What’s Good – With 30 million songs, Apple Music matches Spotify for content out of the gate, plus you can bring in music you have gathered on iTunes for years. Siri is integrated into the app and is helpful, something Apple’s rivals cannot equal, while a fully realized radio station is a welcome addition, if a little gimmicky.
What’s bad – A music recommending system that is lazy and frustrating, despite the potential in Apple’s model. Cluttered and confusing interface. Overly complicated iCloud Library. Inconsistent.
Summary – As a first attempt Apple Music is a solid effort, but describing it as just fine is probably not what Apple wants. The company is so adept at entering a market and shaking it up with refreshing ideas that it has to be a disappointment when it fails to do just that. Not awful by any means, but not as good as Spotify… Cupertino has work to do.
Apple Music landed earlier this month, marking the entry of the world’s largest company in the music streaming industry. That is hardly good news for market leader Spotify, widely regarded to be the definitive streamer and an established trail blazer in this scene. Apple has the finances, resources, and know how to deliver a true rival to Spotify and probably eclipse it, but after running the rule over Apple Music I found that Cupertino is still not there yet.
Sure, Apple Music is a very solid first attempt and Spotify should be worried that things can get much better. However, the service is also painfully frustrating in some aspects, a little messy in others, and all over fails to match up to Spotify. Here’s why.
Note: I am aware there are numerous other music streaming services, but Spotify is considered the standard bearer and the one in which Apple Music will compete. With that in mind, most comparisons within this review will be against Spotify.
Cost and Setup
Apple Music is competitively priced at $9.99 per month in the United States, or alternatively there is a Family Pack that costs $14.99 per month for up to six users. It is worth noting that the six users of the Family Pack will need to have iCloud Family Sharing running.
It’s a reasonable price considering Apple Music debuts with 30 million songs and will be building on that number almost continuously.
Like Spotify, Apple Music comes with a free version that runs with ads, allowing you to listen to music you already own on iTunes, listen to the Beats 1 radio station, or other stations. While Beats 1 is a welcome and inventive new addition to streaming (more on that later), I do not think the free version of Apple Music matches up to Spotify. Sure, Spotify offers some sizeable restrictions to its free content too, but it feels a more robust package and still offers more; although neither allow offline listening for free.
I found the set up process to be a bit messy, which does not mean hard, there just seemed as though there were too many hoops to jump through. Firstly, you sign up with your existing Apple ID (or create one if you need), from which Apple will charge from your filed credit/debit card. Luckily you can cancel monthly payment whenever you want, and that is easy to do by just heading to “View Apple ID” and “Manage Subscriptions”.
So, I mentioned a messy setup? Well, Apple insists that you have either iOS 8.4 or iTunes 12.2 (or both) running on your mobile device or computer. Sure, many would have already updated to the newer software builds and there is certainly no reason not to, but I had not so had to wait the 30 minutes+ it took for my iPad Air to deal with the software bump. A personal annoyance maybe, but one I imagine will be shared and one that is not present on Spotify.
Interface and Navigation
A quick confession, I am a huge fan of Apple’s usual interface design (even though I rock an Android smartphone daily), the company makes its apps and services just so easy to use. Unfortunately Cupertino made a 180 turn when designing the layout for Apple Music, as it is muddled, confusing, and has a learning curve to it. I am sure some will scoff at that, the ones who instantly navigated around without a problem, but I imagine many will share my gripe.
Coming from the old iTunes Music app (which Apple Music replaces) is unlikely to make things easier because Music is set up differently and is geared towards what you may want to hear, not what you are listening to. For example, the basic layout comprises suggested music, live radio, and purchased tracks, all laid out in tabs along the bottom.
Apple Music is a well featured service, but it took me a while to get to grips with the basic layout and multiple days to start discovering some features, not because there are so many but because some are hidden away in menus I didn’t think to enter. The New Music tab is by far the most problematical though, not a good sign as it will be much used by most users. This tab is simply too cluttered with a sometimes overwhelming amount of information and too many submenus… those submenus include new music, charts, recently launched music, themed playlists, other third party playlists, and more.
In fact, Apple Music proves to be a maze of submenus, some of which result in relative dead ends if you get lost (which is not hard to do at first), while general organization seems to have been an afterthought. As I said, I expect a lot more from Apple and when using Apple Music I found myself wanting to go back to the simpler environment of Spotify. I will end here by saying that on larger screens (PC, iPad) it is not as bad, but the iPhone is too small for all the info Apple is throwing at you.
Having said all that, I cannot complain about the general look, once again Apple has nailed that mix of cool and premium and I hope future updates will make all the content a bit clearer.
Apple Music has arrived in a strong position here as it already boasts 30 million songs, which is the same as Spotify. As a debut this is pretty spectacular and given Apple’s clout I imagine the company will soon comfortably surpass its rival in song count. Indeed Cupertino is promising more new artists than Spotify, but the proof will be in the pudding on that front.
If you are a particular fan of iTunes, you may know that it has 43 million songs available, so where are the other 13 million for Apple Music? Well, that amount is for songs that the service will not stream, either because of region restrictions or because the artist does not agree to be part of Apple Music.
Apple has secured some high profile exclusives, most famously Taylor Swift. I will let you decide whether that is a good addition or not, but it shows Apple can pull some strings that Spotify cannot. There are some standout artists missing though, such as The Beatles and Prince, but then Spotify does not have them either.
Just like other music streamers, the deal is you can listen to any track as if you own it, downloading it for offline listening and able to stream it at any time. The one caveat is an obvious one, if you cancel Apple Music you can no longer stream or listen to any of the tracks you have on there, unless they were purchased through iTunes.
There will be gaps in your streaming collection with 13 million songs not accounted for, but Apple Music has you covered. The iCloud Music Library lets you upload tracks and albums from any artist, provided you have that music already on your PC.
This is a separate service to Apple Music and will cost $25 per year, a payment that will let you store your songs in the Cloud and listen to them whenever you want. The one upside here is that the iCloud Music Library is even compatible with CDs you ripped to iTunes, meaning you do not have to have purchased the song or album through Apple.
Many users are already finding plenty of issues with iCloud Music Library, with the app deleting songs on iPhones and iPads when it is launched through Settings. I tested with an iPhone 6 and iPad Air and found my songs alive and well on the iPhone but inexplicably missing on the iPad, and I know this has been the reverse scenario for some people.
Other times some files were missing and I had to embark on frustrating journeys to try and find them, almost always to no avail. For that reason I would say iCloud Music Library is the worst aspect of Apple Music, even if it is admittedly not actually a part of the service it is a feature included. You may use it and it works fine, or you may get issues like so many are experiencing.
I guess Apple will sort this out quickly, but it is plain annoying as it is.
Music streaming services always have tools for suggesting new music to you, and Apple Music is no different, although the results are a mixed bag. Spotify on the other hand gets this area just about right.
Spotify is not in your face, offering a Discovery menu within its Browse tab that suggests recommendations based on what you listen to, it is out of the way and silent unless you need it. This is in contrast to Apple Music and instead Spotify is more willing to let you decide when you discover new artists or songs. Interestingly and contrary to Apple’s boast that it will have more content from emerging artists, Spotify actually seems to be better at recommending new music from more unknowns artists, allowing you to find some real gems.
Apple’s recommendations are more obtrusive, the service uses Beats Music to constantly look at what you listen to before offering possible matches of similar content. Apple Music is working behind the scenes all the time and the “For You” tab is like a revolving door of artists and songs. This would be great, as would the use of real humans as well as algorithms, if Apple Music offered the gems it promises. Instead I was much more likely to just be offered a major artist rather than someone I may not have heard of, which is not the case with Spotify.
The one area where I feel Apple Music is head and shoulders above Spotify is with radio. Indeed, Spotify does not really have radio in the truest sense, so Apple has stolen a march here with something genuinely fresh in the music streaming industry. The company created its own 24/7 live radio station called Beats 1 and it is a real station that streams from London, New York, and Los Angeles and boasts some of the most famed disc jockeys in the world. Like any other radio station, Beats 1 mixes live music with chat and fun features and so far it is working exactly like it says on the tin.
Apple’s debut in the music streaming arena is an exercise in frustration. On the one hand Apple Music has bags of potential, is feature rich, and in Beats 1 has something very interesting up its sleeve. While it is a strong introduction, I found that the frustrations outweigh the good points at the moment, with the app a pain to use and the iCloud Service a mess. I think Apple will resolve all of these issues and become a really potent force in the music streaming world, maybe even offering the best service in time.
Right now though I am heading back to Spotify