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Bobbing to Apple: Apple Music Review

In the tech world, Apple is the 800 lbs. gorilla who can sleep wherever they damn well please. When they said they were going to roll up their sleeves and jump into the streaming music scene with their Apple Music service, even the Spotify juggernaut quaked. As did Pandora, Tidal, Slacker, Rdio, and all the other smaller music streaming services out there. Now that the good ship Apple has landed (complete with a free 3 month trial) we took the time to dig into it and see whether they were going to unseat the established music streaming giants, or if Apple Music was going to be just another worthy dog in an overpopulated fight.

In an extensive no holds barred fiddle, fight, and tweak-fest, we did everything in our power to try to break Apple Music. We wanted to see how it worked, what it did right, where it could improve, and where it was intractably broken. Overall, the experience is a pleasant one with a huge music catalog that keeps everyone happy, tons of cross-platform support, smart integration, and a human element that adds a welcome social component to the music streaming environment. While there’s certainly some holes, and even Apple fans must admit it’s far from perfect, it’s ultimately a worthy addition to the scene.

Who? What? When? Where? How Much?

Let’s cover a few nuts and bolts: The Apple Music service starts off with three free months, after which you’ll be charged $10 (or $9.99 if that fools you) per month for the privilege. That will work on a single device at a time, and believe that they enforce that. Apple also offers a family plan for $15 ($14.99) which allows up to 6 devices to get synced up to work independently. The cost is comparable to Spotify which has either their unlimited option for $5 ($4.99) a month or their premium service which is $10 ($9.99). Pandora will cost you $5 a month for their advertisement free edition, if that is more your speed. So Apple’s subscription service is on par.

Where they aren’t in step with everyone else is their free option. Yes, they have one, but all it does is let you play stuff you purchased on iTunes, play the Beats 1 station, or listen to other radio stations along with ads. It’s similar to Pandora in this way, though their stations aren’t quite as well-developed. At least not yet.

The inclusion of Beats 1 is a welcome holdover from Beats Music. It’s a 24 hour station helmed by notable DJ’s like Zane Lowe, formerly of BBC Radio 1. The music runs for 12 hours, then is replayed for people on the other side of the world. Music news, updates, trends, and information are presented by the DJ’s along with chats and interviews with tastemakers in the industry. It’s a fun streaming radio service that can be had as part of the free service, no payment required.

Apple Music is available on any Mac or PC and can be used on any Apple iOS device right now. If you want to put it on your Android device, well, you’re going to have to wait on that. The reason for the delay is…well, it certainly can’t be that Apple is punishing people who don’t worship at their altar. That doesn’t sound like them. Later in 2015, Apple Music should have a dedicated app in the Google Play store for Android fans. Unless it disappears mysteriously forcing you to buy an iPhone 6 and an iPad and everything else at the Genius Bar.

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Sweet Sounds: Apple Serves Up a Massive Music Catalog

Since variety is the spice of life, and we want you to have as much spice as you can handle, the first thing we considered was how deep Apple Music’s cuts were going to be. After the epic hissy fit that Taylor Swift threw that saw her music being taken off of Spotify, there was some concern that artists might shun Apple. Thankfully, they had the iTunes service to start off with and 30 million of the tracks from iTunes can be found on Apple Music. Sadly, there are some 13 million iTunes tracks that haven’t made the move.

While Taylor Swift isn’t one of the artists that refused to come to Apple Music, Tool, Garth Brooks, The Beatles, and Prince are a few of the names that didn’t want their work on the streaming service. Seek them out and you shan’t find them anywhere. There isn’t even the option to switch to iTunes to buy their music, an interface that might have been useful and would allow Apple to cross-promote. The omission is noticeable, but far from tragic.

The music that does appear on the Apple catalog can be streamed or downloaded to your devices for use offline. They will disappear should you cancel your Apple Music subscription, but an internet connection isn’t necessary to get your groove on.

You can add your own music to your playlist, but this prospect is buggy. Apple Music uses the iCloud Music Library which is a cloud music storage service. It will “unlock” any song you already have downloaded from iTunes or bought and ripped from an outside source, but how well it works is suspect. You can upload stuff to your cloud account, but sometimes music goes missing; sometimes it can’t “unlock” something through iTunes; sometimes it doesn’t interface properly for accurate streaming, and even when it works, you have to pay another $25 for iCloud Music Library. Avoid it unless you love bugs.

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The Hunt is On: Unbeatable Music Discovery System

One of the biggest reasons to use any music streaming service is not to hear the music you know you like but rather to find something new to put into your ear holes. This is probably the best part of Apple Music and is hard to find fault with their methodology. From the first time you fire up Apple Music, you’ll be asked to fill out a music profile by choosing artists that you enjoy and the genres you prefer. It also tracks what you listen to and what you buy off of iTunes and then fills in their For You tab with lists of recommended artists.

During play, you can tap a heart icon to let Apple know that you enjoy a particular song and it factors that into your algorithm. If you find that Apple isn’t giving you suggestions that you like, you might try running through the setup process again, which is easily done. We found it intuitive, easy, and able to drum up some smart artists both near and far that we didn’t know we shouldn’t have been living without. If hunting down some new swingin’ sounds is what you love about a streaming service, Apple has you covered.

The playlists are compiled partially by machine, but Apple also has music editors. These are real people with comprehensive knowledge of the music industry who will pump out jams for your listening pleasure that they know will land in your strike zone. This additional element humanizes the entire experience and makes it work better than any streaming service we’ve ever tried. A bold claim, but well-earned.

The one problem that comes up is that users aren’t able to make and submit their own playlists for public consumption. You can swap them with friends and neighbors, but not put them out there for others. Nor can you get their stuff. Only Apple-approved curators can do it at this point, which is an immense drawback.

Social Sharing: Where Artists and Fans Connect

Though you might not be able to get playlists from internet strangers, Apple Music does allow people to reach out to their favorite musicians in a new way. Through the Connect tab you can follow any artist with a Connect page to see their posts, updates, and anything else they feel like sharing. It even gives you the option of commenting on their Connect page, and they’re able to respond if they so choose.

Due to the infancy of Apple Music, it’s impossible to tell exactly how effective this is going to be. Thus far a few artists have created pages and seem to be active in the community, while fans have inundated some of the most popular bands with hundreds of comments already. Since this is the internet, it isn’t impossible to believe that these Connect pages will soon be overrun with advertisements and/or hate speech, cruel input, racist language, and everything else that makes free speech sound like a terrible idea.

Given how many different ways artists already have to reach their fans with established social networking entities like Facebook and Twitter, it’s doubtful that they’ll spend much time using Connect. It is nice that any band of any size who is featured on the service can make a page, but so far it hasn’t reinvented the wheel of social media and isn’t blowing anyone’s hair back. It is a unique feature, however, and certainly has potential.

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Taming the Beast: Apple’s Interface is hateable

While other aspects to Apple’s service have a few bugs and kinks, the area that is universally reviled is the interface. We found that it certainly had an unnecessarily steep learning curve, which is odd for a company who strives to make everything simpler.

Navigation is handled entirely via tabs which let you move around the various sections of the app. These are split up based on what music you want to hear. Each tab bears a label like “New Music,” “Internet Radio,” “Your Playlist,” and others. At first blush, this seems like a perfectly fine way to go about hopping around. Unfortunately, upon use it becomes a bit unwieldy.

Some of the tabs, such as New Music, are crammed to the gills with content. That’s great, except you’re saturated with Billboard chart information, fresh playlists from 3rd party curators like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Shazam, hot videos, and anything else under the sun that is deemed “new.”

Even after you manage to hack through all the content, there’s a series of submenus that are tiresome to navigate. You end up needing to memorize exactly where the single thing you want is and navigating forward and backward to get it. Once you learn how it all works and fits together, it’s fine, but it’s clunky. Really, it’s shameful for a company built around elegant simplicity to fumble the ball so completely and then get that ball lost in a submenu of a submenu’s submenu.

Ideally they will clean this up. There’s a ton of features buried here, but finding and using them becomes a fool’s errand if you can’t remember exactly where everything is.

Play Time: Lots of Options for Easy Listening

If you can find it, making playlists and saving them isn’t terribly difficult, but it can require a little hunting. Once you have made the lists or want to save them, make sure you know how to track them down again, or they can get lost to the ages.

Besides playlists, you have the advantage of using Apple Music with the dulcet tones of everyone’s favorite digital vixen, Siri. Just telling her to play more songs like the one you are hearing or instructing her to track down particular songs from your youth is easy. She can leverage the app far better than a person can, so you’ll often find yourself telling your phone or tablet what you need rather than trying to pinch and poke your way to getting it.

Apple Music interfaces with iTunes Radio, so all your favorite radio stations are still there, plus some new additions like NPR.

The options are nice, but the streaming quality is only 256Kbps at the most, which is less than the 320Kbps Spotify uses. You probably won’t notice an appreciable dip in quality, but it’s there.

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Conclusion: The Ends Justify the Means

Overall, there’s a lot to love about Apple Music. The human curation element is gorgeous and works like a dream. Having a knowledgeable person on the other end of the pipe pumping out suggestions just for you feels and works so much better than getting whatever bands some algorithm can spit out. Beats 1 and the other radio stations all follow the same basic pattern already established. They won’t rock you back on your heels, but won’t leave you craving more either.

The social element is a cute idea, but the lack of ability to publish playlists leaves the whole thing cold. As consumers, we have a dozen ways to try to interact with our favorite band online. Another one feels like overkill, but maybe there’s more blood in that stone.

The interface isn’t nearly as clean as Spotify and requires that you spend time and energy learning when all you want to do is listen. If you’ve never used a music streaming service before, you might not notice how cumbersome the usage is, but everyone else certainly will. Odds are good that they’ll clean this up first, so expect improvement down the line.

Once you get the hang of navigating it, you’ll stick around for the huge library and the unrivaled music discovery service. If those are what you crave and you don’t mind taking time to learn the ropes, there’s tons to enjoy here. If you want something simple right out of the box, Apple Music will frustrate you.

Purchase: $9.99/month