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?
Windows Phone 7
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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