Apple’s new music streaming service—really an update to Beats Music that is integrated with iTunes—launched this week to great fanfare. If you’re familiar with successful streaming music services like Spotify, Apple Music will seem very familiar. But the service is a curious mix of the conservative and the quirky, and should be a compelling choice for those who rely on Apple for their digital media needs.
As you may know, I’m traveling in Ireland this week, and while I’m mostly on vacation, I’m also working from time to time. I was able to upgrade my laptop to Windows 10 build 10159 last night, thanks to a better-than-expected Internet connection at the Bed & Breakfast here in Kinsale. And I updated my iPad and iPhone 6 Plus to the latest iOS update, and Apple Music with it, the day before in Dingle. This has helped me keep up better with some of this week’s more interesting developments.
With regards to Apple Music, I suspect the service will be a surprise only to those people—and there are of course many millions of them—who fell for Steve Jobs’s baloney about people want to own music. I’ve been using subscription music services for years—Pandora, Spotify and Zune Music Pass/Xbox Music Pass among them—and find the ability to listen to any music from a catalog that is tens of millions of tracks deep to be quite compelling. And I suspect many music lovers will as well.
The question, of course, is how Apple Music stacks up. And whether it’s worth it’s worth paying for. Here are some early thoughts and impressions.
You (pretty much) have to pay for it. Unlike Spotify, Apple Music does not offer a free, ad-based version of the full service. But you can trial Apple Music free for 90 days, which is quite liberal, and if you’re at all curious, I recommend you do so. (That said, be sure to turn off the auto-renew option in iTunes on PC or the Music app in iOS lest you be charged for a subscription you may not want to continue past the free trial.) Also, the Beats 1 radio station (see below) and the former iTunes Radio stations are free, but the latter still includes advertising and playback limitations around skipping songs you don’t like.
Apple Music is right-priced for an individual, but a tremendous deal for a family. Like many other streaming music services, a personal subscription to Apple Music costs $9.99 per month and there is no way to pay for a year up front and save money. You can only play music on one device at a time. But a family subscription is quite the deal, though there is likewise no way to save money by paying for a year up front. For $14.99 per month, up to six people can stream music simultaneously, though you need to enable Family Sharing, which also allows family members to share app and e-book purchases through the iTunes Store.
You will need to upgrade. If you’re using an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, you will need to upgrade to iOS 8.4 to get the new version of the Music app, which enables Apple Music compatibility. On Windows, you will need to upgrade iTunes to version 12.2 or higher.
It works with popular device and PC platforms. Obviously, Apple Music supports Apple’s own devices—iOS devices running iOS 8.4, plus paired Apple Watches and Macs with iTunes. It will even support Android (via a new Music app) starting this fall. And while Windows users are all set thanks to iTunes, Windows Phone users are of course out of luck, and I can’t imagine Apple will ever support that platform.
Catalog. Apple doesn’t provide an exact size for its music catalog, and competing services usually claim 20-30 million tracks. But based on my experience with iTunes, I’d be surprised if Apple didn’t have the best and biggest catalog.
Streaming. Apple Music lets you stream virtually anything from the iTunes music library plus the service’s own radio stations and playlists. If you’re online, just select the item you wish to hear and press play.
Collection. As with other services, Apple Music lets you maintain a hybrid music collection that in this case can include music you’ve purchased from iTunes, your own ripped or otherwise obtained music that you’ve “matched” to the iTunes collection using iTunes Match ($25 per year and still separate from Apple Music) and music you’ve added to your cloud collection. This works as it does on services like Xbox Music Pass: just tap and hold on a song, album, playlist or other music and then choose “Add to My Music” from the pop-up menu that appears. (This collection can include music videos as well.)
Radio features. Apple Music is brimming with radio stations and radio-like features. There’s Apple’s new uber radio stations, Beats 1, which broadcasts live from around the world. There are the former iTunes Radio stations, which provide mood and genre-based playback (Pure Pop, The Mixtape, All-City, and so on). There are personalized playlists based on your likes and favorite groups. And you can select a song, album or artist and create an instant playlist based on that item. That’s some serious variety, and with real human curation on a lot of that, the ability to find high quality music you’ll actually like.
Offline. Like other paid music subscriptions, Apple Music lets you download any content to a device so you can play it offline. This includes songs, albums, artists (though it’s not clear to me yet if this option is literally every song by that artist) and even music videos, and also radio stations/playlists.
Connect. One of the more overlooked aspects of Apple Music is its ability to connect you with your favorite artists and, conversely, to connect artists with their fans. You do so via the Connect area of Apple Music, which lets you follow artists, so you can find more of their music, discover music videos, and, if they’ve joined the service, read and comment on social networking posts. Musicians can even post additional songs, and will allegedly respond to comments.
It’s still early days, and I’m not really able to spend as much time with the service as I’d like while traveling—go figure, but my wife’s parents aren’t super-interested in my musical choices—but it’s pretty clear that Apple is providing a credible alternative to existing services like Spotify and Xbox Music with Xbox Music Pass. I’ll keep playing around with it—ahem—throughout the free trial period and see how it goes.