you based on what you listened to.

And they were really, really good.

I was amazed by how spot on the albums and playlists were, and it was the one service I used that solved the ‘what should I listen to right now?’ problem. Well, the same feature is in Apple Music – the more music you add to your library or love, the better the suggestions will get over time. This is presented in the ‘For You’ section of Apple Music as a series of cards that let you choose from playlists or albums that they think you might like. Over time, these recommendations get really accurate, and I’m always finding something new to listen to (or rediscovering old albums I haven’t heard in a while).

Beats 1

Apple-Beats-1-logo

You could argue Apple helped kill the radio with iTunes and the iPod but they’re now trying to bring the patient back to life with Beats 1.  Basically, it’s an always-on internet streaming station featuring a few prominent tastemakers / DJs as well as shows featuring popular artists that rotate out every few months.  Folks like Elton John, Q-Tip, Drake, and Josh Homme all have shows once a week amongst others.  It goes along with the other ‘curation’ attempts Apple is making to differentiate itself, and after giving it a go for a few days, I’m way more impressed with it than I thought I’d be.

Connect

This is kind of like a Twitter/Instagram style service that artists can use to connect with fans. You can allow Apple Music to auto-follow artists in your collection so I’ve already seen a few dozen posts from artists and they range from useless to actually really interesting. Trent Reznor posted some old NIN instrumental tracks that were really awesome to hear and I also saw some cool concert photos.

Screenshot 2015-07-02 10.37.50

You can imagine this part of the service will either die on the vine or become something much, much bigger over time. I could see this becoming a way to learn about upcoming shows, selling merchandise and promoting other things artists are doing. Further, I could see Apple getting into the ticketing game if Connect takes off. It’s not too far fetched to imagine a scenario in which an artist you follow due to saving one of their albums alerts you to a concert in your area via Connect, and you then use Apple Pay to purchase tickets. The pass is automatically added to passbook, a calendar entry is made on your phone for the event with directions, and you can share you’re going with one tap on Facebook or Twitter, with a link to the same post you saw embedded. Pretty slick if you’re the concert going type, and most of the ingredients are already in place.

The Good

I had high hopes that Apple would keep smart playlists around and they actually outdid what I was hoping for.

Not only are smart playlists still retained in the form they were prior to Apple Music’s launch, they actually give you the ability to integrate anything that is added to your library from the streaming tracks you are ‘renting’ as well. There is a new value for the iCloud Status meta property – Apple Music. This means songs you own and songs you’re renting can co-mingle in playlists and even smart playlists. Once they’re part of your iCloud Music Library, you are able to work with them just like any other track. This also makes it fairly easy to manage which tracks you have added from Apple Music, and which ones you own:

Screenshot 2015-07-02 10.38.10

For someone like me, this is huge. I like to make playlists based on how often I listen to music or sort by songs I’ve rated highly, etc. Being able to have the music I own and the music from a streaming service comingle like this is perfect.

I wasn’t expecting to say this, but Beats 1 is way better than I thought it would be. I figured it’d be a total gimmick – and it still may fall flat as the novelty wears off – but there’s something about that communal experience of listening to music you know thousands of others are also enjoying at the same time. It wouldn’t be worth a damn if the music wasn’t good, though, and the segments I have listened to so far have been really, really good. Not always the exact type of music I’d dig up myself but I’m enjoying it a lot so far, especially while at work.

I’ll be curious to see how things mature long term with Beats 1 – do they fill out the roster with more and more shows or do they splinter into a few different stations. Either way, consider me very pleasantly surprised that Radio On The Internet is actually kinda compelling.

The Bad

One thing I’ve seen some people talk about is issues with tracks having DRM on them if you are using the Match portion of the service. Definitely worth backing up your library if you’re going to make the jump. Another stupid thing I blame the music industry for is the fact that you can’t stream Beats 1 to multiple speakers from iTunes.

I feel like those issues are, on some level, out of Apple’s hands and I only hold them responsible for poor communication. However, there are some serious UX issues that hopefully can be resolved in time for iTunes 13 and iOS 9, but I’m not holding my breath. The on-boarding process is especially cumbersome, and while I was already used to the way the Beats ‘blob’ thing worked, I kind of hated it already. The software on both platforms is fairly confusing at first to even myself, who I’d consider a veteran of iTunes and Music on the Mac.

A lot of folks are talking about how this is Apple’s chance to rethink things now that the dust of the launch is settling, and I agree 110%. Conceptually, they nailed it, but the user experience can be cumbersome.

For example, did you know you can ‘love’ anything, regardless of it you have it in your library or not? But, once it’s in your library you can both love/not love a track and also rate it 1–5 stars?  I think Apple needs to pick a path and go with it.

It’s also not possible at this time to add songs that aren’t in your library to a playlist.  Let’s say I’m trying to make a playlist of songs for the beach or for the holidays and I want to add some songs I don’t really want cluttering up my Library.  For now, tough luck.  This is a two-step process of adding songs to the library and then adding those songs to a playlist I create.

When I am listening to a radio station, it’s unclear if pressing the ‘love’ button loves the station or the song. It sometimes persists through the entire radio session.

It can be difficult on the desktop to find an artist’s page and just queue up an album of theirs. If I find an album I want to preview before adding to my library, I’m out of luck. I can either press the play button and immediately hear it, or I have to click on the little ‘…’ icon, add the music to my library, go back to ‘My Music’ and then add the album to ‘up next’. Spotify’s UX on this sort of quick discovery is way better, as I’m able to simply right click on anything and ‘add to queue’.

Apple seems to be struggling to make iTunes work for people who want to buy their music and those who just want a pure streaming experience. When I’m looking at an artist in my collection and I click on ‘view more from this artist’, I’m taken to the store. As a streaming customer, I’d expect to be taken to a list of all of the tracks in Apple Music, and maybe a link or section at the bottom of tracks or albums I can purchase. Definitely a difficult problem to solve, but this is a UX challenge I hope Apple sits back and addresses for iTunes 13 and Music for iOS 9.

In short, I think that Apple’s concept of ‘My Music’ is both very powerful and very confusing. The fact that once a track is in your library it’s just like any other song is pretty awesome. It means you could in theory add more info for a track, rate them, add them to smart playlists and more. However, the downside is that it limits adding songs that you don’t have in your library to a playlist, like in most other streaming services (even Beats Music). Most of these issues don’t apply to the iOS versions of the app, but it’s a bummer that iTunes is such a mess (still).

There are also a number of nitpicky bugs that are to be expected from what is essentially a massive scale launch of a 1.0 product. I don’t expect perfection at launch but I do expect they’ll get cleaned up soon.

  • Some of the albums that I have in my collection do not show up as such when I look at a song from a playlist or other medium.
  • On the desktop, that damn ‘disconnected cloud’ icon is the bane of my existence. I usually just have to restart iTunes from time to time to get it to connect reliably. This has been a problem for me sporadically since the Match days, so who knows if it’ll clear up.
  • The Beats 1 station always has the ‘loved’ state. I mean, I do like Beats 1 but not every song…
  • Adding songs to my library from radio stations has been spotty for me. I was out for a walk tonight and heard a few songs I really liked on Beats 1. I pulled out my phone, clicked the ‘add to library’ button, verified that it was added via the checkbox dialog, and put the phone back up. The next day, the tracks weren’t in my library. Bummer.

‘Easy’ fixes

Some of the fixes I really hope that make their way into a future product are as follows:

  • Swiping left and right on a playlist or while listening to an album should skip to the next/previous track
  • Double tapping on the icons at the bottom of the iOS app should jump you to the top of the list that you’re viewing.
  • When you click the ‘back’ button on the Mac, I wish it would take you to the exact spot you were viewing instead of back to the top. Persistent state is way easier to nail nowadays, I know this.
  • When you’re listening to a song on Beats 1, a Radio station or a playlist, I wish you could directly add the song to your playlist & that would also add the song to your library in one action.
  • Make it easier to correct issues with ‘Matched’ music. Google Music nails this, as you can upload your own track to replace one that is incorrect, add your own artwork or edit metadata and it actually makes its way through the system.
  • Make it easier to mass clear downloaded tracks/albums/playlists and make it clearer what’s happening.
  • I should be able to right click on anything and add it to ‘up next’ in a consistent, reliable manner.  Whether it’s an album, a song or a playlist the behavior should always be there an always work.

Overall Impression

Apple could have done a better job explaining the service to users as well as taking this moment to simplify much like they did with Photos and iWork previously. I understand it’s a very fine line to walk but this was their 1.0 moment to really streamline what the service does as well as better explain/articulate things. There has been a lot of confusion about how the Match service works, as well as Home Sharing changes that have surprised people.

I guess I don’t get why they had to launch this summer – they could have taken their time and announced this when they were really ready. I suppose iOS 9 was the marker they wanted to be live by, but they must have decided to deal with whatever growing pains there were going to be.

Most of my complaints are with the fairly poor job that was done thinking about user experience on the Mac and communicating a lot of the differences between Match, Apple Music and Beats Music. From a software perspective, the iPad and iPhone versions are outstanding in most every way.

That said, Apple Music is conceptually the service I’ve been waiting for since I started using Rdio back in 2009. Apple really nailed almost everything I asked for in this blog post, and I anticipate things to get ironed out over the next year. Apple has the best curation/discovery tools, Beats 1 is way more compelling than I thought, they kept their Match service and integrated it, and even allowed Smart Playlists to work with their streaming music. It’s not perfect, but so far I think this is the service I’ve been waiting for.  I’ve already cancelled my Spotify subscription and I can’t really envision a scenario that has me going back.

Once I’ve had a month or two with the service I’ll dig deeper and report back.

Initial Apple Music Impressions

On June 30th at around 10am, the switch was flipped on the iOS 8.4 upgrade that contained the new Apple Music app and about an hour later, Beats 1 went live on the new streaming service. Overall, it’s been a fairly smooth launch from what I gather, and I’ve had a chance to kick the […]

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Recently, I posted my wish list of what I’d like to see in Apple Music before the WWDC announcement and while I’m really excited overall, I do still have some questions.  Here’s a few bulleted thoughts based on what we know right now.

Things I’m excited about

  • They nailed the ‘architecture’ question I had. You can mix and match your own tracks with the streaming library, similar to how Google Play Music handles things.
  • It looks like the Beats model of being able to like or dislike any song is intact – I love this model, as you can really train the service to offer up things tailored to your taste.

Things I’m not sure about

  • Are play counts tracked in a way that I can see?
  • What about ratings? It looks like you can ‘heart’ tracks based on this screen grab, but I’m not sure how that applies to the music I own. Are 4/5 stars converted to a heart, 1/2 converted to a heart with a cross through it?
  • Can we make smart playlists at all anymore? Are they only applied to our music?

Can’t wait for 6/30.

A quick Apple Music scorecard

Recently, I posted my wish list of what I’d like to see in Apple Music before the WWDC announcement and while I’m really excited overall, I do still have some questions.  Here’s a few bulleted thoughts based on what we know right now. Things I’m excited about They nailed the ‘architecture’ question I had. You […]

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