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Windows 8 Feature Focus: Music (App Preview)

Some of the App Previews in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview offer fairly complete user experiences, closely mirroring how they will work once the OS ships publicly later this year. Music is not one of those apps.

In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, there are App Previews ... And then there are App Previews. And by that I mean, some are more incomplete than others. And in the incomplete category of App Previews, few are as lackluster and incomplete as are the new digital media apps. Music is a particularly horrible example.

If you're familiar with the late 2011 Xbox 360 Dashboard Update, you'll recognize the Music user experience immediately. It's an illogically arranged, full-screen, Metro-style disaster that is laid out horizontally with left-to-right scrolling. If you think this looks good at first glance, all you need to do is actually use it for a while: In use it reveals itself to be almost worthless.


First, the layout. If you consider how Microsoft has actually arranged the groups from left to right, you'll see the following: Spotlight, Collection, and then Music Marketplace. Which means that the first and third group are essentially advertisements for content you can purchase online whereas your own content is sandwiched in between. And in case it's not obvious why that's bad, consider this: The Collection group is off-screen on a standard 1366 x 768 Windows 8 display. So you have to scroll over to find your own music.


OK, fine. Microsoft is pushing commerce over usability. But the deeper you dive into this rickety waste of time, the more you realize that Microsoft is in fact pushing almost everything over usability. Dig into your own collection, for example, and you'll see a pleasant enough looking layout with square Metro-style tiles coincidentally conforming to the aspect ratio of the typical CD album design.


You can sort by artists or songs, too, and by genre, though that latter choice is under a weird widget menu (All) instead of along the top menu as it is in Zune. There's no ability to make playlists, or play them, from what I can see.

Select an album and you see the weird effect that plagues both Music and Video, the latter of which I'll examine soon. That is, instead of displaying a new screen for that album, any tiles to the right of the album tile animate to the right, opening up space for an in-place song list. It's slow, and terrible looking, and then of course the song list scrolls up-down (vertically) in its tiny little compartment. Ugh.


You can press a prominent Play button to play an entire album, but if you select a song (cue that "wa-waa-waaaaaah" sound again), it doesn't play. Instead, yet another in-place area expands with a new Play (and Add to Now Playing) button. Seriously?


Yes, seriously.

Playback somewhat resembles the Zune PC software or the Xbox 360 music playback experience, with a full-screen grid of album art that appears to be culled from some online source and not your own collection. Here, you get decent and touch friendly full-screen playback controls, but no shuffle or repeat options? Geesh.


The whole thing is just lackluster.

Return to the previous screen, however, and a new Now Playing bar appears at the bottom of the screen. This interface does provide shuffle and repeat (finally), as well as other playback controls. Hooray for consistency.


The Marketplace stuff is equally bad. When you consider that Microsoft has almost 20 million songs in its collection, providing an ideal layout for discovering music is paramount. But the Marketplace interface provides screen real estate-hogging tiles and just four main areas: Features, Genres, Albums, and Artists.


And if you dive into Genres, for example, you're shown the same lackluster UI for one genre (Rock by default), with a pop-up list for choosing other genres. This is no way to browse. So you're clearly going to have to search for music instead, which sort of obviates the ability to "discover" new music effectively.


There's a decent live tile effect, and an OK snap interface, but only for playback. It works with whatever content is stored in your Music library. And that's about it for pluses.

The Music app, snapped (on the right)

A list of what's missing from this app would almost be too long to contemplate, but I'll leave you with this general thought: I've written and spoken many times about the differences between the consumption interfaces of tablets (iPads, Windows 8/Metro) and the productivity interfaces of real computers (Windows 8 desktop), and never is this driven home more clearly than by the digital media apps in Windows 8. These apps, which include Music, and also Video and Photos, are not generally designed to acquire, edit, or manage your collections. They are meant almost solely to enjoy (or "consume") them.

So while Music does offer a way to buy music online from the one store no one wants to use, it doesn't include a way to rip songs from CD, or to edit songs, change album art, and the like. There's no Zune Pass compatibility, not yet at least, which should be troubling to anyone wondering if this support is coming. There's no way to make, edit, or even play playlists. There's no support for devices of any kind, not for Zune, Windows Phone, or Plays For Sure-based MP3 players. There's not a heck of lot working here at all. You cannot use it as your only Windows 8-based music experience.

This app is so broken, currently, that if you navigate into the Marketplace, you can't get back out to your Collection because the Back button is disabled. (And vice versa.) So you have to force quit it to do so.  I mean, seriously. I get the App Preview concept, but this one is almost a PowerPoint demo. It's just not there yet. So I'm not sure how good it will ever be. 

Fans of Zune know that Microsoft can do this kind of app right. And we have to sort of trust and hope they will do so here. In App Preview form, however, there's little evidence that this app will have a great future. It can only get better.

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