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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In the next few weeks Apple is set to announce a slew of updates to iOS and OS X. Most rumors indicate that we’ll see a lot of small improvements with every corner of the Apple ecosystem, but I’m looking most forward to the impending announcement of the new Apple / Beats product that should rival Spotify, Beats, and Google Music.

How I listen to music

First, I thought I’d talk for a moment about how I enjoy music as I think that will flavor my wish list. I’m a subscriber to Spotify and iTunes Match, using both about equally depending on context and they both do a lot of things really well and miss out on some others. I enjoy music in one of 4 main places: during my roughly 1 hour commute to and from work from my iPhone, during my workday at my desk on my Mac, while running on my iPhone (and one day my Apple Watch!) and at home, typically played throughout the house on multiple speakers via Airplay & my Mac. It’s important to me to be able to use a remote app on either my phone or my watch to control music while around the house.

The way I listen to music is typically one of three “modes”: discovery, (re)discovery, and ‘hits’.

At a high level, discovery for me means using something like Spotify or iTunes Radio to find new music based on things I already listen to. I do this at work a lot of the time – I’ll pick a Radio station or playlist and find some new artists this way.

Rediscovery is using the Smart Playlist feature in iTunes to serve up my favorites that I might not have listened to in a while. I’m kind of obsessive about metadata and Smart Playlists in iTunes, and this pays off when I can call up a playlist based on some pretty specific criteria.

Smart playlist
Yes, I realize how insane this is.

‘Hits’ means either using Spotify/iTunes Radio or Smart Playlists to serve up music I know I’m a fan of. This is great for running or driving around. Again, I make use of Smart Playlists to play a specific curated playlist.

The perfect iTunes+Beats concept

With Apple buying Beats last year, the writing was on the wall for a streaming service making its way into iTunes. Simply put, I want to have iTunes as my one-stop shop for music discovery, re-discovery and personal curation. I want to be able to solve the ‘what do I listen to’ problem that I currently have with Spotify, and have the ability to combine music I own with music I discover. Jumping between ecosystems places a mental burden on me to remember where a certain album or song lives.

So, how do we get to this magical land?

Conceptually, steal what Google Music does

Conceptually this service should work like Google Music, where users can upload/match their own music but also subscribe to a streaming service to supplement their ‘owned’ music with ‘streaming’ music. This should be transparent to the end user once tracks are matched. In fact, the reasons I don’t use Google Music are mainly the lack of a good Remote system not named Sonos and the lack of a desktop application to speak of. They nailed the music management part of the streaming puzzle.

However, Apple Music needs to take that concept but retain some of their core features.

Don’t ruin what makes iTunes great (smart playlists, metadata, remote)

The core of what I want already exists within iTunes, and I hope that Apple doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as they did with a refresh of their iWork apps. Smart Playlists are the backbone of what makes iTunes great and help me deal with a fairly large library of music. I realize that adding a streaming service and a match service together isn’t easy but Google’s approach to me is great. Take that, add the ability to make smart playlists based on some basic metadata, and you’re cooking. I personally only rely on metadata like last played date, date added, play counts, and ratings to create most of my smart playlists and if they are lost at the expense of adding a streaming service, I might as well use Spotify or even Google Music.

Further, retain iTunes Radio and give users the option to add songs to their library or purchase them outright. Serve up recommendations similar to how Beats currently works, offering albums or curated playlists to aid in discovery. The important thing is to still make my music – regardless of if I got it from the new streaming service or it’s music that I own – the focal point instead of pushing playlists and other ‘features’ on me the way that Spotify is moving these days.

Fix what makes iTunes awful (slow Match updating, bloated apps)

iTunes Match is conceptually a very great service but it rarely works as flawlessly as I’d hope. The update times are hard to predict so things like play counts, metadata changes or new music additions take time to filter down to every device. I realize this is potentially a very complicated issue and know it’s super difficult to solve, but I’d love to see some speed/reliability improvements here above all else.

Ditch ‘The Sentence’ feature from Beats. Let iTunes Radio take the place of this poorly thought out feature.

Better ‘New Music Tuesday’ section

I like the way that a few services handle ‘New Music Tuesday’ but nobody does it perfectly. Rdio comes the closest, offering up a list of all of the new albums available, and even notifying you in the menubar of the application if any artist you have in your collection has a new album out. I feel that sort of automation combined with the curation angle that Apple and Beats both take, breaking out genres and featuring the top new music, would go a long way to helping users not only find new popular music but also keep up with the artists that they already love. If rumors are true, allowing users to follow artists seems like this could be Apple adding in the automated notification feature. However, I hope they go on step further and allow you to be notified if any artist in your library has a new album/song out.

Add toggle within iOS app for offline only tracks

Something that has bugged me for a while is the way Music on the iPhone works – you have to leave the Music application and go to system settings just to toggle whether the app shows all of your music or only the music you had downloaded to your device. All of the other major players do this really well, and fortunately Apple has already added this in the iOS 8.4 beta. There is a toggle to show all of your music or only downloaded music.

Finally.

Handoff support

Pretty simple – I’d like to be able to get home after my commute and hand off what I’m listening to over to iTunes to seamlessly continue rocking out. If I’m listening to a playlist or an album, that should be able to be easily continued on iTunes, my iOS device, or even my watch if possible.

Just work well

That’s all! Simple, right? Most of the things I’m asking for aren’t rocket science, it’s just an issue with all of the competitors doing most of the things I want, but not all of them. Apple has the ability to knock one out of the park next month and finally build the perfect system for the way I listen to music. I hope they can make it happen.

My ‘Apple Music’ Wish List

In the next few weeks Apple is set to announce a slew of updates to iOS and OS X. Most rumors indicate that we’ll see a lot of small improvements with every corner of the Apple ecosystem, but I’m looking most forward to the impending announcement of the new Apple / Beats product that should […]

Continue reading →

Lately, I’ve grown tired of the HTML5/Flash based nature of Rdio, despite all of the other things that I love about the service. The desktop ‘app’ is basically a wrapper app for the website so that you can use the media keys, but is otherwise a webpage. Right clicking and selecting ‘reload’ is a dead giveaway. HTML5/Flash certainly has its benefits – it allows for quick, platform-agnostic iteration and that’s huge for a company like Rdio, who is outgunned a bit by Spotify and now Beats. However, I decided to stray out to Spotify land to see how green the grass is these days. I left fairly impressed.

At this point, I think that Rdio has put all of its chips in the consistent web-style direction and the technical debt they’ve incurred thus far might do them in. The future are native apps everywhere that use a unified API (which I’m sure they have on some level, but even their mobile apps make heavy use of webviews), and relying on Flash on the desktop is a throwback to 5 years ago. While that’s all architecture talk at this point, the fact that it was bothering me helped nudge me to give Spotify a try and I’m glad that I did. I learned a lot about what other services have to offer.

In fact, once Apple announced they were buying Beats, the maker of the overpriced headphones and the fledgling streaming music service, I decided to take a trial run of that as well to see what the future looks like according to Apple & Beats. I was surprised by some of the features and it really made me rethink what I like about any streaming service.

Devices used: iPad mini, iPhone 5s, iMac, and MacBook Air.

Design

I feel like this is an area that Rdio was leaps and bounds ahead of the others on until recently, but as of late I’m not so sure who leads the pack. Spotify recently went through a redesign that unifies their product offering but it’s very skin deep – they put a pretty coat of paint on things, but it feels overly complicated at times, isn’t easily scannable, and the way the apps ‘work’ don’t make a lot of sense to me at times. However they did manage to close the gap in the aesthetic side of the design and I think it’s a wash between the three services at this point. Why is that? I think each one has it’s own personality and there are UX issues on any of the platforms, so it’s hard to pick a winner. Rdio does a great job of making artwork come to the forefront and keep buttons and UI elements out of the way for the most part, with a clear navigation hierarchy in all of their apps. However, the web-ness of their apps come through, so I ding Rdio for UX reasons. Everything is kind of slow and doesn’t quite feel right at times, despite looking great and being logically organized. Beats has a very strong design as well, but sometimes navigation can be clumsy in their mobile applications. However, awful icon aside I think that Beats might have the best foundation to build on. The user experience in their apps is really solid, which I’ll detail more below.

Winner: Beats

Curation

This term is getting overused but one of the things that does set Beats apart are their ‘influencer’ created playlists and the recommendation engine that suggests playlists to you based on what you like or have listened to. At first I didn’t think I’d see much value but over the past week I’ve grown to appreciate some of the great lists that have been recommended based on either an artist (for example, Talking Heads: Deep Cuts was suggested after I listened to a Talking Heads album) or a genre (90s Suburbia, a playlist with tons of grunge hits, was recommended after I listened to Alice in Chains). These all show up in a ‘Just for you’ section that loads when the app fires up and it keeps you listening to new stuff. The fact that beats allows you to ‘love’ or ‘hate’ any song or playlist further helps their recommendation engine, and over time it’s almost eerie how good the suggestions are.

Spotify has a similar feature, but they recommend artists and songs more than playlists. This works quite well, but most of the playlists Spotify promotes are 200-song monstrosities that are just a collection of every song that fits a certain category. While this is good for an all-day cookout or something like that, it doesn’t really get as specific as something like Beats does, which is offer up very focused playlists (one of my favorites so far is ‘Best of Chipmunk Soul’, which if you don’t know is what some call the early 2000s Kanye West style of sped up soul samples in songs) which are maybe 10-20 songs long. Spotify still does a good job of suggesting music I might like and I’m usually agreeing with what they have to offer.

Rdio has a recommendation feature but it’s kind of buried and the suggestions are very programatic. I rarely use it and I’m sure most folks feel the same way. Most music discovery on Rdio is via the ‘Heavy Rotation’ feature, that allows music your friends are loving to bubble up. It works pretty well if you follow the right people, but it’s a different approach. Your best bet for discovering music on Rdio is listening to the you.FM feature, which plays a custom radio station based on your collection and listening habits.

Winner: Beats

Playlist / music management

Rdio wins this category, but it’s basically a toss up between all 3 services. On Rdio’s desktop app and the mobile app, you can select to add a song/album to your library, sync it to your mobile device, or add it to a playlist. One of the best things about Rdio is that you can manage what is on your mobile device from anywhere – this doesn’t sound like a useful feature until you try the way that others handle it. If you choose to sync a song to mobile from the desktop, it will do that the next time you open any of your mobile apps. Another great feature is in the way Rdio allows you to add songs to a playlist from the actual list view. A search box exists that allows you to type in a track name and the result will be added to your list if you select it. Great if you’re taking a lot of random requests for a playlist and want to quickly assemble a track listing. The biggest issue again comes from the fact that Rdio uses a lot of webviews. You can’t select or edit multiple songs in a playlist. Drag and drop is slow and just plain clumsy. Other than that, it’s the best for managing music and playlists.

Spotify has its ups and downs – it’s difficult to know what songs are queued to play, and how to save a song for offline playback. If you search for an artist or song and land on the album that way on your phone, you’re unable to sync for offline. If you go through your ‘collection’ you can sync but the iconography is very hard to see. Spotfiy does make it easy to add songs to a playlist or your collection, though. Same for quickly jumping to the artist page or the album page. This is helpful for if you’re going through a long playlist and want to jump to the album the song is from. I also particularly like how you can use a search box to filter an existing playlist to find a certain song. Since everything is “native” the speed to edit playlists is the fastest of the bunch. Recently Spotify added the ability to filter by offline and alphabetical within your library listings, which is huge for mobile usability. This finally brings them on par with the others and for me makes using the mobile app a viable option, despite it being solid in most other ways to begin with.

Beats is really solid on the mobile front – there are filters to see what songs are on your mobile vs your entire collection, and it’s easy to add songs to a playlist, to your collection, or add to your mobile device for offline playback. However, the offline config is a on a per-device basis so you can’t get the benefit of Rdio’s universal management.

Winner: Rdio

Personalization

Rdio allows you to build custom stations and also provides you with a you.FM feature that is a station built on your tastes and listening habits. In fact, all radio stations allow you to customize on a sliding scale from ‘popular’ to ‘adventurous’ which allows you to specify exactly what you want to hear.

Beats learns your history and suggests albums and playlists you’d like, and the recommendations are really solid.

Spotify offers a similar approach to what Beats does, but it offers a few nice touches that put it above the others. When you see recommendations, it offers up why it is suggesting the artist as well as a very quick way to add the song or album to your collection, as well as play the item.

Winner: Spotify

Desktop app

Spotify wins this round mainly because it’s the only one with a true desktop client. Everything is fast, track lists pop into place and dragging and dropping is snappy. Songs are cached for offline playback automatically as well as giving the user the option to cache specific playlists or albums for offline, just like the mobile clients.

Rdio’s is a good app but it’s essentially a web player wrapped in a native client. It does everything the website does, only it can respond to system keys like play/pause, which is nice. It’s simply slower than a native app, especially when editing playlists or loading lots of content. Dragging and dropping feels clunky (as it’s web based), and basically it’s just a really good web app. Unfortunately, that’s not what people want. Overall, performance on Rdio’s desktop app is pretty poor, and I have no confidence that they’ll ever get away from the web-based model. It’s a shame too, as a native Rdio app that did the exact things that the web version does right now would be unbeatable by the competition.

Beats … they only have a web player and it lacks almost all of the features you’d expect it to have – it’s nowhere near on par with their excellent mobile clients nor does it even have the basics of the other competitors’ web offerings. It feels very rushed and I hope it gets addressed with a true native app eventually (I can see Apple influencing this, as they think of ‘the cloud’ as a conduit for native apps to talk to each other, instead of web-based services). It currently never remembers my login, it takes 10 seconds to add a song to my library, and the connection is frequently lost. They need to up their desktop game, and fast.

Winner: Spotify

Mobile features

I use the mobile app for whichever service I choose a ton, and as such I have some fairly specific things I look for:

  • Offline sync
  • Filtering lists
  • Searching lists
  • Sort by play count or recently added
  • Speed of adding, finding albums
  • Ease of use while driving
  • Background sync

Each of the 3 major clients I tried offer their own take and have strengths and weaknesses, but Spotify comes out ahead (barely).

Spotify allows for offline sync (up to 3,333 tracks!) and recently also added the ability to filter playlists and album listings based on offline only, A-Z, or recently added. This makes it a lot easier to fire up the app and only stream music you have on your device. Spotify has had a search box at the top of the playlist that allows users to find the specific track you’re looking for – and recently they’ve added a dialog that warns you when you are trying to add a track that already exists on a playlist. Spotify makes it easy to view the album a track is from as well as add the track to your playlist. The biggest issue is how quickly Spotify stops syncing in the background when you close the app. I wish that it would take advantage of background sync and try to complete at intervals. Also, it should be noted the iPad app is outdated compared to its iPhone counterpart. I don’t listen to much music on my iPad though, so that’s not a big issue.

Rdio suffers from the same issues that the desktop app does – removing a track from a playlist causes the entire list to refresh, losing your place. The odd placement of the dialog when trying to action on a track means you have to scroll down a lot to add a song to a playlist or queue it. However, Rdio does offer a good ‘offline’ mode as well as some solid filtering options.

Beats has a really great mobile app, and it has solid filtering, offline sync and playlist action controls. The only odd thing about it is how slow the dialog is to determine if you have a song in your library or not. So, if you click on an album you want to add to your library, it might take 2-5 seconds to show the correct icon. Odd and confusing at times. I wish that data would be cached on app launch somehow. Beats also makes it really easy to remove all synced music from your device, while the others don’t offer this.

Winner: Spotify

Remote control

I love setting up a playlist or a station of music at home and using Airplay to broadcast to all the speakers we have in our house. I use iTunes Radio for this a lot, but I’ve also tried using streaming services to see if they can match that feature set.

Another feature that Rdio offers that I truly love is the remote control feature. If you’re playing Rdio from another location (say, you’re desktop) and you open your iOS app, you see a notification at the footer saying that Rdio is playing in another location. You can basically use your iOS app as a remote control, queueing up songs, changing tracks, giving a song a thumbs up/down if you’re playing a station – basically, anything you can do on your app. It’s a really great feature that is only missing the feature of letting you control which device is playing. I’d love to pick up my iOS device and just select my Mac from there, and press play. Currently, you have to initiate the play from the place you want to control remotely.

Spotify does this feature right but they also have an exception – currently the desktop app doesn’t support the Spotify Connect feature that allows for users to remotely control their music. So, if you have an iPad, an iPhone or a supported speaker (I have a Pioneer SMA3K speaker that has this functionality) you can fire up any app and find other supported playback destinations on you network and begin playback on your device or any other device. For now, you’re forced to use 3rd party remote control apps that are generally pretty awful.

Beats doesn’t do anything like this currently.

Winner: Rdio

Overall impressions

For those keeping score at home, here’s how each of the categories turned out:
Spotify: 3 (personalization, desktop app, mobile app)
Rdio: 2 (remote control, playlist / track management)
Beats: 2 (design, curation)

Every time I’ve ditched Rdio for another service, I end up coming back. I think that despite a lot of the implementation detail issues that drive me bonkers, Rdio just is built the way I want a streaming service to be built. I like that I can choose a bunch of music from anywhere to sync to a mobile device, and it’ll just happen the next time I open the app (I wish it’d happen in the background but alas). I like that, when I’m at home I can play music from my Mac on all my speakers and control it from any device without some hack workaround. I think Rdio has the best radio station feature by far, and the heavy rotation / personalized station features are also unique and top notch.

All that said, this time the bad has outweighed the fact that it is built the way I expect it to. The UX on the desktop and mobile apps are just atrocious and slow and I’m going to stick with Spotify for now. Their recent design refresh closed the gap with Rdio enough for me to be ok with the look and feel of the app, and the UX is mostly better than Rdio’s right now. Further, I just can’t shake the feeling that Rdio is the long-term loser here. Development and new features seem to have slowed lately, and I can’t see them keeping pace with Spotify or even Beats once the Apple acquisition is in full swing.

I do think that long term I’ll end up being a Beats customer – I have a hunch that Apple will eventually get their new division on board with creating a desktop app that (hopefully) stands alongside iTunes separately, but at worst will integrate into the iTunes app. If they handle the desktop app part correctly, bolt on some remote control functionality as well as flesh out their ‘sentence’ feature, I think that in a year I’ll be a Beats user. But for now, it’s on to Spotify – warts and all. Thanks for the ride Rdio – it’s a solid service that hitched their wagon to web technology and as a result just can’t offer the native experience that I’m looking for.

The State of the Streaming Union

Lately, I’ve grown tired of the HTML5/Flash based nature of Rdio, despite all of the other things that I love about the service. The desktop ‘app’ is basically a wrapper app for the website so that you can use the media keys, but is otherwise a webpage. Right clicking and selecting ‘reload’ is a dead […]

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As you may or may not know, Spo­tify launched this week in the US, and I of course jumped on board. I’m going to give Rdio and Spo­tify a fair shake before I decide which to use full time (I reviewed Rdio a while back, and have been an avid user since the ser­vice launched), but the early lead is with Spo­tify even though it’s lack­ing the excel­lent dis­cov­ery tools that Rdio has. Until the full review, my ini­tial thoughts in list form:

Spotify Pros:

  • Awe­some app on the desk­top and mobile
  • Amaz­ing sup­port & website
  • Huge community
  • iPhone app is easy to use, and much better than the Rdio one
  • Easy to add mul­ti­ple songs to a playlist or to your library
  • Abil­ity to share a par­tic­u­lar song / album to friends just by drag­ging the song to your con­tact is amazing
  • Spo­tify caches the music you listen to so it loads faster the next time you play it
  • Dead simple playlist cre­ation & album navigation
  • Non-​blue icons!
  • Abil­ity to sync Spo­tify songs to an iPod 

Rdio Pros:

  • Library is global b/c it’s a web­site – this makes it a lot easier to keep things in sync between my home and work Rdio account.
  • Album driven, as opposed to playlist driven.
  • Great community 
  • Great dis­cov­ery tools (the land­ing page with the ‘heavy rotation’ is the most valu­able fea­ture of the site, along with ‘ recommendations’ and ‘new releases’)
  • You can tailor the library to things you want, which is view­able in the iPhone app
  • Faster development

Spotify Cons:

  • Queue is lost between launches?
  • Queue is hard to under­stand in gen­eral – if you go to ‘play’ an album it tends to play the first track then revert back to the queue.
  • Very playlist driven, so unless you keep your music orga­nized into many playlists, you’re forced to star almost every­thing you’re lis­ten­ing to.
  • Each instance of Spo­tify (mul­ti­ple desk­top apps, iPhone app) is it’s own instance so it can feel dis­jointed as if you need to manage each copy on it’s own.
  • No real ‘metrics’ on what you’ve been lis­ten­ing to a lot.  Last.fm helps with this, but Rdio shines in this area of track­ing what you have been lis­ten­ing to a lot

Rdio Cons:

  • The ‘application’ is really just an opti­mized ver­sion of the web­site. It’s not ter­ri­ble, but there is a lag, and all of the but­tons & inter­ac­tions remind you that you’re on a webpage.
  • The UI of the iPhone app is lacking
  • iPhone app doesn’t allow you to play through/mark played your queue, only one album in queue
  • iPhone app doesn’t allow you to add songs/albums to the queue * only to collections/playlists
  • Adding mul­ti­ple songs to a playlist at once isn’t possible.

Rdio v. Spotify – Round One

As you may or may not know, Spo­tify launched this week in the US, and I of course jumped on board. I’m going to give Rdio and Spo­tify a fair shake before I decide which to use full time (I reviewed Rdio a while back, and have been an avid user since the ser­vice launched), but the early lead […]

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I want to write a bit more about Rdio – a stream­ing music ser­vice that has really altered the way that I listen to music. Rdio allows you to browse a list of music on their site and steam as much as you like via their web inter­face or their free desk­top appli­ca­tion (which hap­pens to be made using Adobe AIR, but that’s a dis­cus­sion for another day) for $5 bucks a month. You can add music to your ‘collection’, basi­cally a place where you can store a list of all of the music you like, make playlists, and queue up albums to listen to. For $10 a month, you get all of the fea­tures already listed plus the abil­ity to stream music to a mobile appli­ca­tion for iOS, Android, etc. For me, this is where the ser­vice becomes truly worth­while. The mobile apps allow you to not only stream music to the devices, but also to down­load as much music as your device has capac­ity to locally store music. This means that you can essen­tially manage your iPhone/iPad/whatever Android you’re using phone’s music col­lec­tion ‘from the cloud’, with access to a ton of music instantly. 


Rdio’s track options – add to col­lec­tion, sync to mobile, share song, etc

On it’s sur­face, Rdio is sim­i­lar to other ser­vices that have come and gone, or ser­vices that are in other coun­tries but aren’t avail­able here (I’m look­ing at you, Spotify…), but of what’s avail­able to us Amer­i­cans right now, it’s hard to com­pete with what this ser­vice offers. I tend to buy an album or two a month at some­where between $5 and $10 dol­lars a pop. With the advent of Rdio, I’ve cut that down sig­nif­i­cantly while also learn­ing to not worry about sync­ing my iPhone up. If I’m ever out and about and remem­ber there’s a song or an album I want to listen to, I can quickly per­form a search on my phone and add it to my col­lec­tion, a playlist, or even sync to my device right then and there. 

Another place that Rdio excels is in social shar­ing and music dis­cov­ery. They’ve man­aged to find the per­fect bal­ance between shar­ing infor­ma­tion about what your friends are lis­ten­ing to with­out beat­ing you over the head with it. Upon log­ging in, you’ll see a screen with 12 album covers that are labeled ‘Heavy Rotation’ – this is a list of the top albums lis­tened to by you and your friends recently. No play counts, no easy way to tie an album to a spe­cific person – just what’s pop­u­lar right now. You can quickly mouse over an item and add it to your col­lec­tion, play it, sync it to your mobile, and more. I’ve found dozens of new bands since using the ser­vice reg­u­larly just because folks I’m friends with are basi­cally cooler than I am and are find­ing new music for me to check out.


The heavy rota­tion view

On top of those social and dis­cov­ery fea­tures, Rdio can be set up to send your lis­tens to Last.fm if you’re that sort of person (I am), thus enabling you to still keep track of every­thing you’ve lis­tened to. This means that now I have two ser­vices that track what I’m lis­ten­ing to and rec­om­mend­ing music to me based on that. Even better, the bar­rier to trying out these new artists is sig­nif­i­cantly reduced, so I’m check­ing out new stuff more often and also dig­ging up old favorites from my high school days with­out wor­ry­ing about wast­ing space on my hard drive. It’s a very fric­tion­less ser­vice that keeps improv­ing, and for $10 a month, is a steal.

That doesn’t mean the ser­vice is per­fect. Rdio hasn’t even been around for a year so they’re still fig­ur­ing things out and flesh­ing out their cat­a­log – and I know that takes time. Legit excuses aside, there are places for improve­ment. There are areas where the iPhone appli­ca­tion doesn’t have access to the same fea­tures as the web appli­ca­tion (things like full access to the queue, the abil­ity to add songs/albums to the queue, playlist creation/search and more), and that can be frus­trat­ing. Addi­tion­ally, what they call a ‘desktop application’ is a bit of an stretch. I cre­ated a Fluid instance of the web page and just use that, as the AIR app doesn’t do much other than just play music. I’m hoping at some point we’ll see a true desk­top appli­ca­tion that emu­lates a lot of the fea­tures you’d see in iTunes – easier playlist cre­ation, queue reorder­ing, and col­lec­tion man­age­ment. Other issues that are already improv­ing greatly are things like over­all music selec­tion, song bitrates, and the over­all web app performance. 

Another issue that is rare and goes to the core of ‘ownership vs. renting’ of music are things like what hap­pens when I get hooked on an album but I want to listen to it while some­where that’s not my com­puter or with my phone/headphones around? Some­thing like an iPod nano comes to mind. Cur­rently, your only option is to buy that album and sync it up to your device. I’d love to see some sort of DRM daemon that runs on your system that allows you to down­load DRM-​limited songs to your com­puter so that you could then sync them to non-​networked play­ers. This is a pipe dream but I think it’d be some­thing worth it to a lot of users – espe­cially folks who run a lot and listen to a ton of music. (obvi­ously I’m not talk­ing about me, I don’t exercise)

When I say it’s the best ‘cloud music ser­vice (for now)’, I’m refer­ring to the rumored entry into the US market by either (and pos­si­bly both) Spo­tify and Apple. Both are estab­lished in their own respec­tive mar­kets more than our friends at Rdio, and I think their entry would shake things up quite a bit. The pos­i­tive, of course, would be that it would also speed up the con­ver­sion of hold­outs to a subscription-​style model. There is a trial avail­able that will give you a chance to see if the ser­vice works for your style before they start billing you – I highly rec­om­mend it to anyone who lis­tens to a lot of music at work or on their iPhone. (or what­ever other smart­phone you may use) If you do end up join­ing, look me up

Pros:

  1. Great selec­tion of music
  2. Mobile appli­ca­tion is fast, easy to use, and makes search­ing for songs and albums very easy
  3. Good music dis­cov­ery tools
  4. Great support
  5. If you even buy an album or two a month this ser­vice will actu­ally save you money
  6. Pandora-​esque artist ‘stations’ where you can just load up an artist and hear related bands

Cons:

  1. The desk­top is basi­cally just an album cover w/ play/pause/volume. I’d love to see some­thing nicer on the desktop
  2. No iPad app yet
  3. Mobile apps don’t have abil­ity to add songs to queue yet, nor can they play through the entire queue of songs
  4. Cur­rently the only way to add an album to a playlist is one song at a time
  5. Moving songs to non-​networked devices is not pos­si­ble at this time
  6. Some songs/albums have issues with some songs only being 30 second pre­views due to licens­ing issues.