Apple has invariably been a game-changer and a moving target. It changed the way we listened to music when it created the iPod and iTunes, but it hasn’t been leading the field in recent years.
Apple Music may have come late to the streaming-service party, but it came with a fanfare. However, reaction was mixed, with some users finding the initial incarnation overly fussy and the navigation unnecessarily complex.
Apple was listening, because with the release of iOS 10 Apple Music has undergone a significant overhaul and has been stripped back so that it's now much simpler to use and easier on the eye.
What is it?
First, the basics. Apple Music combines your existing music library with its 30 million+ catalogue, the 24/7 Beats 1 Radio station, hundreds of expertly curated playlists, new and exclusive tracks, and music videos.
The monthly subscription is £9.99 (same as Spotify Premium and Tidal), while family members of up to six persons will get a £14.99 package deal. There’s no totally free version as there is with Spotify; if you decide not to renew after the three-month free trial, you only get access to Beats 1 Radio and Connect.
You’ll be missing out on the recommendations, unlimited listening, and offline playlists. Your own music, however, will remain intact and still be yours to play.
Apple Music is available to download on all Apple devices – it replaced the old Music app on smart devices, and integrates with iTunes on your Mac – and is also available on Android.
"Clarity and simplicity" is now the key, says Apple, not something you could have said of the original Apple Music interface.
The original version of Apple Music was divided into five main sections: For You, New, Radio, Connect and My Music. In iOS 10, this is where you will notice one of the first big changes: those five sections have now been changed to Library, For You, Browse, Radio and Search.
The much-trumpteted Connect, designed to allow artists to share music, videos and other social stuff with their fans, has been relegated to a tab within the For You section. More on that later.
You'll also notice that the New section has gone from the primary navigation, and it and Connect have been replaced by the more obvious (and frankly more useful) Browse and Search tabs. My Music now becomes simply Library. Radio, the home of Beats 1, remains the same.
In addition, there are prominent 'Downloaded' and 'Recently Added' sections and a new separate Search tab so you can more easily access your music. Lyrics are integrated into the app too, meaning you can sing along karaoke-style if you so choose.
Let’s start with what we found to be the most surprising and best feature of Apple Music: the For You section. It’s here that Apple recommends artists, albums, and playlists that are tailored specifically to your music tastes. And it’s spookily spot-on.
When you first register for Apple Music you are presented with a series of floating red circles highlighting different genres of music and you tap on them if you like that particular type of music (say pop), or you can press and hold the icon so it disappears if you don't. That way Apple Music gets an indication of your initial preferences. After that, you can update this information by tapping ‘Love' on any song you like (found in the sub-menu for each song and album), and Apple will update your preferences to generate creative and well crafted playlists.
There's now even a Dislike button for songs you don't like to further fine-tune the playlists generated for you.
We’re impressed with how interesting the playlists are – not just in the song selection, but in the way they’re grouped and presented. From top hits to little-known tracks of an artist, from influences on a certain band or a playlist focused on a songwriter or particular era, Apple’s curation is very intelligent.
It’s more sophisticated and accurate than on any other service we’ve come across. There’s a real sense here that the playlists are being curated by humans that have an understanding of music, not just by a cold-blooded algorithm.
The end result is that we’ve been endlessly clicking new playlists and listening to more music than before – and that’s quite an accomplishment.
Beats 1 Radio
One of Apple Music’s biggest talking points is Beats 1 radio – a 24/7 worldwide live radio station. It’s ‘youth-oriented’, the idea being to get people (especially young people) excited about listening to radio again. Is it working?
Well, they set the mood right from the start when the very first track played was by unsigned Manchester-based band Spring King. Well played, Apple. It was a nice surprise, and shows that they really are trying to do something different.
Throughout the day, regular shows by the three main DJs (Zane Lowe in LA, Ebro Darden in New York, and Julie Adenuga in London) offer a diverse and sometimes-idiosyncratic mix of music. It’s not all chart-toppers; it’s got something for nearly everyone, and is offering something that no other streaming service has.
We haven’t constantly been listening to Beats 1, and if you already have your favourite BBC radio shows that you listen to regularly, it won’t tempt you away.
But what it could well tempt you with is its guest DJ slots (such as Dr Dre, Pharrell Williams, Elton John, Corey Taylor and St Vincent) and – if Joshua Homme’s punk-tinged Alligator Hour (which we highly recommend) is anything to by – they’re poised to be very interesting indeed.
Apple boasts that it broadcasts to more than 100 countries every hour of the day, but it would be nice to see it offer more diversity in world music.
When it first launched, you only had a couple of chances to listen to each radio programme live (most shows were repeated twice, but then gone forever). Apple Music now lets you catch up with all radio shows in their entirety on demand, and even offers up playlists from each show.
You also get standard, genre-specific radio stations, and you can even start a station based on an artist or song (similar to Last.fm and Pandora). Simply tap the star icon to tell Apple whether or not you like the options it comes up with.
More after the break
Here's what we said when we first reviewed Apple Music: "There’s so much happening in the New section, it’s a little overwhelming. This is where you’ll find exclusives, top selections, new artists, selected videos, playlists galore, and anything else Apple wants to show you.
"It takes a lot of scrolling get to the sections you really want – a departure from Apple’s usually minimalist and selective approach. To Apple’s credit, it is offering a lot of choice, but its designers could have been more restrained in the way the information is displayed."
Clearly Apple's designers took note, as New Music is now a tab within the Browse section and is much easier to navigate, with clearly labelled sub-sections such as new albums, hot songs, new artists, new playlists, exclusive videos and the like. It’s worth diving into each section as there are hidden gems everywhere. Curated Playlists has playlists by genre, activities and moods, and from curators such as Pitchfork, NME, Sonos and more.
Videos are tucked into the Browse section as well. There’s a decent selection of popular music videos, and a few exclusives from artists as well as highlights from the recent Apple Music Festival. You can select the video quality in iTunes’ preferences (1080p, 720p and ‘standard’), and the pictures look clean, natural and punchy on an iPhone 5 screen.
You can keep the video playing in the background while you browse, too, which is a nice feature.
Library is where all your music lives. And by all, we mean ALL – the files you had stored on your smartphone, your CD-ripped WAVs, your own playlists, and any music that you’ve saved and downloaded while streaming or listening to radio in Apple Music.
Thanks to iCloud sharing you’ll also be able to see all the music stored on your iTunes – not just the ones on your smartphone.
You can sort your music according to artist, album, song and downloaded music (just like you could before in the old Music app), create new playlists, and make individual songs or whole playlists available to play offline.
Tap the '+' icon next to any song to add it to your library, while tapping the 'cloud' icon will download it on your phone. No icon means it's already saved and downloaded.
There's still no way of knowing the file size or type of your songs, for instance which ones in your library are your ripped WAV files (except from memory). We aren’t that fussed, as the whole point of Apple Music is to have your entire music collection easily accessible from one app.
Connect, Apple's sharing platform, has had a major downgrade in iOS 10. It's still there, but has been relegated to a sub-section in the For You section. Click on your Account icon in the top right corner, and select the 'find more artists and curators' link to connect with artists you want to follow.
Again, this is one of the aspects of the original version of Apple Music we were least enamoured of. Remember Ping? We had repressed it, too. Apple tried its hand at a social platform with Ping in iTunes, but it never took off. The idea was resurrected as Connect – a space for artists to share exclusive tracks, snippets of videos and more with their fans.
It’s like a mixture of Instagram and Tumblr, and is worth a cursory glance – although we find ourselves using this feature the least.
If you don't want a never-ending scroll of Connect artists clogging up your For You feed, simply unfollow every artist you want.
Apple music has clearly learnt a thing or two from Spotify and Tidal, who’s stark, clean and simple interfaces were a sharp contrast to Apple Music’s initially visual-heavy interface which looked a little busy.
In iOS 10, everything has been stripped back with a cleaner typography and graphics, and a much simpler layout. The revised version is easier to navigate, and after a few minutes’ of figuring out where everything is, it becomes a breeze to use.
Apple has cleverly hidden away plenty of options behind icons to keep the screen as neat as possible.
The rule of thumb for using Apple Music: click everything. Explore. You'll see three dots (ellipsis) everywhere, next to songs, artists, and playlists. Tap them to open options such as: play next, add to library, add to a playlist, share (to any social media), lyrics and download. You'll also see the red heart if you want to like something, or a heart with a slash through it if you want to dislike it.
Also present throughout the app is the Now Playing bar at the bottom, for instant play, pause and skip. The main now playing screen is a cleaner interface than before with bigger typography and album art displayed prominently, and if you scroll up you'll find lyrics and what songs are coming up next.
You can also use Siri to search for songs. Apple says you can ask it anything (“Play the number one song from 1988” for instance), and it works - although it’s a bit hit and miss at times. We’ll stick to browsing within the app itself, which is far more intuitive and fun.
Apple hasn’t disclosed what bitrate its songs are streaming at. We can confirm that the songs stored in Apple’s iCloud Library are 256kbps AAC (the same as iTunes downloads), but there’s no obvious way of telling how it differs over wi-fi or cellular.
Regardless, Apple Music’s streamed songs sound clean, snappy and detailed. Compared with similar tracks using Spotify (at 320kbps), we found Apple’s tracks to have greater subtlety and more space around instruments.
Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit has plenty of wallop and attack, there’s texture to the grungy guitars, and Kurt Cobain’s vocals are appropriately angry and mumbling. Dynamically, it’s fluid and exciting – and isn’t as squashed-sounding as on Spotify.
Notes stop and start with punch and alacrity, while subtle shifts from quiet to loud are admirably handled.
Switch to something more upbeat such as Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, and the perky pop tune is slick and snappy. Her voice is heard loud and clear, and is full of expression.
Overall, we enjoyed listening to Apple Music, and found it to be a more involving, spacious listen than Spotify. We’d urge you to invest in a decent pair of headphones to really get the best performance out of this streaming service.
Apple Music may have come late to the party, but it’s offering something a little bit different from its rivals: intelligent choices and recommendations and a live radio station.
We think the revamp under iOS 10 is a major improvement: we were never big fans of Connect anyway, and the New section in V.1 was overly complicated. Apple has kept the good bits of Apple Music, simplified the navigation and made it easier to use. In this instance, less is more.
Those that are fully committed to Spotify or Tidal may have a hard time converting, but we would urge you to take this streaming service out for a spin.
Apple Music may not change the way you listen to music, but it will make you listen to more music. And that can only be a good thing.
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