Having had a few hours to play with Milk Music, the just-launched free radio-style streaming service from Samsung, it offers more in terms of new interface ideas than a new back-end approach to streaming music. In fact, the music part of the service is powered by Slacker Radio, an existing music streaming service (Samsung's claim of 13 million songs spread over 200 curated stations is similar to Slacker's description of its service).
Scrolling around the dial
The interface, centered around an onscreen jogwheel-style control, is indeed flexible and fast, with an outer wheel for fast-shuttling among big blocks of stations, and an inner wheel for fine-tuning to a specific station. The song catalog is sliced into 15 top-level genres, all very general, from Rock to Dance to Jazz. Up to nine of those genres can be displayed on the jogwheel control at any time, and you can go into a dial customization menu through the settings menu to swap genres in and out.
Within each of these genres, however, are a number of individual stations more tailored to individual tastes. Jazz has nine such stations, from Classic Jazz to Big Band to Contemporary. Pop has 20 stations, Rock has 24, and so on. Like SiriusXM, the stations under some of the top-level categories are on the broad side and not really going to appeal to, for example, serious jazz aficionados.
Build your own station
For that more selective audience, you can create custom stations based on a specific artist or song -- but unlike Pandora, you can't enter a genre to create or tweak a station. You can, however, enter more than one artist. For example, there was no Bossa Nova station, so I created one by stating with Antonio Carlos Jobim, adding Sergio Mendes, and Joao Gilberto. I came up blank when trying to add Elis Regina, a big enough artist that she should be in the master catalog -- but we also encountered more than a few network and search errors, so the just-released app may be having some day one hiccups.
Within each station, there's further opportunity for fine-tuning. By swiping up from the bottom of the screen (I couldn't find any other way to access this otherwise unmarked menu), you get three slider bars. One is for the popularity of tracks being played on a particular station -- slide to the left and you'll get more "album" tracks and fewer overplayed singles. A second favors newer or older songs, while a third slider can increase or decrease the frequency with which you'll hear songs you've tagged as favorites.
And you can specify favorites from the app's main screen while that song is playing. Tap the left-most of three control buttons, and you can either tag a song as a favorite (much as on Pandora, for example), ask the app to never play that song, or create a station built around that song. Interestingly, you cannot currently buy a song you hear from a pay per download music store, which seems like a revenue-generating feature Samsung would want to add in a future update.
For a radio-style service, skipping songs you don't want to hear is important. The rule here is simple -- six skips per station, per hour. That seems reasonable, and an on-screen indicator shows you how many skips are left.
New interface, familiar functionality
In our first few hours on hands-on use, Milk Music feels the most useful when quickly scanning between stations and genres. Music starts playing nearly instantly, and hundreds of stations can be accessed quickly, from either the jogwheel or a pull-down just above it. Note that the pull-down only lists stations from your nine jogwheel genre picks -- I haven't yet found a way to scroll through all 200 stations, plus custom ones, in one single menu.
The music itself isn't radically different than you'd hear on Pandora or SiriusXM, but this does feel more like the paid premium version of Pandora -- except that it's free to use. Milk Music plays no ads, but you do get an occasional promo spot for Slacker. Adding to its ease of use, no account creation or log-in is required; just download and play. One exception -- if you want Milk to play music with explicit lyrics, you have to create and sign in to a Samsung account.
The catch is that it's only for certain Samsung devices. While Milk Music is available in the Google Play store, it only works on the Samsung Galaxy S4, the S4 Mini, S3, the Galaxy Note 2, the Note 3, the Galaxy Mega, and the upcoming Galaxy S5.