Ed. – This article is part of our roundup featuring all of the mobile cloud music services currently available in the US. Click here for more.
Sony first moved their Music Unlimited service to mobile back on April 14 of this year when they released the PSP version of their software. In a surprise move, they released an version of their software for Android devices two months later, and added a match service for users to sync their home libraries with their Qriocity library. Sony is known for Windows dependency and high quality hardware, but how will this app stack up?
Music Unlimited boasts 7 million tracks, streamed at a shockingly low 48kbps. Sony has added a match service, in which songs on users’ computers can be matched to their Qriocity library, but the application is Windows-only. The catalog is limited, with the holes in some artists’ discographies ranging from embarrassing (yes on Dr. Dre’s “2001,” but no on “The Chronic”) to cluttered. Some of the omissions are extremely odd, as indie rock band The National has releases from several labels on Music Unlimited, including 2005′s “Alligator” (Beggars Banquet). Yet their 2007 release, “Boxer” (also on Beggars) is missing. Prolific reggae star Dennis Brown has more compilations on Music Unlimited than his actual albums, and there’s no way to separate the two.
The Shuffle Test
Ed.- we took 10 songs shuffled from our iTunes library and checked how many each service had.
7/10 – Roxy Music – 2HB (Y), Big Star – Life Is White (Y), Sufjan Stevens – Jacksonville (N), The National – Slow Show (N), Daft Punk – Da Funk (Y), Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter (Y), Big Punisher – Dream Shatterer (Y), John Legend – It Don’t Have to Change (Y), Desaparecidos – The Happiest Place on Earth (N), The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (Y)
The PSP version of the Music Unlimited app was extremely slow. We understand the hardware is old (it turned 6 this past March), so it’s possible Sony chose to develop the hardware for the Xperia Play, leaving the PSP choking on the bits. Even setting up the PSP to work with our Qriocity account became a long and arduous process. The app required us to plug the device into a Windows PC (good thing we had an old one of those lying around) via USB in order to “activate” the account. For customers who only use Macs, their experience stops here. The Android app was a little faster on a beefy HTC device (which didn’t require a tether to a PC to activate), but it still sputtered on occasion.
On any platform, the Music Unlimited app is bogged down with a slow boot process. The PSP’s seems unnecessarily overwhelmed with high-resolution rain graphics and introductory music, but even on our beefy HTC Thunderbolt it took nearly 20 seconds to load on a 4G connection. Wi-Fi is faster, but the PSP lags regardless (it is Wi-Fi only). The Android app is more visually streamlined, with less 3D motion graphics and a cleaner, two page interface. Because of the old hardware, it’s the version that should have been released on the PSP.
The “Now Playing” screen acts as the control deck for any music player, and Sony’s is pretty decent. The Android app cleverly hides scrub & loop controls as well as track information; it can be brought up and dismissed by tapping the album art. You can’t delete music from your library while using the mobile app, but as there are no limits to your library size, it’s mostly an organizational oversight.
The search function does a good job of organizing results; first by artist then album. But when you select an album, it immediately starts playing–an annoying quirk for those who like to browse before they change what they’re currently playing. When adding songs to your library, you’re prompted to add either the song or the entire album. But there is no indication of whether the album is explicit or if it is edited. This can be problematic for those with kids (or who abhor edited music).
While navigating the search results on the Android device, it doesn’t remember your position when moving between menu levels (no such problem on the PSP). Curiously, some artists come up in search results (with the requisite album art), but have no songs available in the catalog. We’re not sure who Sony is saving those tracks for, but it certainly wasn’t us. Search also has some limitations grouping artists’ releases, and aliases can cause problems. Hip-hop impresario Sean Combs, for example, has no albums listed under Puff Daddy (but a bunch of singles), two more tracks as P. Diddy and finally multiple album releases as “Diddy.” His track with The Notorious B.I.G., “Victory” is nowhere to be found. Seminal New York MC Nas is listed as both NAS (2 releases) and Nas (29 releases). Either app would have been well served by better grouping of artist search results
The wait time for an initial track to load could be as long as 15 seconds while on a 4G connection (we’d expect even longer with 3G). On a strong Wi-Fi connection, expect much shorter wait times (4-5 seconds). Once connected, the stream was pretty reliable, and we liked how the scrub bar showed us the buffer progress (Android app only). Alas, it only caches one song ahead of the one you’re playing; skip forward too many tracks and you’ll be stuck waiting for the buffer to load.
Recommendations (Finding New Music)
Sony’s “SensMe” playlists are front and center on both apps. With names like “Energetic,” “Emotional” and even “Morning,” they’re intended to induce or align with moods. The “Now Playing” background color and design change to match the channel. We found it to be mostly uninspired (apparently “Free Bird” covers are “Extreme”).
On the Android app, an “X” reminiscent of a shuffle-icon shows album covers for related music; three separate cover flows showed the currently playing artist’s discography, other music by that artist and “More Like This.” The feature had potential, but fell short in execution; while playing Wiz Khalifa’s “Rooftops (ft. Curren$y),” the first two offerings were Mos Def and his group Black Star. Excellent suggestions, for sure, but ones that didn’t have much in common with Wiz.
Basic $3.99, Premium $9.99 (create & edit playlists, access to premium channels)
Sony gets close to creating something useful, but fails miserably in a few key spots. First, they added a matching service, something only Rdio can currently claim (at least until iTunes Match debuts). But the lack of offline playback is disconcerting, as it’s something every other service has by now. The playback bitrate of 48kbps is also atrocious, and is most noticeable when plugging the PSP into external speakers. The SensMe playlists were a joke and an absolute waste of time. But in the most important category, library size, it seems to hold its own. It scored well on our shuffle test, and 7 million tracks is about middle of the road for this market.
But ultimately, the experience is lacking. The user interface on the PSP is all style and no substance, and while the Android app is more streamlined, they both lack a fun or easy way to discover new music. If SensMe is Sony’s answer to Pandora, Last.fm or iTunes Genius, then they should go back to the drawing board.
If you’ve got a PSP, this could be a cool app, except for the fact that you’ll need a Wi-Fi connection to use it. Those with Android devices have way too many other options to consider shelling out money to Sony for this service.
Link: Music Unlimited
For more on our mobile cloud music feature, and to read reviews of the other services, click here.
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