Mobile Cloud Music Showdown – Subscription Services, 4th Place: Zune Pass

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.


Perhaps responding to the plethora of streaming services crowding the marketplace, Microsoft recently added streaming to their Zune Pass service, an all-you-can-eat option for their Zune Marketplace. While its user interface regularly garners critical praise, neither the Zune or Windows Phone 7 has made much of a dent in their respective markets. Will Zune Pass fare any better?


Mobile Platform

Windows Phone 7

Library Size

The Zune Marketplace–where Zune Pass users find, stream and download their music–hosts 14 million 320kbps DRM-free tracks. But the kid-in-a-candy-store emotions normally associated with an unlimited service like Zune Pass are tempered somewhat by the Zune Marketplace’s constant state of flux. Not all of its 14 million tracks are available at all times, so it is not uncommon to find an album you’d love to hear but is currently available. The novelty of all-you-can-eat also dulls a bit when the subscription ends, but the classic records you want to keep forever can be purchased (and really, if you love it enough to play it over and over, don’t you think the artist has earned your cash?). For the frugal users, Microsoft added a feature called “Keep 10,” which gives Zune Pass subscribers credit to download 10 of the tracks in their library permanently. The songs are theirs to keep, even after their subscription expires.

The Shuffle Test

Ed.- we took 10 songs shuffled from our iTunes library and checked how many each service had.

9/10 – Roxy Music – 2HB (Y), Big Star – Life Is White (Y), Sufjan Stevens – Jacksonville (N*), The National – Slow Show (Y), 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 (Y), The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (Y)

*Zune Pass’ library of available tracks rotates regularly; this track was in the Marketplace but not currently available.

Software (Stability)

While we found the Zune software to be mostly stable and reliable, we did have a a few issues. Occasionally the player would have problems showing the proper album art for the currently playing track; instead it showed the artwork for the next song in the playlist. It was unfortunate for the Zune player (and our ears) that songs downloaded from the store didn’t blend well during playback. There was an audible break between tracks as we listened to Bon Iver’s self-titled record; it fell well short of gapless playback. We did try our best to choke the app’s resources by building a massive pending downloads queue, but it handled it with ease.

Software (User Interface)

The Zune Pass service has the significant advantage of being built into a beautiful and intuitive media player. The Zune marketplace is an extension of the Windows Phone 7 UI and is seamlessly woven into the player (where’s the iTunes store integration in iOS’s music app, Apple?). The player is aesthetically pleasing; every transition and animation is smooth and visually impressive. If you don’t know what you want, you swipe right to left for featured releases, top albums, artists and tracks. If you’re hunting for a particular release, you swipe left to right to browse by genre, or click the search button to scour the entire marketplace.

It was a bit off-putting getting used to the Windows Phone’s UI elements, which rely heavily on long button presses, bringing up contextual menus for more detailed options. But once we did, it was simple and intuitive. No other mobile application we tested was cleaner, prettier or more fun to use.

Playback

We found the player’s streaming speed to be quite average, taking about 5-6 seconds over a 3G connection, and a second or two faster with a strong Wi-Fi signal.

Recommendations (Finding New Music)

Options for finding new music were limited to the obvious and mainstream, highlighting high-profile releases like Pitbull and Beyonce. The Zune marketplace features one release on the home page each week, and a few more on the next page. Further right-to-left swipes reveal the Zune Marketplace’s top artists, albums and songs. There were no social media options, no featured playlists or any other suggestions for new music. We found the omissions to be quite disappointing. There is in fact a “Smart DJ” feature that builds playlists based on the song and artist selected, but like many other attempts to compete with Pandora’s genome-based radio, it falls well short.

Offline Playback

The Zune Marketplace lets you download select songs to your Zune/Windows Phone 7. Most (but not all) songs can be marked for download and played through the Zune Player. Syncing can be done with the Windows Phone 7 Connector on a Mac or the Zune software on a PC. Amazingly enough, the Mac application is offered through the Mac App Store (it’s the only Microsoft application in the store) and syncs music via iTunes.

We had no problems downloading multiple tracks and albums from the Zune Marketplace. Downloads were passable over 3G and extremely fast over Wi-Fi. We were impressed that unlike other services, we could easily load up the download queue with a hundred or more tracks and the software didn’t miss a beat or lag even one bit.

Price

Free 30-second previews in the Zune Marketplace with no Zune Pass. $15/mo for unlimited access on Xbox Live, PCs, Zunes and Windows Phone 7 (with 10 free “Keep 10″ tracks per month).

The Verdict

It’s ironic that Microsoft–maker of the ubiquitous but oft-plagued Windows operating systems–would develop a piece of software as beautiful and intuitive as the Zune Player but struggle getting users to adopt it. The Zune Pass service, much like its player, is a well-designed music catalog and streaming service, and is seamlessly integrated into Windows Phone 7’s interface. Using the software is a dream, an experience not easily quantified in print.

But for the strides it makes in design elements and user experience, the Zune Pass and Marketplace falls short of most of its competitors in features, specifically those to help users find new music. There is no social integration (puzzling considering how social media is woven into most parts of WP7) and no user-submitted or artist/editor-curated playlists. The service was also a bit expensive, but we did love that they let you choose 10 songs per month to save permanently in your collection.

Zune Pass could have easily been at #5, below Napster, but we placed it where we did because we constantly found ourself choosing to use it over other services, simply because the user experience was so enjoyable.

Link: Zune Pass

For more on our mobile cloud music feature, and to read reviews of the other services, click here.

Author: Matthew Ismael Ruiz

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  • Adam Lein

    “Microsoft recently added streaming to their Zune Pass service, an all-you-can-eat option for their Zune Marketplace.”

    What do you mean recently?  It’s been there since 2008.

    Regarding recommendations, did you miss the “Picks” section in the desktop software where you can play custom channels of music it thinks you might like?  There are cool Facebook/Twitter social media options in the web-based Zune.net, and another social aspect is the part that recommends “friends” based on your musical tastes. You can then send music recommendations to friends or just browse through what they like to listen to. Or are you only talking about what’s on the phone?  On the phone is a “Share” button that lets you send links to whatever you’re listening to.

    Did you also miss the playlists section?  There are lots of very cool playlists to stream or download.  You’ll see celebrity mixes as well and the album breakdown features are very cool.  I wish you could see these from the phone, but the playlists only show up in searches.

    What part of Smart DJ “falls short” for you?  One of the things that makes it superior to Pandora is how easy it is to download a song that you like when something new comes through the Zune Pass streaming.  “Smart DJ” can also be used in both online or offline modes which is not possible with Pandora.  Everyone I know has been extremely impressed with Smart DJ.

    Another thing that’s just plain awesome about Zune Pass on Windows Phone (Mango) is the integration with Bing Music Search.  With 2 taps, Bing will start listening to any music playing in the real world and then show me the album, artist, song (just like Shazam but sometimes a little faster). Then I press the Marketplace button and am downloading that song within seconds. 

  • Anonymous

    I would also like to add, Zune Pass is only $99 for a yearly subscription.

    And with regards to the music collection, there are many examples of music on Zune that you cant find on iTunes… for example Boards of Canada, Suuns, rare eps from other artists.

    and as Adam has already said, as far as finding new music is concerned, Zune is best. There is no contest. Playlists, Smart DJ, related artists, bios etc.

    The guy that wrote this article just doesnt know how to use Zune to it’s fullest.

  • Avatar Roku

    “Microsoft recently added streaming to their Zune Pass service,”

    Streaming on Zune Pass has been around for many years.

    How can Zune Pass only be the #4 on your list? You get to keep 10 songs a month in addition to the unlimited access to millions of songs for streaming or download. Who is offering a better deal than that? Nobody.

    Just buying 10 songs on iTunes would cost $13. I have the annual Zune Pass ($150/yr) which works out to only $12.50/mo. That means I basically get access to every song released for free and get 10 songs a month for less than it would cost to buy on iTunes.

  • http://www.unwiredview.com/author/matthew/ Matthew

    Thanks for the comment, Adam.

    You are correct in calling out my error of saying Microsoft “recently” added streaming to their service. While the word “recently” is certainly subjective, three years is a long time in tech and the description is inaccurate. It has been changed.

    In regards to your beef with our rating of the Zune Pass service, as we are a mobile site, this feature rated the services based on the capabilities of their mobile apps. So the playlists, picks, and the friends options that you discuss from the zune.net and Zune desktop player were not considered. 

    Our qualms with the “Smart DJ” function were not related to its features, but rather to the recommendations it provides. The Zune Marketplace has a much larger library than Pandora, as well as more flexibility with downloading and saving songs, but the technology that they use to build the playlists is inferior. Pandora’s mapping of the “musical genome” and their staff that listens to and catalogs all their music provides an experience that most tack-on features like “Smart DJ” cannot compete with. The reason it “falls short” is because we found the connection between our original song and the tracks it suggested for us to be tenuous at best, usually linked only by genre. The only service we’ve seen come close to Pandora in this capacity are iTunes’ “Genius” and Last.fm’s customizable radio stations. “Smart DJ” just isn’t there yet.

    The Bing Music Search feature you mention sounds interesting, alas the phone we used for these tests was not running Mango.

  • http://www.unwiredview.com/author/matthew/ Matthew

    Thanks for the comment, Adam.

    You are correct in calling out my error of saying Microsoft “recently” added streaming to their service. While the word “recently” is certainly subjective, three years is a long time in tech and the description is inaccurate. It has been changed.

    In regards to your beef with our rating of the Zune Pass service, as we are a mobile site, this feature rated the services based on the capabilities of their mobile apps. So the playlists, picks, and the friends options that you discuss from the zune.net and Zune desktop player were not considered. 

    Our qualms with the “Smart DJ” function were not related to its features, but rather to the recommendations it provides. The Zune Marketplace has a much larger library than Pandora, as well as more flexibility with downloading and saving songs, but the technology that they use to build the playlists is inferior. Pandora’s mapping of the “musical genome” and their staff that listens to and catalogs all their music provides an experience that most tack-on features like “Smart DJ” cannot compete with. The reason it “falls short” is because we found the connection between our original song and the tracks it suggested for us to be tenuous at best, usually linked only by genre. The only service we’ve seen come close to Pandora in this capacity are iTunes’ “Genius” and Last.fm’s customizable radio stations. “Smart DJ” just isn’t there yet.

    The Bing Music Search feature you mention sounds interesting, alas the phone we used for these tests was not running Mango.

  • Adam Lein

    Thanks for the clarification. I hope you didn’t read my original post in an attacking tone.  If so I apologize.  On Windows Phone, try doing a music search for something like “VMA Nominees” or “Lollapalooza” and you’ll find some playlists. I know it’s a pain that they’re only featured in the desktop software.  I’m surprised you thought iTunes’ “Genius” was better than Smart DJ though.  In Gounce’s tests (http://www.gounce.com/articles/head-to-head/item/236-itunes-genuis-vs-zunes-smart-dj) it seems Smart DJ gives you a bit more variety in terms of the number of different artists it draws from.

  • Adam Lein

    Thanks for the clarification. I hope you didn’t read my original post in an attacking tone.  If so I apologize.  On Windows Phone, try doing a music search for something like “VMA Nominees” or “Lollapalooza” and you’ll find some playlists. I know it’s a pain that they’re only featured in the desktop software.  I’m surprised you thought iTunes’ “Genius” was better than Smart DJ though.  In Gounce’s tests (http://www.gounce.com/articles/head-to-head/item/236-itunes-genuis-vs-zunes-smart-dj) it seems Smart DJ gives you a bit more variety in terms of the number of different artists it draws from.

  • Avatar Roku

    “this feature rated the services based on the capabilities of their mobile apps. So the playlists, picks, and the friends options that you discuss from the zune.net and Zune desktop player were not considered. “

    Those features are all available on the Zune HD.