Apple Music review: Apple's do-it-all music app has big potential (and some problems)

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The Good Apple Music lets you listen to 30 million songs from the iTunes catalog, plus any music you've purchased from iTunes over the years. The app's recommendation system uses both algorithms and humans to pick the perfect tunes for you. Siri helps you find new and vintage music with some new voice commands.

The Bad The app's design is cluttered with too much information and difficult to navigate. iCloud Music Library is complicated and inconsistent.

The Bottom Line Apple Music has a lot of potential, but its iCloud Music Library bugs and confusing interface keep it from edging out Spotify for now.

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7.3 Overall
  • Setup 8
  • Features 9
  • Interface 6
  • Performance 6

Review Sections

Editors' note, September 13, 2016: iOS10 is bringing some much need updates to Apple Music. The latest version of Apple Music will feature a new streamlined design that will make it more user-friendly and intuitive to navigate. Apple's streaming service has grown to 17 million subscribers, and it's had a recent string of successful album exclusives, however, it's still playing catch up to Spotify in popularity. iOS 10 just rolled out today, so expect an update to this review very soon.

Apple Music, the iPhone giant's take on a subscription music service, has one goal: To push aside the likes of Rdio, Pandora, Slacker and -- especially -- Spotify to be a one-stop destination for all things music. The result is a grand coalition of a cloud-based on-demand streaming service comprised of 30 million tracks, your existing iTunes music library, and an all-live worldwide radio station and -- all living in one master app.

The Apple Music app is the default music player on iPod Touch units, iPhones and iPads. It incorporates elements of the earlier free iTunes Radio service (still present, and still free) as well as iTunes Match (still problematic), and even a nod to Ping, Apple's failed social music experiment that folded in 2012. And it also folds in elements of Beats Music, the streaming service it acquired along with the rest of the Beats headphone empire in 2014.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Maybe too much, in fact. Apple Music gets a lot right -- a massive music catalog, great voice control integration from virtual assistant Siri, and good cross-platform support. And it's got a surprising, refreshing reliance on real people, from the music editors whose entire job is to create playlists and pick out music for you in the app, to the live DJs on Beats 1, the 24/7 radio station integrated into the app.

But with all of those features jammed into one app, Apple Music falls short on navigation and user interface -- which is something of a surprise, given Apple's longtime focus on superior design. The service also has some major problems with its integration of users' personal music collections. Longtime users know that iTunes Match never worked perfectly, and the ghosts of those problems continue to haunt Apple Music users who want to bring several-thousand-strong music libraries into the cloud so they can fill in the gaps missing from Apple Music's streaming catalog, which still has notable holdouts like The Beatles and Prince.

Those issues keep Apple Music from being a hands-down Spotify-killer at launch. But with its generous 3-month free trial period, Apple Music is certainly worth an audition. And because this is software, not hardware, we expect to see changes, fixes and potential improvements in Apple Music at some point in the future.

Editors' note, October 2, 2015: This review has been updated to include details about the service after the end of the initial three month free trial.

What does it cost and how can I get it?

Apple Music costs $9.99 (£9.99, AU$11.99) monthly, with a $14.99 (£14.99, AU$17.99) family plan option for up to six people. With the family plan, you'll need to set up iCloud Family Sharing, if you haven't already.

There is also a free version of Apple Music, but you can only use it to play music you've purchased from iTunes, listen to Beats 1 and play radio stations with ads. This is different from Spotify, which has a free, ad-supported offering, albeit with significant restrictions of what you can play on desktop and mobile.

When you sign up for Apple Music, you get a free three month free trial with full access to all of the features. After that, you'll be charged $10 per month unless you cancel. Apple will charge whatever credit or debit card you have on file with your Apple ID, which you would already have provided if you've ever purchased or downloaded something from iTunes. You can cancel the auto-renewal by tapping the person icon at the top left, tapping "View Apple ID" and tapping "Manage" under the Subscriptions header.

To get Apple Music, your iOS device needs to be running iOS 8.4 or later. The iOS 8.4 update, which started rolling out in June 2015, changes the earlier Music app that came with your device into the Apple Music app. Whether you subscribe to Apple Music or not, the new Apple Music app will still be on your iPhone, iPad or iPod and you'll use it to manage music already on your device or that you've purchased from iTunes.

You can also sign up for Apple Music through iTunes on your computer, either Mac or Windows PC, you'll just need to update to iTunes version 12.2. This option lets you listen if you don't have an iPhone or iPad.

There's good news for Android fans too. Apple Music will be available for your phone or tablet in late 2015 as a standalone app you'll be able to download from Google Play. Apple TV compatibility is expected later this year as well. We'll update this review when both versions come out.

Apple Music costs $9.99 monthly and comes with a free trial. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Finding your way around

If you're coming from the older iTunes Music app, the new Apple Music app will look a bit different. Instead of tabs for artists, songs, albums and radio, Apple Music is organized by what kinds of music you want to hear: Suggested music for you, new music, live or Internet radio, or your collection of purchased tracks. The tabs at the bottom of the app help you jump around to each section.

In my first few hours with the app, I struggled to find my way around. Only after playing with it for a few days did I get good sense of where the features I care about reside. The New tab in particular is stuffed with too much content, including new music, recently released popular music videos, top charts and themed playlists. On top of that, there are submenus that take you to more playlists created by music editors and various brands, such as Rolling Stone magazine and Shazam. Scrolling through the page, it's hard to focus on any one spot and hard to decipher one section from the next. To make things more complicated, you can change the genre at the top of the New tab to adjust the music selection.

One of the biggest problems plaguing the design is that there are too many submenus that you can get lost in and have to back out of several times to return to the main page. There's also not much organization, with playlists, albums, videos and other groupings thrown together in no discernible order. I'm already longing for Spotify, which has a cleaner design, with everything clearly laid out.

The design issues are less problematic on an iPad or using iTunes on a computer, as a larger screen offers more room for all the music and other content jammed into the app. Still, I'd wager that most people will use Apple Music on their phone, where the interface feels cramped and overwhelming.

Layout problems aside, Apple Music is pretty with a white theme, lots of colors and photographs throughout. The design is in keeping with Apple's "flat" design app introduced with iOS 7 and Mac OS X Yosemite. If you're a fan of the aesthetic, as I am, you'll like Apple Music. That is, once you find your way around.

What's in the catalog?

Like other music streaming services, Apple Music lets you play music that you haven't purchased by streaming it over the Internet. For the monthly fee, you get access to 30 million songs from the iTunes catalog (the entire catalog boasts 43 million tracks worldwide). The 13-million-song difference is made up of the music you cannot stream with Apple Music, either because the artist doesn't want to make it available for streaming or it's not available in a particular region.

Notable exclusions are The Beatles, Prince, Garth Brooks and Tool. Taylor Swift almost didn't release her music through the service ( she's taken her music off Spotify), but later changed her mind. Currently, almost all of her music is available through Apple Music. Music that's not available to stream simply won't show up when you search for it. Unfortunately, there's no link to the iTunes Store where you can buy missing tunes either.

For the most part, you can treat the music available for streaming as if it's yours, adding it to playlists and downloading it to your phone or tablet to listen offline. The catch is that you don't actually own those tracks and if you cancel Apple Music, you cannot listen to them any longer.

The Now Playing screen shows the current song and offers options to add it to a playlist, create a radio station, or save it to your library. James Martin/CNET

Adding your personal music collection

Because there are gaps in the Apple Music catalog, Apple encourages you to upload tracks and albums from your own collection using a new feature built into the service called the iCloud Music Library.

It works similarly to iTunes Match, the $25-per-year service which stores your music files in the cloud so you can stream them away from your computer. With iCloud Music Library, Apple scans all of the music you've purchased from iTunes or added to iTunes on your computer by ripping a CD, purchasing and downloading from another digital store or obtained from other means.

Like iTunes Match, it scans your collection and then "unlocks" any songs it can find in the 43 million track iTunes catalog, making them available for you to stream, even if they aren't available in Apple Music for other subscribers. For instance, if you have The Beatles' Abbey Road album, which is not part of Apple Music, you'll still be able to stream it because it's available on iTunes to purchase.

For the music that isn't available in iTunes, like obscure tracks or music from a local band, Apple Music will upload those files to your iCloud account so that you can stream it from the app. Songs you upload don't count towards your iCloud storage limit, but you can only upload 25,000 songs currently. Apple says that number will rise to 100,000 songs with the release of iOS 9 later this year.

While this sounds great in theory, iCloud Music Library has some significant problems. After turning on the option in the Settings app, many users complain that music stored on their phones disappeared. I found that my iTunes purchases (now part with my iCloud Music Library) showed up fine on my iPhone, but won't appear on my iPad, for no discernible reason.

Using iTunes on a desktop, I found that while most of my collection was uploaded to my Music Library automatically, some audio files didn't make it. iTunes either told me "This item was not added because an error occurred," or told me the "item is not eligible for iCloud Music Library." Neither message gave me any indication of what went wrong so that I could fix the problem.

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