Hands on with Beats Music: So what's the big deal?

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Source: Beats Music

So Beats Music launched yesterday. It's a confusing service to get started with, particularly if you're accessing it from the web, and since you only get a 1 week free trial I thought I'd share my experiences with it in an attempt to help you save some of that precious time.

In order to sign up for Beats Music and take advantage of the 7 day free trial, you have to download an app to your iOS or Android device (Windows Phone should arrive on Friday) and login through that.

You can signup on the web, but to start the trial you need to use one of the apps. Even if you wanted to skip the free trial it doesn't seem to be possible to start a subscription from the web. If you don't own a mobile device, may as well stop reading now.

The first time you start the app you're asked to do some quick customization. A bunch of 'bubbles' containing music genres will appear and you're asked to long-press on genres you hate (you'll get a 3-2-1 countdown as you hold your finger on them, then they'll vanish), single tap the ones you like and double tap the ones you love.

On the next screen you get a selection of artists and you're asked to tap 3 you like and long-press on any you don't. Once you leave this screen there's no way to go back to it or re-do them later, so be careful and don't overlook the "More artists" option in the bottom corner of the screen.

After you've completed this "onloading" process, the app launches and you're offered a selection of playlists and albums under the heading "Just For You."

My top playlist was "Classic rock for non-classic rock fans" and it included songs from The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, The Who, Pink Floyd, (so far so good), Fleetwood Mac and Heart (wait, what?). Well I guess "Classic rock" is a broad term.

If you don't want to go with one of the pre-served options you can move on to "The Sentence." This is where Beats is supposed to generate a playlist for you, customized to what you're doing right now. My default sentence was "I'm AT HOME & feel like DREAMING with ROBOTS to HARDCORE HIP-HOP." The words I've capitalized could be swapped out, Mad Libs style.

My first irritation with "The Sentence" was its level of ridiculousness. My second was the fact that it was defaulting to hip-hop when I'd specified hip-hop as a genre I hate. Time to change up my sentence. Home was OK (I was in my home office, that counts right?) but I was working, not dreaming. Tapping on Dreaming gave me choices like "Taking a selfie" and "Playing with fire" as well as choices that you might pick like "Kicking back" and "Celebrating." After hitting "More options" and skipping things like "Making bad choices" I finally got "Working" as an option so I picked that. There were no Robots in my home office with me but I found "Myself" (as well as "Zombies," "My Inner Goddess" and "My Boo") on the first page of options there. Changing Hardcore Hip-Hop was last, and at least here I wasn't bewildered: "Dance," "Oldies", "Vintage Soul & Funk," "Jazz Vocals"; these options made sense. I picked "Sounds of the 70s". (Hey give me a break, I'm old.)

So now I had "I'm AT HOME & feel like WORKING by MYSELF to SOUNDS OF THE 70s." I hit play and... the app crashed (this was on a 2013 Nexus 7). When I started it up again The Sentence had scrambled and I had to rebuild it. The second time was a charm and it started playing "I've Got A Story" by Gary Wright, "Question" by The Moody Blues, "How Do You Think It Feels" by Lou Reed and "I Wish I Was Your Mother" by Mott The Hoople.

How these tunes relate to my sentence (aside from time period), I have no idea. I went back and swapped "AT HOME" with "AT MY COMPUTER" and hit play and this time I got "Walking Slow" by Jackson Brown, "Another Saturday Night" by Cat Stevens, "Love Is A Rose" by Linda Ronstadt and "Don't Look Back" by Boston. Can you see the pattern? Because I sure can't.

If all this is a little too gimmicky for you, you can just scroll another pane or two over, dive in Genres, find one you like and then pick from a bunch of playlists there. Faster and you'll have a better idea of what you're going to get.

There's also a "Highlights" pane that lets you "Delight your ears with albums, artists and playlists handpicked by the best experts in music." When I checked it out they were featuring "Behind the Boards: Dr. Dre" (a playlist), Talking Heads' Remain in Light (an album), "Lorde's Influences" (playlist) and some other stuff.

All this time I was listening to music on my tablet and what I really wanted was to play music on my computer. You can do that once you've subscribed via mobile (remember, there is no free tier) but your options are a lot more limited. You have the "Just For You" and "Highlights" sections, but no The Sentence and no Genre browse. There is a Search function though, and if you look up an artist you get a pretty robust page listing the latest releases, top songs, albums, essentials and playlists featuring that artist. You'll also get a listing of similar artists and a bio.

Hopefully the web interface will improve over time. I couldn't find a way to create a playlist from the web (though you can add songs to existing playlists created on mobile), and I missed being able to browse genres (you can search for them, though). You can't access The Sentence from the web but I'm not convinced that's any great loss, even though it was being promoted as one of the big hooks for Beats Music ahead of launch.

Streaming from the web for most tracks is at 320 kbps (MP3) but Beats says a "small minority" of tracks are only 256 kbps. On your mobile device you can choose between HE-AAC 64 kbps and 320 kbps MP3.

And that's where I'm going to leave it, for now. I've only had one evening with the service; not really enough time to ascertain how extensive the library is, nor have I made any social connections to see what, if anything, social brings to the table. Oh, one thing of note; I've yet to find a "radio" feature, so if you're someone who wants to put on music and have it play indefinitely while you focus on writing or coding, you might want to look elsewhere.

After the first 7 days, Beats Music is $9.99/month (or $119.88/year) for an individual plan (there is a $14.99 Family Plan that seems to be limited to AT&T customers). I'm disappointed that Beats is only giving you a week to test the service; that seems a bit stingy to me. Hopefully they'll get that feedback from other users and bump it up to 14 days at least (AT&T mobile users get 30 days free, and 90 if you sign up for the family plan).

So will I switch? I'm not seeing a big reason to, yet. I'll try it out for the next week and see if I start getting better recommendations in "Just For You" or if some other aspect of the service reveals itself to me as being a reason to switch. My biggest problem with the service is that I almost never listen to music on a mobile device. In the car I listen to SiriusXM, in the living room I listen to music through the home theater and in the office I listen through the computer. For now at last, Beats is aimed squarely at mobile users, leaving me completely outside the target audience, so it's not likely I'll be making the switch.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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