Apple Music is here. Finally. Now that the company steered the streaming service to a successful launch, it now has to prove to the world that it's actually something worth paying for — after all, there are like 80 other streaming-music services (maybe not, but it feels like it) fighting for the subscription revenue in our wallets. Apple's master plan: Make Apple Music a one-stop shop by kitting out it with gobs of features. We'll follow up with a longer write-up once we've had more than a few hours to play with it, but for now, let's take a quick peek at what Apple came up with.
Once everything is installed and you fire up Music for the first time, you're asked to make a choice: Do you want to go with the three-month free trial, or just jump straight into your music? If you choose yes, then you'll automatically start paying $9.99/month as soon as the three-month trial winds down (until you turn off the auto-renewal, anyway). Thing is, the company manages your Apple Music subscription the same way it does recurring iTunes subscriptions -- that is, it's nestled away in your Apple account settings, and easy to miss unless you know exactly where to look.
After that, Apple tries to figure out your musical tastes the same way Beats did: by making you choose your preferred genres and artists from a stream of cutesy bubbles. So far, so good: I've locked my predilections for jazz, EDM and Third Eye Blind. Bring on the recommendations! Those all live in a section of the app called "For You," and it's almost surprising how densely they're packed. Apple Music will quietly chew on your musical preferences and offers up albums and playlists you might like in a very busy grid. For the most part, everything's pretty perfectly intelligible, though; I'm just not used to Apple trying to do so much at once. Naturally, your recommendations will change over time, and not all of them will be up your alley -- I had to kill a list of Madonna ballads by long-pressing the tile and asking Music to "recommend less like this." (A brief aside: I bet you Apple swaps that long press for Force Touch in the next iPhone.)
The next section over is "New," where -- you guessed it -- all the new/top tracks and albums live. You can drill down by different genres if today is more a blues day than an indie one, and the whole thing would be nice and straightforward... if Apple didn't decide to stick its genre and activity-centered playlists in there too. Considering how proud Apple is of its human curators and tastemakers, I'm a little shocked these playlists live ignominiously under a bunch of new song charts and not in their own separate section.
I've always thought there was something a little magical about radio, about little voices talking and singing and floating out of a box, and Apple seems to have done a fine job recreating that experience with Beats 1. As I write this, DJ Zane Lowe and the rest of the crew are only two hours into their first broadcast day, which was largely problem-free despite streaming to users in 100 countries. I say "largely" because there were a good four or five minutes that I just could not connect to the station out of our New York office (perhaps because of all the new upgraders crushing Apple's servers). Lowe and company like to drop little snippets of Beats Audio branding into songs while they're playing, too. Ugh.
If your ideal radio experience has nothing to do with DJs chattering about how exciting and rad their jobs are, you can always scroll down past the Beats marquee to pick from some tried-and-true genre stations. Hell, you can even ask Siri to play the "Top 20 songs from 1988," if you feel oddly specific. I did just that, and to my infinite pleasure, George Michael's "Faith" was immediately piped through my headphones. Well done, you beautiful machine.
Then there's "Connect," a sort-of-social network for artists to interact with fans. Well, maybe "interact" is a strong word -- artists, or their handlers, post things and we get to comment on them. By default, you're set to follow the artists who already live in your music library, and in my case only four of them (Fall Out Boy and Flying Lotus, RHCP and Ke$ha) had anything up on Connect to mark the occasion. Connect remains the single biggest question mark about this whole thing -- I can see how some people would like to see occasional status updates from the musicians they love, but does it seem crucial to the rest of the Music experience? Is it necessary? Valuable? I'm really not sure. Right now, Connect isn't much more than a music-enabled Instagram for celebrities; hopefully that changes soon.
Finally, there's "My Music," where all the music you own and have saved live. It's still got the same super-flat look that debuted in iOS 7, but like the "For You" section, it feels a little constricted. Your three most recent additions now get a shout-out at the top of your library, for one, and the Now Playing controls section now lives in a slide-out tab at the bottom -- a full-screen look at the song is no longer the default. It's really no wonder thing seemed cramped; all of the bottom row tabs that used to be dedicated to Artist, Song and Playlist views have been given to Connect and Radio. If you're anything like me, your muscle memory is going to need some serious retraining. Still, searching for tracks from the entirety of Apple's music collection is quick and they sound pretty good even over cellular connections. Adding them to your own library is simple too, even though it means you're giving local space on your phone to accommodate them.
So, that's Apple Music in a (pretty lengthy) nutshell. The thing is, even after all that, I'm not sure if I would give up my existing Spotify setup for it. Apple Music is "good" in the sense that there's plenty (and I mean plenty) of music to stream and add to your local collection. That bar has been cleared with ease. And really, that's all Apple needs to do if it wants to redirect mainstream consumers away from services like Spotify and Rdio.
The rest of the stuff that's here to help Apple Music compete with other services works pretty well too. It's just that Music feels a little more disjointed and confusing than I'd expect from an Apple product; it's as if the folks in Cupertino decided they could trade a little polish in exchange for more features. That's the sort of design arithmetic that more or less makes sense on paper, but the reality is, well, less than elegant.