Microsoft recently confirmed that it would be updating many of the built-in apps in Windows 8 between the release to manufacturing (RTM) of the OS and its general availability on October 26. Here’s a peek at the changes the firm just made to its Xbox Music app.
I wrote about this app updating confirmation in Windows 8: Updates Coming to Built-In Apps after having been speaking about (on podcasts) and writing (here and in Windows 8 Secrets) for months about Microsoft’s plans to do just this.
Here’s what’s new in the Xbox Music app.
Improved content layout
When you first run the latest version of the Xbox Music app (1.0 build 927), it’s immediately apparent that a lot has changed since the RTM version (1.1 build 134): The new versions features a nicely refined layout with new tiles for your own content—Play an artist, New Smart DJ, and Play a playlist—as well as graphical tweaks all around (e.g. the new Play all music icon), and refined new content sections for the store, which are now labeled as All Music (rather than Xbox Music Store) and Top Music (rather than Most Popular).
The app bar is an even bigger improvement. There’s a new Playback options menu button that hides infrequently used commands like Shuffle and Repeat, and new buttons related to playlists (see below) and buying music online.
Xbox Music Pass support
Microsoft notes that Xbox Music now explicitly supports Xbox Music Pass, the new version of the Zune Music Pass. I don’t see any major differences here, aside from functionality like SmartDJ (see below) which is new to this release. But as far as downloading and streaming music from the Xbox Music Store, it works as before, with a Play top songs button on an artist view, for example.
Cloud playlist support
Playlists you create on the Xbox 360 (with the new Dashboard update) are now accessible from Xbox Music on Windows 8, and vice versa. As an example, I created a playlist called My Playlist (boring, I know) on the Xbox 360. This playlist is available on Windows 8 through Xbox Music automatically, and I can play it from the PC, download the contents of the playlist locally, rename it, or edit it in other ways.
The reverse is also true: Playlists created in this app will become available on the Xbox 360 (and any other Xbox Music-connected devices) as well.
Likewise, Xbox Music now supports SmartDJ, Microsoft’s dynamic playlist solution, which creates a radio station-like experience by finding music that’s similar to that of an artist you like.
SmartDJ works like playlists in that they’re cloud-powered. So I’ve created a playlist called Collective Soul radio on the Xbox 360. And it shows up in Xbox Music on Windows 8, where I can play and edit it as expected. (Well, sort of. SmartDJ playlists you created elsewhere show up under … Playlists.)
Improved Now Playing experience
If you enjoy the Now Playing experience in the Zune PC software or on the Xbox 360, you’ll like the one in Windows 8 even more. It comes in two modes, the first of which provides rich artist information and access to the currently playing artist’s other music in the store.
But you can also access a more traditional full-screen Now Playing experience. This, too, offers more info and options than the versions in Zune or the Xbox 360 though.
Cloud music match service
Update: Though Microsoft had previously said that its cloud music matching service would go live at a later date, a number of readers have noticed that this service is in fact working now. And sure enough, you can see the status of matched music in the app, which is available on the device, via the cloud, and for streaming to other devices. Thanks to everyone who wrote in about this one, and since it’s still sort of confusing, I’ll likely be writing up more about this functionality in the future.
Update: Thanks to Ryan Lowdermilk, who pointed out a number of additions to the Xbox Music Preferences interface, which now lets you determine whether to automatically download Xbox Music Pass items, keep this PC in sync with Xbox Music playlists and SmartDJ playlists, and more.
Is there more?
Overall, this looks like a killer update, and while there’s a lot here, I’m sure I’ve missed something. If you see any new features in the new Xbox Music app, please let me know and I’ll update this article.