This week, Microsoft fulfilled their promise to the Zune faithful with the release of Xbox Music applications for Android and iOS. This release brings them one step closer to being a competitive alternative to Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Music and half a dozen other music subscription services. We spent some time with the release on a couple iOS devices and gave it a quick spin on Android. Let’s see how the Microsoft music experience stacks up against the native offerings from Apple and Google within their respective operating systems.
Initially, the Xbox Music application was available on a limited selection of Android devices. We could only get the original release to load on a Motorola Droid Maxx, and it was un-installable on the Nexus 7 FHD. With the current version in the Google Play Store, it loaded without issue. Based on the release notes they have expanded support for the HTC One and Samsung S4 to address a majority of the review complaints they received on the first release.
The user interfaces on Android and iOS look very similar, yet on iOS there is one significant advantage that we will get to in just a few moments. You are greeted with a sign-on page upon first launch and it’s clear in the Google Play Store that the application requires an Xbox Music Pass subscription to access any content. Microsoft is running a promotion that allows anyone to try the premium version, ad-free, for 30 days on multiple devices. Once you are logged in, Xbox Music checks your account for any cloud-based playlists and synchronizes those with your devices.
It has visibility to things we downloaded onto other devices, and those are shown in a collections view that you access from the green menu bar. The normal functions one would expect in terms of playback exist in Android with shuffle, menu shortcut for play, pause, close, etc. Currently there is no local caching or offline mode for Xbox Music but Microsoft is bringing this capability with a future release. On Android today there is no support for ChromeCast, and we are hopeful that Microsoft considers adding support for that as well.
Xbox Music on iOS is something we took a spin through on an iPad 2 with iOS 6.1.2, as well as an iPhone 5 with the latest beta of iOS 7. On the iPad 2, Microsoft left us scratching our heads a bit with the decision to release this as an iPhone/iPod Touch UI only.
For those of you not familiar with iOS, that means the application runs but does not have a native full-screen tablet interface. Apple provides a 2x button you can see in the screen shot below, but it isn’t an experience I would want to use on a device with this screen size because the fonts distort, and it is nothing more than a magnified phone interface.
Microsoft still has some work left to perform to provide an experience comparable to what they provide on Windows 8 tablets and lure Apple iPad loyalists into the subscription fold.
On the iPhone 5, things went much better and we discovered some of the advantages over both the Android devices we tested, as well as the iPad 2 on iOS 6.1.2. The biggest advantage with iOS 7 is access to lock screen-based playback controls. With iOS 6, lock screen playback controls are available with the double-press of the home button. With the release of iOS 7 no double-press is required. This is a feature Microsoft will need to address with an Android widget that has lock screen support. Additionally, on both versions of iOS, streaming through AirPlay worked without issue and provides the experience we are hoping Android can mimic with ChromeCast.
The Bottom Line
We feel like this is a decent first effort for Microsoft in their evolution toward becoming a more devices and services-based company. Hopefully they will bring improvements like offline access, SmartDJ, and broader support for media re-direction to Android in the near-term. Give the trial a go, and let us know what you think. Now that Xbox Music has offerings across all the mainstream web browsers and mobile operating systems the service is worth checking out regardless of what device you have.