Last December I wrote an opinion piece about Microsoft’s (and Google’s) place in the iOS ecosystem. In the article, I stated that Microsoft had finally learned that restricting their popular services for the Windows Phone 8 operating system doesn’t necessarily translate to more sales of hardware devices running said OS. This transition of philosophy was evidenced by the release of Microsoft’s popular services like SkyDrive, Xbox SmartGlass and OneNote on iOS.
Since then, Microsoft has even released Office, though the app is restricted to those subscribing to Office 365. Another popular service that finally made its debut on the iPhone just a few weeks prior is Xbox Music. I won’t deny that I was anxiously waiting to see that Microsoft had in store, as I’ve long admired their music service. Join me after the jump as I determine whether or not my wait was in vain.
Xbox Music Pass Required
In order to access Xbox Music, you first need an Xbox Music Pass by way of trial or purchase. Priced the same as competing services like Rdio, Spotify and Google Play Music, Xbox Music Pass costs $9.99 a month (or $99.99 per year) for mobile access, and has to be purchased from the Xbox Music site. It’s no surprise that Microsoft didn’t include a subscribe option in-app, as they’d have to give 30% to Apple, but they could have easily copied Rdio’s approach by offering a more expensive option ($14.99 a month) for those that preferred to be billed by Apple.
Playlists & Collections
Minus the settings, Xbox Music is entirely comprised of two views: Playlists and Collection. The Playlists view is rather straightforward, with all your playlists sorted alphabetically. Adding a new playlist is achieved by tapping the + icon in the upper-right and entering a name, which can be a bit annoying to do considering the app doesn’t autocorrect misspellings (when creating my “Songs With Hooks” playlists I kept typing “D” instead of the initial “S”). Songs can’t be added while in the Playlists view, which can instead be done while searching for tunes, browsing in the Collection view or from the Now Playing list.
The Collection view is split across four sections: artists, albums, songs and genres. This layout will definitely be more familiar for those coming from using the iOS Music app, whereas competing apps like Rdio and Spotify have a more limited arrangement of viewing and sorting music in a collection.
While browsing artists, albums or playlists, you’ll find a More Options icon in the upper-right. When tapped, you’re presented with an actions sheet that includes various options, which alter depending on which view you’re in or if you already have the album in your collection. In general though, this action sheet allows you to add music to your Now Playing list, add music to a playlist and explore the artist (i.e. view the artist’s page). While nothing fancy, this action sheet brings a lot of value to Xbox Music’s navigation scheme, and provides visibility to available options.
When you initiate playback of a song or album by tapping a desired selection, the music player (referred to as Now Playing) will display along the bottom. Swiping up on or tapping the bar opens Now Playing, which features a UI design that’s nearly identical to Rdio’s: album art is displayed at the top and the tracks are listed below. Basic controls are available along the bottom, and a second More Options icon that opens an action sheet with options to clear your Now Playing list, repeat tracks or add a track to a playlist.
For reasons I can’t begin comprehend, the ability to scrub playback is missing in Xbox Music, even by means of tapping and holding the skip forward/back controls. It seems rather odd that such a pedestrian feature would be missing when the app includes a very unique and cool feature in relation to shuffling. When you tap the shuffle icon, the songs in your Now Playing list will reorganize so that you’ll see the playback order; tapping the shuffle icon again will return the list to its original order.
Lacking Social & Explore Features
If I had to describe my first impression of Xbox Music, underwhelmed would be the front runner. Rdio has been my go-to music streaming service for over two years, and with its beautiful design and multitude of features, I find Rdio’s iOS app to be nothing short of awesomeness. In comparison, Xbox Music is lacking in several ways; none more apparent than the absence of social or explore features.
To be fair, Xbox Music as a service doesn’t really utilize social features in general. Personally, I love being able to follow my friends and other users; allowing me to see what they’re listening to and check out their playlists. Explore related features, on the other hand, are very much present when you access Xbox Music via the web, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox 360. Features like recommendations, listening history, top artists, new releases and featured playlists are readily available on other platforms, and it’s disheartening to see them missing in iOS — even if they aren’t quite on par with similar features in Rdio.
Xbox Branded, Not Modern UI
Xbox Music’s design is rather curious, as it doesn’t come close to matching its Windows Phone 8 counterpart, and is only somewhat similar to the Windows 8 and Xbox 360 Xbox Music apps. Make no mistake, though, as the app features a very clean and minimal look, with a color palette that very much ties into the Xbox brand. Personally, I would have loved to see a design more in tune with the Modern UI, which is so perfectly captured in a third-party app called Track 8.
The Bottom Line
Xbox Music isn’t a bad app; it’s just not a very good one. While it serves its purpose of playing music, it’s a mediocre initial offering that will tempt few individuals that haven’t already subscribed to the Xbox Music Pass. Amongst the issues I addressed earlier, I was surprised by the number of additional faults and missing features I encountered. Though slated to be added in the coming months, the app lacks an offline mode. Syncing between platforms is by no means instant; requiring you to make use of a “Sync your collection” option in the settings (or killing the app) when you’ve added a new song album or playlists on another platform.
Audiophiles will be disappointed to learn that Xbox Music doesn’t offer the ability to set playback quality, meaning you’re stuck with a single, more streaming-friendly option. A feature that I fancy a great deal in Rdio is playback sync. When I initiate playback of a song, album or playlist on the web, I can continue playback via Rdio’s app. Xbox Music apps work independently of each other in this regard, thus lacking this useful feature.
When the General Manager of Xbox Music, Jerry Johnson, announced the release of Xbox Music for iOS (and Android) on Xbox Wire, he painted a picture in which music listeners have to make use of multiple services to get they music they want — Pandora for discovery, Spotify for listening to the song on demand, and iTunes or Amazon to make a purchase. He stated that Xbox Music was the answer to these complications, as it allows users to stream music for free, and subscribe to and even download music to own. While a great vision, it’s nowhere to be found in what he and his team developed in Xbox Music for the iPhone.