Hands-on with Beats Music

Hands-on with Beats Music

An early look at a new Xbox Music competitor

Beats Music launched today, but only on iOS unexpectedly, and not on Android or Windows/Windows Phone (yet). Since I'm interested to see how this new Xbox Music competitor stacks up, I signed up for the Beats Music trial on my iPhone 5S and checked it out. And while there are some rough edges, this indeed looks like a serious new contender in an already-crowded market.

To be clear, Beats Music doesn't exactly have Xbox Music in its sights. In fact, it's not clear to me that anyone uses this amazing service but me. But in looking at Beats Music today, it's pretty clear that Spotify is both the inspiration and the key competition for this new service. They have a lot in common, including a busy user interface and hard-to-find features.

Why even consider Beats Music?

Before getting into that, I think there are a few things that set Beats Music apart from whatever competition you care to name. (You can find a more complete list in my previous post, Beats Music Preview.) First, a special deal with AT&T enables a family to share a $15/month plan with 5 people and up to 10 devices, something that is sorely lacking elsewhere. And second, like Xbox Music, Beats Music offers what I call the "full meal deal," a (fairly) complete selection of services and not just basic Internet radio station functionality.

That last bit, combined with coming cross-platform (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) compatibility, is why I'm looking at this service. Honestly, I don't think it stacks up against Xbox Music for my own needs. But I do understand that I'm not necessarily representative of the broader audience of music lovers.

Cloud-based music services on the go

One more side-trip before getting to the Beats Music app: When you consider the changes that cloud computing has caused generally, and the usage pattern changes it has triggered with music services more specifically, it's worth calling out a related change. That is, in the past, we would load up our PCs with music (and potentially podcasts, audiobooks and other content) and then sync that content to devices. In the new model, the PC middleman is taken out of the equation, and that sync occurs directly between the cloud and the device.

OK, fine. But a side-effect of that change is that it's no longer necessary or desirable, for many, to even have music (or related content) on the PC since the playback can/will always occur through a smaller device. And perhaps not surprisingly, what we're seeing with these more modern music cloud services—Xbox Music, Spotify and now Beats Music—is that the mobile apps that serve them only target smart phone handsets (and sometimes but not usually mini-tablets), and not full-sized tablets. So there's an Xbox Music app for iPhone/iPod touch and Android phones. But not one for full-sized Android tablets or iPads.

And so it is with Beats Music, at least so far. There's an "iOS" app, but it's really an iPhone app. You can install it on an iPad mini or full-sized iPad if you want, but it's not an iPad app. It's an iPhone app upsized to fit (poorly) on the iPad screen.

Some will complain about this, just as some continue to complain about cloud-based music services and how they would prefer to sync from PC to device, thank you very much. But I think this is absolutely the right approach.

Beats Music for iPhone

But enough preamble. What's the app like?

As hinted at earlier, it's a lot like Spotify, from both visual—it's a cluttered mess in places—and functional standpoints. Part of the problem is iOS, which forces app makers to roll their own navigation, since the platform doesn't have a hardware Back button or provide/enforce system-level UI like Android and Windows Phone do, so I'm curious to see how those versions differ, if at all. (Oftentimes, app writers will generalize their apps to the least-sophisticated system, hence many are simply based on iOS and eschew native controls and navigational elements elsewhere.)

The initial view, Just For You and shown above, provides some content that is ostensibly aimed at your specific tastes, and it appears to be populated based on some interesting choices you make during the setup wizard, though I assume it evolves over time as you listen more and mark your likes and dislikes. But you can swipe between a few other major views, including The Sentence, Highlights, and Find It.

The Sentence isn't just a quirky name for a cool feature, it's a quirky feature too. Here, you use a series of criteria to construct a Mad Lib-like sentence ("I'm _____ @ feel like _____ with _____ to _____") that creates a custom-tailored playlist.

Highlights provides access to one of the features Beats Music touts as a key benefit: Here you will find albums, artists and playlists that were curated—"handpicked"—by "the best experts in music." So we find Beats Music co-founder Dr. Dre offering up a hip-hop playlist, which is particularly amusing because I told the setup wizard I disliked that kind of music. Perhaps some combination of handpicked and algorithms are in order. (Or perhaps I can just suck it up.)

The Find It view lets you navigate into genres, activities (curated playlists), and curators, which is to say new music from those music experts. There's no search here—that's in a side-panel navigation menu UI instead—but here again we see some fun quirkiness, such as activities with names like "being blue," "breaking up," "chilling out," "hitting the slopes," and many more. Indeed, the sheer amount of content here is actually pretty amazing.

You can reach that navigational menu I mentioned earlier by tapping a menu button (three horizontal bars, something that has curious emerged as an ad hoc UI standard of sorts). Here, you can search and access your account, playlists, and music library.

And that brings up, I think, the single biggest difference between this service and Xbox Music: Beats Music very much emphasizes its own content—dynamic playlists, basically—over whatever music you consider to be "yours." Your stuff is shunted off to this hidden side menu.

That's not what I want, but based on how my wife and friends use services like Pandora semi-exclusively, I suspect it's just fine for many people. And to be fair, Beats Music does at least offer both sides of the music subscription service: Yes, you can just utilize curated Internet radio stations, but you can also create your own playlists, add albums to a collection (called library here), and download this music for offline use.

In Xbox Music, these two halves of the equation are pretty much equals, but in skewing towards the radio functionality—indeed, touting it as a major benefit—Beats Music is perhaps hitting the right balance for today's audiences. And the setup wizard is kind of cool, where you tell the app which genres and artists you prefer in a new way.

The UI, of course, is a mess. There are lots of little triangles that you have to sort of hunt and peck to figure out where stuff is, but there's only so much you can do when you're combining this much functionality with the confined on-screen real estate of the tiny iPhone screen. I don't see any way to obviously clear Now Playing, and many icons aren't obvious. But again, there's a lot going on here.

Windows Phone user? Your wait is almost over

If you are a Windows Phone user—and, seriously, God bless you and all that—I'm told that the Beats Music app will be released on your favorite mobile platform on Friday. So stay tuned.

Final thoughts

Overall, I like what I'm seeing here, and while I'm not switching from Xbox Music anytime soon, it's something I'd consider given my use of AT&T and the fact that each member of my family uses a variety of different services (Xbox Music with Xbox Music Pass, Pandora, Spotify) at the moment. We've got some subscriptions to run out before I need to think about that, but I'll be keeping my eye on Beats Music and will absolutely trial the Android and Windows Phone versions of the app when they appear.

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