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Windows 8 Tip: Music App 101

I’ve received a lot of questions about the Xbox Music app in Windows 8, especially around some of the more advanced functionality that users currently expect from solutions like Windows Media Player, Zune, or iTunes. And while this app, like other Metro apps, can only improve over time, it’s important to remember that for now at least it offers only very basic functionality.

In this way, the Music app follows the logical separation between Metro apps—which are largely for consumption—and desktop applications, which can provide more advanced user interfaces and functionality and be used for content creation, productivity, and other purposes.

This actually makes sense. If you imagine a dual-use Windows 8 tablet, where you’re out in the world using just the slate form factor, the Metro interfaces will make more sense because they’re touch based and consumption oriented. It’s logical to expect to listen to music with this app, but it’s probably not surprising that you can’t (yet?) perform more advanced tasks like edit song meta data or album art. Meanwhile, when you return to your desktop and attach the tablet to a docking station, physical keyboard and mouse, and external display, you can use any of the many desktop applications that perform these functions if you need more.

So what does the Music app actually do?

This app is designed to provide a nice music playback experience, period. It works better if you have a Zune Music Pass, of course, since that will let you stream or download Microsoft’s millions-strong online music collection through the device. But you can also load up your PC with your own music—which you’ve ripped from CD, purchased from online stores such as iTunes, Zune, or Amazon MP3, or otherwise acquired—and play that as well. (And Music Pass subscribers know they can mix and match between the two.)

The Music app landing page hints at this dichotomy. In the center is the Now Playing group, which by default acts like the Spotlight group in other Metro apps and highlights new music. To the right, you see the Xbox Music Store and Most Popular groups, two simple front-ends to Microsoft’s new Xbox Music Store, which is replacing the Zune Music Marketplace.


Scroll to the left, however, and you’ll find a group called My Music. On a new install of Windows 8, this will be empty, so Microsoft provides a few links for finding your own music.


If you have your own music, the Music app works with the same sources as does Windows Media Player or the Zune PC software: Anything you place in your Music library (My Music and Public Music, by default) will appear in My Music in the Music app. To see this in action, I’ve copied two albums from Yann Tiersen and two by David Lanz. When I do, that music appears immediately in My Music in the Music app.


Tip: You can cause the Music app to launch into the My Music view instead of the normal landing page. To do so, navigate to Settings (WINKEY + I), Preferences, and then toggle the Startup view option to On.

But the Music app also works with Music Pass. So I can navigate through the Xbox Music Store and find more music from my favorite artists. I can simply play that music in real time—which will stream it from Microsoft’s servers—or I can download it to the PC so I can access it offline at any time. As an example of mixing and matching music from different sources, I’ve downloaded an album by Yann Tiersen and one from David Lanz, using Xbox Music Pass.

To view your entire collection, tap the My Music group heading from the landing page. From this view, you can see all of your music, sorted by albums, artists, songs, or playlists. Here, you can see albums from Music Pass (e.g. “Best of David Lanz”) mixed with those from my local collection (e.g. “Bridge of Dreams”).


There are no huge surprises here, assuming you remember that the functionality here is almost exclusively consumption related. (You can, however, make “dumb” playlists, but not Smart Playlists, as in Zune. Someday.) By accessing the app’s app bar, you can view (but not edit) song properties, access artist information (in the store), control playback, and more.


The Now Playing screen can be made to look a lot like that in the Zune PC software or on the Xbox 360—i.e. a nice full screen experience—but by default, it provides a split view with biography, discography, and other information that scrolls off to the right. It also provides a button to view the Now Playing list


Nice pop-ups provide information about artists and albums, and provide links for playing the music, adding the music to the Now Playlist list, exploring more about the artist in the store, and playing on the Xbox. (When available; this only works with Music Pass content. In the future, you will be able to use Play To to stream any music to the 360 as well.)


As noted earlier, you can access the Music Store through the Xbox Music Store and Most Popular groups from the app’s landing page. The main Store view has featured, new releases, and popular filters, and you can view by individual genres.  


But this is a pretty inefficient method for accessing what will eventually be 17 million+ songs. A better way is to use Windows 8 Search. You can access this with the Search charm in the Charms bar or by typing WINKEY + Q. You can search for songs, albums, or artists,


And that is most of what’s possible today with the Xbox Music app. If you need to sync a device of any kind, edit meta data or album art, create a smart playlist, or perform other advanced tasks, you’ll need a desktop application. Ditto for podcasts, though the SlapDash Podcasts app on Windows 8 is decent. And there’s some functionality from the Xbox music playback experience I’d like to see in the Music app, including the ability to pin music (artists, albums, or songs) that you wish to later stream through Music Pass. Maybe someday.


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