Listen To The (Xbox/Nokia) Music – A Windows Phone 8 Music Apps Review
“So evidently music was a killer app and is a killer app for computers and the Internet; it just took the tech industry a long time to hear that message.” – Thomas Dolby
Podcasts. Twitter. Music. Those are my top three activities on my mobile devices. Windows Phone 8 is coming into its own, and gaining traction. Thankfully third party developers have tackled our radio programs and our tweets. With music, it is the big names that came to the table. Microsoft and Nokia have the most popular music apps specific to the platform? Do we need both, is one enough, or are these not the apps we are looking for?
I listen to music in the car via bluetooth streaming, in the office via audio out, and throughout the day on my earphones. (I always have the Bose MIE2 earphones on me, in case you are curious.) Although I like access to my complete music collection on the go, I really only have about 1000 tracks I want to keep handy. Usually, I fire up some sort of “shuffle” or “mix” to hear my favorite tracks and to discover new ones. For some background… Pandora and Spotify were my go to apps on iOS and Android, with a little Rdio thrown in from time to time. Google Play Music All Access came to offer me all my music and radio based playlists and discovery. on Android. iTunes Radio now brings the same offerings as Google to iOS devices. I’ve tried them all.
The Experience – Xbox Music
Oh, Microsoft. They offer what sounds like a great experience. It even looks like an enjoyable one on their Windows 8/RT platform. The Xbox branding is familiar to the user base, and the UI is shared across your home, mobile and handheld devices with Xbox Music. The Xbox Music Pass is $9.99/month or $99.90/year. By signing up, you lose the ads and any streaming/skipping track limitations. You can also match your local collections with tracks found in the “cloud” library. (Note, in my experience Xbox Music Pass, does not offer the same selection as iTunes (although close), and is slightly smaller than Spotify’s offering but larger than Rdio’s. Wikipedia backs up my theory here… http://bit.ly/1645AC5) The pass, in theory allows you to add music you don’t own to your cloud colelction, and even download tracks/albums locally. So far so good.
On the Windows Phone 8 app, you can add tracks to a playlist one at a time. You can’t simply add music to your collection either, but must download the tracks first. Overall navigation is unintuitive. If you have things setup on your Windows 8/RT device, you might be in a better place than I. Although I cloud matched my favorite 1000 tracks to the service, and added some additional music, I can’t seem to do the same from my phone. This needs to be fixed in order to take the app and the service seriously.
For basic playback the app works. You can see Artists, Albums and Songs. In Songs, you can filter to see just locally stored tracks, tracks stored in the cloud, or both at the same time. Playlists are there too, but these are almost useless to me due to their limited management features. Genres round up the panels, and is the quickest way to get going. Once playing a track, you can see a brief list of upcoming tracks. Also, a menu provides quick access to a feature known as Smart DJ Mix. This can offer a blend of both tracks you have in your collection (either locally or in the cloud) and music that is new to you. Again, so far, so good.
The worst part is on your phone, you can’t just do everything in one place. To find new music, you need to back out of the Xbox Music apps and jump over to the Store. Yup, the same store where you find apps. Of course, they try to sell you music to download, even though you have the rights to listen to it, and download it all for free with your pass. Good luck figuring out how to add the music to your cloud collection. Oh and you can’t add the music you just found to an existing playlist, only a new playlist. If you pick the same name as an existing playlist, it’ll wipe out whatever was there previously.
Xbox Music, although a great service if you have everything setup on your PC, and want to just browse it from your Xbox and phones. It could be the best mobile music service. Microsoft needs to add complete playlist management, simplify navigation between “store” and player, and make it clear all the pass really gives users. I signed up for a year of the Xbox Music Pass, and basically regret doing so. Hopefully, the situation improves with GDR3 this fall and Windows Phone 8.1 in 2014.
The Experience – Nokia Music
The first time I used Nokia Music on Windows Phone 8, I was not blown away. It felt like a Pandora alternative with a few more options. However, I did sign up for the Nokia Music+ service, mainly for the free trial and $3.99/month cost. Since using the app more and more, and thanks to some recent updates… it has become my favorite music app on the platform, and a standout compared to other platforms. The subscriptions allows a user unlimited skips, unlimited saving of mixes offline, higher quality audio streaming, lyric support, and web based usages from any browser (via http://music.nokia.com). Nokia Music is all about mixes, brought to you by artists, DJs, Nokia and others… including the user. They are more than just randomly selected tracks.
Starting up the app, you see a list of heading for My Music, Mix Radio, Create A Mix and Offline Mixes along with Favorites, Store, Gigs, Settings & Help. Scroll over for currently playing track and mix info. By hitting Recently Played, you can see a long list of the music played recently. This is very handy for finding out what you were listening to, and for quick access to your favorite mixes. Mix Radio presents dozens of custom mixes created by Nokia and their partners. Your carrier may even have special mixes just for you, like AT&T is my case. These mixes are all very solid, and I find myself enjoying the variety of music I know and love, and music I don’t know and fall in love with.
Mixes are what makes Nokia Music shine, and their are tons of options. Your favorite mixes can be pinned to the start screen. You can create an artist mix by typing in 1 to 3 artist names. The mixes work well, especially when you go crazy and pick artists with seemingly nothing in common. Recently, I discovered the Personalize mix options. If you have music locally stored on your device, Nokia Music will scan the library and create a ton of mixes based on your collection. Even cooler, there is a note to download a companion app for PC or Mac. This app installed on my Mac, scanned my music folder and made the personalization even better. I seem to be Rock and Pop heavy as you will see in the screenshots, although I do have a nice Comedy selection as well. Any and all mixes can be downloaded for offline playback.
The app doesn’t stop there, and has beautiful live tiles for both the app itself and the mixes you pin. Lyrics are available for most tracks, and follow along with the song. You can access your Xbox Music right from inside Nokia Music. It’ll add your personalized artists as favorites, and allow you access to recent tweets and upcoming gigs. You can also discover new artists to add as favorites. The app can even provide live tile updates so you don’t miss a live show coming to your area. There is a link to a music store, and it feels more fluid than Microsoft’s approach. The app has seen regular updates since I joined the platform this summer.
As you can probably tell, I love Nokia Music+. Give Nokia your money, and enjoy the service on your Windows Phone 8 Lumia devices, on Windows 8/RT, and on any desktop OS via a web browser. Their web client can go full screen and provides a beautiful experience. Basically, Nokia Music+ gives you a great experience that rivals Xbox Music Pass. However, it is artist and mix based. Many might prefer the Xbox Music Pass for it’s on demand track and album access. I would too, if it offered better one device navigation and playlist management. Many people will use Xbox Music and Nokia Music and pay neither Microsoft or Nokia any money. They will have a great free experience. But for me, the $3.99/month I pay Nokia brings me hours of enjoyment from their professional well crafted customized mixes.
Both apps are free and come bundled with all Nokia Lumia phones. The subscription plans are optional.