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Apple Music hands-on: Tons of content, Beats 1 is awesome, sharing lacking

Apple Music is officially live. It launched with iOS 8.4 on Tuesday and, with it, Apple’s new 24/7 Beats 1 radio station. Beats 1 officially hit the airwaves at 9 a.m. Pacific when Zane Lowe’s voice started piping through our speakers.

We’ve been using Apple Music since the launch, and we’re here with a few impressions of the service. It’s too early to say whether or not this is worth switching over from Spotify for, but thankfully everyone gets 3 months free to check it out.

Let’s dive in.

Setup

The setup is really simple and quick. First you’ll select whether or not you want a free 3-month trial (you do). Then you’ll choose either a single plan for $9.99 a month or a Family plan, which offers support for up to six people for just $14.99. That’s a steal.

Next, you’ll select the genres of music that you like, followed by artists within those genres that you also like. It’s a way for Apple Music to cater music to your tastes.

After that, you’ll fill in some brief account details, like your username that’s used for commenting on the @Connect section of Apple Music, then you’ll dive right into the application.

I subscribe to iTunes Match, so that automatically pulled in all of my music that used to exist in the old “Music” application that was otherwise stored up in the cloud. It was a seamless experience. If you don’t use iTunes Match, you’ll need to enable iCloud Music Library first, which is a small extra step. Apple has specific steps for folks migrating from Beats Music, too.

Setup, in general, was painless as expected. Let’s explore how Apple Music works and looks.

UI

The user interface is broken into five main tabs: For You, New, Radio, Connect and My Music.

The first tab is all of the recommendations that Apple thinks you’ll like, and it’s catered based on the genres and artists you chose during setup. It should change as Apple Music starts to learn your listening habits.

The “New” tab shows the latest album releases, hot tracks, top song and the like; it’s pretty standard. The Radio tab provides access to Beats 1 radio, as well as radio stations for “recently played” music and a variety of featured stations like “Pure Pop,” “Sound System, “The Mixtape” and more. There’s also NPR news radio and ESPN radio, and a large selection of stations based on genres. Unlike Beats 1 radio, these don’t feature live DJs.

The “Connect” tab is Apple Music’s attempt at social media, allowing you to view content such as pictures, songs, music videos and other multimedia from artists you “follow.” There isn’t a whole lot of content from the artists I like right now, but I suspect it’s going to fill out in the future. Finally, the “My Music” tab provides access to all of the songs already on your phone, songs you’ve matched if you have iTunes Match and any music you’ve added through Apple Music, including songs stored for offline playback.

There’s a ton to dig through in all of these tabs, however. That much can be a bit overbearing compared to something like Spotify, at least so far. Under the “New” tab, for example, there’s a seemingly endless amount of content from Apple Music editors, choices for music based on the activity you’re performing, curated playlists recommended Music Videos, Summertime Playlists and more. All of this seems like it should be broken up into different areas, or into a discover tab similar to what Spotify offers. It’s really overwhelming at first, and I haven’t even tapped all of the content there in the few hours I’ve been toying with Apple Music.

In some regards, that’s a good thing; there’s plenty of “stuff” to dig through, plenty to explore, tons of content to add for offline playback and more. It also feels a bit messy, like Apple just tossed “everything else” into “New” as some sort of hold-it-all bucket of music, videos, playlists and more.

The general look of the app, however, is pleasing on the eyes. I like that the colors of a certain album carry over throughout the entire page of the album; the yellow cover of Less Than Jake’s Borders & Boundaries meant the entire page was a splash of yellow, which I dug. It also means the UI seems to be ever changing depending on who or what you’re listening to.

Finally, I dig that I can access a lot of my music right from my Apple Watch now. I think, at least at first, there’s going to be a minority of Apple Music listeners who also own an Apple Watch, so I won’t dive too deep here, but considering Spotify doesn’t have an app yet, it’s pretty awesome to access my library (not the entire service) and control my music from a wearable.

Wondering what you can do inside all of those sections? Let’s discuss the selection.

Selection

As I touched on in the previous section, there’s a lot of content to dig through. Apple Music includes “tens of millions of songs” and, generally, the selection feels like what I’m used to with Spotify and Google Play Music, two services that I also subscribe to.

It hasn’t been hard to find artists that I want to listen to, and a search for Less Than Jake’s aforementioned Borders & Boundaries quickly returned the album. Apple Music also includes exclusives like Taylor Swift’s album 1989, which I’m not ashamed to admit I already purchased, so it’s not really a bonus for me. Later, though, Apple Music will become home to other exclusives. At least that’s what the company is promising.

Spotify is working on adding video content, but there’s already a bunch of music videos inside of Apple Music, which makes it a compelling alternative to Google Play Music, which provides quick access to YouTube music videos from your favorite songs and artists. Just tap a video and it starts playing right inside the application. I do wish, however, that there was a dedicated section for videos instead of a small area existing inside the “New” tab.

I’m still exploring the playlists and, again, it seems like there’s plenty of them buried all over the place, inside sections like “Curators,” “Activities,” “Apple Music Editors” and genres. That’s not to mention the entirely different home for radio stations that also provide streaming playlists.

I prefer Spotify’s methodology right now, which shows recommended stations and genre stations in one area, and mood-based playlists in another. It’s less convoluted and requires less digging but, in some regards, takes a bit of the fun out of exploring.

Overall, I think most folks are going to find what they’re looking for in Apple Music, so long as they’re willing to take the time to look.

Beats 1

Beats 1 radio is a subsection of the “Radio” tab which itself is a subsection of Apple Music. It’s Apple’s 24/7 live streaming music station that features live DJs, live music, interviews and more. It’s also free and doesn’t require the $9.99 or $14.99 monthly plans to access.

Beats 1 radio also launched on Tuesday, when Zane Lowe kicked things off with the very first song “City” from the band Spring King. It’s a really fun spin on radio and feels a bit like what you’d expect from satellite radio, though with just a single station. As songs play, you can choose to favorite them or add them to your library, allowing you to store them for offline playback at a later time if they’re available (one song from Beck was not.)

Lowe played a pretty solid selection during the first half-hour or so that I listened, though I admit I was a bit annoyed by some of the talk that came over each song. “Beats 1 radio coming at you worldwide!” I guess that’s what live radio is all about, though. Within Beats 1 music, you’ll see a live schedule of the DJs and interviews coming up each day, so you can always check back later on if you don’t like a particular DJ or interview.

It’s far too early for me to make a decision of Beats 1 radio. It’s the station’s very first day and I can say I’m compelled enough to continue listening to see how it carries on. It’s free, though, so I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of early complaints from most folks.

Sharing

This is one aspect of Apple Music that — so far as I can tell — needs improvement. While you choose a username when you set up the application, it’s only for commenting on “Connect” content shared by the artists you follow. You can’t share to other Apple Music listeners (if you can, I couldn’t find the option.) Instead, you’re limited to sharing to iMessages, email or third-party apps.

That’s one feature I treasure in Spotify. I love being able to share songs to a friend’s inbox, who can then play the album. I also like the ability to create and share playlists, or subscribe to playlists created by my friends or listeners who have chosen to make their own playlists public.

Apple can have experts curate playlists all it wants, but there’s something more fun subscribing to a playlist of hits from college that a buddy made, and so far that’s not an option. Forget the exclusives in Apple Music, the Apple Watch support, the cheaper family plan; I value sharing with friends much more than all of those features. I admit it’s too early for me to place my allegiance in one or the other, but right now I’m leaning toward Spotify for this reason alone.

Ongoing thoughts

I usually like to name this section “final thoughts” but these are far from final. I’ve only been using Apple Music for a couple of hours, and I plan to continue using it for the next few weeks and months, at least in tandem with Spotify until my free trial ends.

I’m looking forward to discovering music and finding out if Apple Music’s seemingly cluttered “New” tab is actually a great place to find new artists, songs, videos and more. Or, if over time, it remains just as confusing and intimidating as it looks at the onset.

I’m also looking forward to listening to Beats 1 radio, which I think is a really unique and fun option. Are the interviews going to seem canned or legitimate? What sorts of exclusive songs are going to hit there before any other station? We’ll find out.

The good news for all is that Apple Music is free for 3 months, so we can all tinker with it on PC or Mac (using iTunes 12.2 when that hits sometime soon), or from our iOS devices (an Android app is coming this fall).

Keep this in mind, though: your impressions are going to vary depending on how you want to listen to music. If you like exploring and digging for new stuff, you might like what you see. If not, you might find it a bit daunting at first. Or, like me, you mind find yourself somewhere in the middle.

Check out our gallery below for a closer look.


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Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...


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