clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Apple Music review

Apple's streaming service is buggy, complicated, yet still destined for success

When Apple releases a product, we’re usually guaranteed two things: simplicity and ubiquity. Apple has mastered the art of crafting hardware and software that everyone can easily understand. It’s a testament to Apple’s reductive habits — paring down its devices and services until your grandmother can quickly comprehend them — and it’s led to wildly successful products.

So now that Apple Music has finally made its way to the masses, we should expect more of the same, right? Well, not so much. Apple Music is messy, slow to load, complicated to setup, and missing some social features. Apple has created a music service that can be both overwhelming and sparse at the same time.

But despite its shortcomings, I have no doubt Apple Music will be a massive success. We’ve reached the inflection point in streaming music. Only 41 million people actually pay for streaming music worldwide, which creates an opportunity Apple is uniquely able to take advantage of. If you’re one of the 41 million who have been living with streaming music, there’s no killer feature that will compel you to switch to Apple Music. But if you’ve been out of the loop, or just waiting for Apple to make its play, Apple Music may end up being your sonic home. You don’t need to download any extra apps, it has all the music you could want, and you can get a free three month trial for the next 90 days. For users new to streaming music, Apple Music is good enough to get a lot of iPhone users to start paying for streaming music.

Apple Music is made up of five distinct segments: For You, which surfaces all the music that Apple thinks you will enjoy; New, where you can find all of the recent releases and popular music; Radio, which houses Apple Music’s flagship station Beats 1 among other channels; Connect, a platform where artists can share photos, videos, and behind the scenes clips; and My Music, the spot for all of your locally stored and saved music.

Apple Music is messy, slow to load, complicated to set up

Apple checks all the boxes on the "here’s how to make a streaming music service" checklist. Apple Music is $9.99 a month, or $14.99 for families with up to six users. The music catalog exceeds 30 million songs, matching that of Spotify. You can watch music videos just like you can on Tidal. But Apple Music’s biggest advantage is its For You section, and specifically the discovery engine, which is one of the best you will find in any music streaming service. It’s the first tab in the Music app, and where I’ve spent the majority of my time using the service. But to get the most out of that engine, you have to go through a cumbersome set-up process to fully explain to Apple what types of music and which artists you enjoy.

When you open Apple Music for the first time, it will ask you to pick your favorite genres of music and artists by tapping on some red bubbles (once if you like, twice if you love). Those bubbles have been brought over from Beats Music, which Apple acquired last year. What Apple Music doesn’t tell you is these decisions — along with your existing iTunes library — will shape the For You section and likely determine your experience with Apple Music. So don’t double tap on that U2 bubble that shows up thanks to the album you couldn’t get rid of because you just want to get through the menu, or you will be living with The Edge for a long time.

But once you’ve set it up (and once you start using the service regularly), For You comes to life in a way that no other music service has been able to accomplish. Constantly surfacing new playlists and albums — many of which have been put together by Apple’s teams of music experts instead of an algorithm — For You is Apple at its best. I would say I’ve clicked on about 80 percent of the playlists Apple has found for me, compared to around 25 percent of the playlists brought up by Spotify. (The ones I’ve skipped are mostly the "Intro to Every Artist I Already Like" playlists that Apple keeps dredging up. Does anyone need an intro to Kanye West?)

A number of the playlists seem to have been brought over from Beats Music, which is unsurprising given the fact that one of the few things Beats Music did exceptionally well was playlist curation. As you use Apple Music and click the hearts next to songs, albums, and playlists, Apple will continue to reshape For You to your liking. Playlist series like "Behind The Board," which focuses on the producers behind some of your favorite songs, and "Guest List," a collection of collaborations by some of your favorite artists, are just two of the standouts that you’ll find on the service. Apple Music has also included playlists from music magazines like Pitchfork, Dancing Astronaut, and The Fader in the New section.

Apple Music's discovery engine is the best of any streaming service

Where Apple Music comes up short is in the length of its playlists, which consistently range between 12-16 songs, or about an hour’s worth of music. Apparently Apple Music editors work so much that every recreational activity where music may be necessary must come in under an hour. If you’re one of the 75 million Spotify users who are used to playlists with over 50 songs that are routinely updated, Apple Music will be a bit of a shift.

It’s also impossible to search for playlists created by other users. Every search I’ve done has only brought up playlists created by Apple or its curation partners, which is a shame. Apple is betting entirely on its playlist curation team, and while they may be able to create some great playlists, user-created playlists are still incredibly valuable and should not be overlooked.

Apple Music is currently available on iOS, Mac, and PC, with an Android app arriving later this year. While it’s great that Apple will soon have its music service on every platform of consequence, so far the apps themselves are confusing and hard to navigate. Apple has a lot of work to do to make things easier to find and use — it’s a surprising misstep for a company that prides itself on simplicity.

Apple Music in iOS is a lesson in taking a design ethos and applying it to functionality. While "less is more" may be great aesthetically, when it comes to a functioning music service, it’s a shot in the foot. When a song is playing, it takes three nearly impossible-to-find taps to get to the artist or album from the now playing screen (three dot menu, tap on the song title, then tap on the tiny artist link at top). Virtually every other streaming service in existence just lets you tap the artist name from now playing.

You also can’t select the bitrate for music playback. Apple Music streams at 256kbps by default, but that automatically downgrades depending on your connection. Apple won’t say what the lower bitrates are, but tests conducted by users have shown it to go as low as 64kbps over cellular. And if you want to stream music over cellular, you have to enable Use Cellular Data in the Settings app, which may also turn on automatic app updates over cellular. You can’t choose to have automatic app updates only over Wi-Fi if you want to stream Apple Music over cellular.

Apple Music on the desktop is less than stellar

On the desktop, Apple decided against building a stand-alone app and instead shoved Apple Music into iTunes — it’s less than stellar. Nobody likes using iTunes. For the last 15 years iTunes has been a necessary evil if you wanted to have music locally stored in halfway decent fashion on your computer, and now that it’s integrated with Apple Music, there is no escaping iTunes.

Apple Music on the desktop is slow and heavy, and has more than a few times refused to stream music for me. If you want to put a song or album from Apple Music on repeat, you have to go on a scavenger hunt through the menu bar, and it may or may not work. iTunes feels like it was built for the last generation of apps. Spotify’s desktop app is nothing to write home about, but it feels much snappier and lighter than iTunes ever has.

Apple focused all its efforts on making browsing and discovering music an enjoyable experience in Apple Music — and it is — but it comes at the expense of a predictable and understandable UI. iTunes is a bloated monster, but at least it's a bloated monster we can understand. But on the iPhone, Apple Music often feels like a beautifully curated maze that you will never find your way out of. It looks great, but when it’s time to actually get somewhere that Apple hasn’t prompted you to go, it can be incredibly difficult.

The other two notable parts of Apple Music are Connect, the social network-esque feed in Apple Music, and Beats 1, the 24/7 worldwide radio station (as you will hear repeatedly if you ever turn it on) that is available on Apple Music Radio.

Connect gives me flashbacks to Myspace 2.0

Connect is supposed to be Apple’s answer to Spotify’s social sharing and Tidal’s exclusive content — a place where artists can share whatever they want, be it music, photos, or videos. But all I’ve seen are artists (I follow 42 of them) promoting upcoming concerts and appearances on Beats 1 and Apple Music editors promoting playlists. I get a strong Myspace 2.0 flashback every time I open it. (Remember when Justin Timberlake purchased Myspace and got his friends to use it for two weeks?) It’s supposed to make you feel like these artists are your friends, I suppose, but what I actually want from a social network is my actual friends — Spotify and even Rdio are way ahead here.

Beats 1 is the most surprising aspect of Apple Music, and largely why I’ll keep using Apple Music after the three-month trial ends. Beats 1 is live radio every day for 12 hours (followed by 12 hours of repeats for the other side of the world) that plays much better music than your average radio station. It features three flagship hosts — Zane Lowe, Julie Adenuga, and Ebro Darden — along with a cavalcade of rotating hosts, including St. Vincent, Dr. Dre, Elton John, Jaden Smith, Pharrell, and Disclosure.

I’m someone who still listens to the radio everyday while I drive. Beats 1 has all but ended my love affair with local radio. Now I just yell at Siri to play Beats 1, and it comes on. (You can yell at Siri to play just about anything with Apple Music, and it’ll happen, which is pretty great.) This is exactly what Apple excels at — creating experiences that need little interaction from you, and Beats 1 is the culmination of that. Though it hasn’t been without problems; last week Beats 1 kept rewinding itself during Ebro’s show, an interview played during a song, and it just refused to come on at all a few times. And if you let it play all day, you will undoubtedly hear Pharrell’s new single "Freedom" 4,000 times.

But what it does have — no commercials, the ability to play the same songs around the world, and three of the best DJs in the world playing an unpredictable playlist of music better anything you will find on your local radio — far surpasses any other radio station you’ll find on another streaming service. Best of all, you don’t need an Apple Music subscription to listen to Beats 1.

Despite its many issues, Apple Music will ultimately be a success

If you’re looking for the future of music and the music industry, streaming and Apple Music are it. Yes, it’s full of bugs and glitches and is user friendly to only the most passive of listeners, but it’s still good enough. There are plenty of people who have never used a streaming service and will just be happy being able to listen to whatever they want for a fixed price. Apple still has 800 million credit cards, the world’s most popular phone, and a Taylor Swift exclusive — if it doesn’t succeed it would be a huge disappointment.

The good thing for Apple is all of the issues with Apple Music are fixable. The bad thing is we have to live with a messy app until Apple decides to address the issues. Apple Music has made iTunes even more bloated, and it’s going to take a lot of work to build a cohesive product over mobile and desktop. Apple will probably address some of these issues at next year’s WWDC, after touting how many users the service gained, and all will be forgotten. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re stuck with a problematic streaming service for the next few months.

If you’re new to streaming music, there’s nothing that should preclude you from enjoying Apple Music. You can listen to whatever you want, and when it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. But if you’re already subscribed to another music streaming app, there’s not a strong reason to switch right now (unless you really, really, love 1989, and somehow haven’t already purchased it). Apple will once again push the music industry into the future, but that future needs a lot of refinement.


Tech

Tesla pulled its latest ‘Full Self Driving’ beta after testers complained about false crash warnings and other bugs

Apple

Estimated ship times for preorders of new MacBook Pro models now into late November, early December

Entertainment

Sounds like the Halo Needler is finally getting the Nerf blaster it deserves

View all stories in Tech