Microsoft’s long-anticipated reboot of its music downloading and streaming service, Xbox Music, hit the Xbox 360 on Tuesday. The Spotify and iTunes-inspired service is also set to be the default music app on Windows 8 computers, tablets, and smartphones.
Xbox Music replaces the old Zune music service, which was tied to Microsoft’s failed lineup of Zune portable music players. We’ve covered its early rumblings in some detail before, but now we have detailed first impressions of the service on the Xbox 360 — and some informed speculation as to what to expect from the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 versions coming October 26.
Hands-on with Xbox Music on the Xbox 360
The music app was included in an automatic, mandatory system update for the Xbox 360 that went live Tuesday, so you don’t have to download an additional app. For the first couple days, the service was hosed and we had trouble getting it to process our subscription. Once the bandwidth dust apparently settled, though, it took three presses of the Xbox 360′s A button to get set up.
Within moments, you know you’re essentially using Spotify. The skin is totally different (it fits the aesthetic and philosophy of the Xbox dashboard and Windows 8 home screen interfaces) but the features are almost exactly the same. You can search a library of artists, albums, and songs from most of the notable labels, pin them (just like you can star them on Spotify), add them to custom playlists, sort through curated lists, and turn them into algorithmically generated radio stations.
The aforementioned interface is absolutely gorgeous — far prettier than anything offered by any competitor, particularly on the TV where designers are struggling to come up with smoothly functional interfaces. You can navigate with both the Xbox controller and the Kinect. We them to be equally effective, but ended up in a rhythm of using the controller to move through menus and speaking to the Kinect’s mic instead of using the onscreen keyboard when providing specific text inputs.
Missing are Spotify’s numerous social features and Facebook integration, and the newly launched app ecosystem through which Spotify hosts special radio or branded applications from third-party developers. It’s a safe bet that the latter of those will come to at least the Windows version of Xbox Music at some point, though, given Microsoft’s philosophy and culture.
The smart DJ radio feature lets you create radio stations from artists, but it doesn’t offer the same flexibility that Pandora does in defining what parameters your station is built on. That said, neither does Spotify, and like Spotify, Xbox Music’s Smart DJ wisely lets you see the songs that are queued up and skip ahead to any of the ones in the developing sequence.
Particularly welcome is the Smart VJ feature, which is the closest thing to old-school MTV and VH1 (you know, back when they actually had music videos) you’ll find in the 21st century. Our only criticism is that many (but not all) of the videos appear either to be in standard definition or to suffer from heavy compression. This is understandable for older videos that may not be available in HD, but for newer ones, the low quality is a big disappointment.
Still, we’ll take what we can get. Between the Vevo app and Xbox Music, the Xbox 360 is a must for music video enthusiasts. You can also optionally purchase music videos for 160 Microsoft points, which amounts to about $2. The Xbox uses the old, somewhat hated Microsoft points system for some content like this, but those points will probably not be found on the Windows 8 platform.
There’s one more cool feature we should note, though it’s hard to say how often you’d really use it: You can use the Xbox’s home screen Bing search to search for music without doing anything special — you can just say “Xbox Bing Wallflowers” or type it in with the (admittedly unwieldy) onscreen keyboard and a whole bunch of albums by The Wallflowers will almost instantly roll out on the screen. It’s stuff like this that makes it clear that Sony should be embarrassed about the state of the wonky, barebones operating system running on the PlayStation 3 and powering its music, video, and game downloads services.
Microsoft is offering a 30-day trial of Xbox Music on Xbox 360 for full streaming access, and you can download song sand music videos. The monthly fee after that 30-day trial is $9.99. We didn’t see any ads, unless you count the featured artists section which may have all kinds of politics and dealmaking behind it.
What to expect in the Windows 8 version
Windows 8 launches for tablets and PCs very soon — October 26 — and Xbox Music will come preloaded on all Windows 8 devices. Ditto for Windows Phone 8 smartphones, which will arrive in the same window. On PCs, Windows 8 will come with a free version of the streaming service for up to six months (though it may have ads) and you’ll be able to optionally pat the $9.99 per month fee to access it withour ads and on your Xbox 360 and mobile devices. This exactly mimics Spotify’s pricing plan.
The features will otherwise be pretty much the same, though you’ll be able to run Xbox Music in the background in Windows (you can’t on the Xbox 360). There’s no doubt that this service is a better offering than Microsoft’s Zune or Media Player options that were bundled with previous platforms. It’s a big leap forward for a company that’s working very hard to reinvent itself, and taking all the inspiration it can from Xbox — arguably its sexiest brand.
More surprisingly, Microsoft has beaten Apple to the punch, bundling a streaming service with its new hardware and software. Presently, Apple only offers the download service iTunes. We’re betting that the mass market will become ever more infatuated with these a la carte streaming options over the next couple years. This puts Microsoft in a position of advantage over competitors like Sony and Apple in terms of its offerings to young consumers. We never thought we’d see the day.