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

Apple's new streaming music service is officially here, but can it edge out Spotify, Pandora and other competitors? CNET takes a look.

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Sarah Mitroff
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Sarah Mitroff

Senior Editor

Sarah Mitroff is a senior editor for CNET, managing our health, fitness and wellness content. She's written for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.

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16 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

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.

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7.3

Apple Music

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.

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.

Apple Music rocks on 24-7 with live DJs (pictures)

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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.

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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.

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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.

For now, I suggest you use iCloud Music Library with caution. It may work OK, not show up at all, or might even screw up your iTunes library.

Start listening

When you pick a playlist or album to play, everything is added to the Up Next queue. You can view it by tapping the song currently playing, shown at the bottom of the app, and then tapping the bullet list icon at the right. In Up Next, you can see the upcoming songs and your play history. You can clear this list or add more music by searching for it.

Apple Music streams at a 256Kbps bitrate, which is lower than Spotify's 320Kbps maximum rate. As a result, Apple Music's audio quality may be slightly worse than other streaming services, but most listeners won't be able to tell the difference. In my tests, songs sounded perfectly clear over a strong Wi-Fi and data signal, and the quality held up when playing downloaded tracks offline.

9 things you should try first with Apple Music (pictures)

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Smart recommendations

Apple Music's predecessor, Beats Music, sought to learn your tastes to offer music recommendations, and that same approach carries over to the new service. Apple Music pays attention to the music you play and purchase in iTunes and learns from feedback you provide to highlight artists, albums and playlists. The For You tab in the app is home to all of these recommendations, generated by algorithms and the music editors. This human-focused approach helps Apple Music feel more like a community than just another music app.

The For You tab is full of recommended music. James Martin/CNET

When you first fire up Apple Music, it prompts you to fill out a music profile by picking out favorite genres and artists. This works exactly like it did in Beats Music. You'll see bubbles float across the screen with genres. Tap the bubble once if you like that genre and twice if you love it. Then, you'll do the same with artists that match the genres you picked. When you're finished, Apple Music will fill the For You tab with recommendations.

You can repeat that set up process whenever you want by tapping the person icon at the top left and selecting "Choose Artists For You." The other way to give feedback is by tapping the heart button on any track that's playing to tell Apple that you want to hear more music like it.

Live and not-live radio

Radio plays a big role in Apple Music, with two choices for listening. Beats 1 is a brand new 24 hours a day, 7 days a week live radio station broadcasting from Los Angeles, New York and London. The three cities sign on and off at different times of day to keep the station fresh at all hours and each has their own programming of music and musical discussion from DJs, artists and other industry experts. The station is hosted and curated by influential DJs like Zane Lowe, formerly at BBC Radio 1, and it's designed to keep you updated on the newest happenings in music from brand-new singles to interviews with influencers. Beats 1 doesn't have ads, but like other radio stations, will have sponsored message breaks.

So far, Beats 1 is working as expected, with music playing back to back and DJs chiming in to offer commentary or chat about music topics. However, like other parts of the app, some design changes could benefit Beats 1. First, it's not obvious that if you tap the Beats 1 banner in the Radio tab, you can see a program schedule. On the Now Playing screen, there's little indication that you're listening Beats 1, instead of just a streaming song. I'd like to see some kind of banner showing where the station is broadcasting from and who's DJing. One feature I do like is that you can add any song that's currently playing to your library.

Beats 1 is Apple's live 24/7 radio station. James Martin/CNET

Carrying over from iTunes Radio, Apple Music also has on-demand Internet radio stations that play endless tracks based on a genre, artist, song or album. Apple's populated the app with a few stations to start with, built by the team of music editors. One is Mixtape, which plays songs from the 70s and 80s aimed at Generation X, another is Soundsystem, created for Millennials, streaming today's top music. You also get to create your own stations by picking a song, album or artist and then fine-tune the station with feedback to mold it to your individual tastes. This works just the same as iTunes Radio did, where you can give feedback on songs you do and don't like.

iTunes Radio has been folded into Apple Music, so any radio stations you created carry over. You'll also still find a few live branded radio stations that were available in iTunes Radio, like ESPN and NPR. Without an Apple Music subscription, you'll be able to play these stations and others like them for free, with ads.

With an Apple Music subscription, you can skip as many tracks as you want in a station, but you cannot rewind, go back or view the song queue. Without a subscription, you can play these Internet radio stations, but you'll hear ads between songs and only skip six songs per hour.

Connect with your favorite musicians

Taking a step back from just playing music, the Connect tab is social feed where you can follow your favorite musicians and get behind-the-scenes photos, videos and updates. Apple describes this space as unfiltered and unedited, a place where artists can share anything and fans (you) can comment on their posts. Each artist's' profile page includes a biography, their discography and updates they share.

Any musician -- from the biggest stars to up and comers -- can create a profile on Connect. Apple hopes that local artists will use Connect to promote their music and shows and reach fans in their community. New bands and singers can use it to garner fans from all over and point them towards their music on iTunes.

The Connect tab is a social feed where your favorite artists can post updates, photos, video and more. James Martin/CNET

When you sign up for Apple Music, the service automatically follows 100 artists and bands it thinks you like, based on your iTunes purchase history. You can turn off the automatically follow artist option and manage who you follow in settings. Right now the Connect tab is sparse for me, with only a handful of artists out of my 100 posting a few photos or text updates. However most updates have already gained hundreds of comments, showing that people want to engage with their favorite musicians.

Recently, exclusive music or extras have become a way for streaming music services to stand out from the pack, but Apple is the first to mold it into a social network-like experience, where, if they so desire, the artist can communicate with fans by responding to comments. However, this is isn't the only place artists can chat with their fans -- many post updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and respond to comments there. Since the service is new, we don't yet know how artists will use Connect, and I worry that fans will flood posts with spam or hateful comments that drown out meaningful conversations, a common problem on celebrities' other social media feeds.

Siri can be your DJ

iOS's voice assistant Siri plays nice with Apple Music. With the new app, you can ask Siri all kinds of musical requests and she'll work with the app to make it happen. Siri can find popular music from the past if you ask "What song was popular on my birthday (with the exact date)" or "Play the top songs from 1988." She was able to easily find and play the top music from whatever year I asked (only as far back as 1960) and informed me if the track wasn't available for streaming with Apple Music. For instance, "The Sign" by Ace of Base, the No. 1 song from 1994, isn't available.

While you're listening to music, tell Siri "Play more songs like this" to improve your recommendations and add change the music in your Up Next list. I particularly like this command because it finds music that really fits with the current song, however that command only works if you're listening to a playlist or radio station you've created, or music that's in your library. You can also ask Siri "After this song, play 'Uptown Funk' (or any other available track)" to add that song to Up Next.

Siri has a few more tricks that work with Apple Music, most of which help you give feedback on songs you like and organize your music library. These features are only available on devices with Siri: iPhone 4S or later, iPad 3 or later, iPad Mini and iPod Touch 5th generation.

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Siri responds to voice commands to manage what's happening in Apple Music. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Playlists

Though they aren't always easy to find, playlists are an important part of Apple Music. The team of music editors has already created hundreds of creative, thoughtful playlists for every genre and activity you can think of, such as BBQing, running or having a romantic evening. Brands, like Shazam and Rolling Stone Magazine, have been asked to create playlists too, and you can follow them to get updates.

You can create playlists too, just head over to the My Music tab, tap playlists and tap the tiny New button. Give it a name and save it to start adding tracks. There's one big difference between your playlists in Apple Music and Spotify. Here, you can only share playlists with friends, outside of the app. There's no way to publish your playlists for other Apple Music subscribers to find. In contrast, Spotify has built a large community of user-created playlists that anyone can find and save. In my opinion, Spotify's playlists are one of the best parts of the service, so I'm disappointed that Apple Music doesn't offer the same experience.

The service has playlists for all kinds of genres and activities. James Martin/CNET

You'll need to do some digging around on the New tab to find most playlists, especially the activity-focused ones. When you find one you like, I highly suggest you add it to your library by pressing the plus sign. That will save it to the My Music section, making it much easier to find later. On the iPad, there's a dedicated Playlists tab, where you can view and manage your saved playlists. I really wish the iPhone version had this tab as well.

Bugs and issues

Though Apple Music runs stable overall, I've encountered various reports of problems in the app and experienced several issues myself. Those range from duplicated playlists, slow performance, music that won't play and problems uploading music from iTunes on my computer to the iCloud Music Library. These bugs and anomalies come and go, putting a damper on the experience of simply using the app.

Because Apple Music is tied to iOS, Apple will have to push out an operating system update to fix any issues and make changes to the service, which is more tedious to download and install than a simple app update. This will be different with Android, where Apple Music will be a standalone app you'll download and update from Google Play. We'll continue to update this review as the app get new updates.

Conclusion

After playing around with and testing Apple Music, I'm impressed, but conflicted. On the one hand, the service has a large music catalog filled with almost anything I'd want to hear. The recommendation system which uses algorithms and human music experts is brilliant at picking out what to listen to and responding to my feedback. And all of my iTunes music, which hasn't gotten any attention since I switched to streaming services years ago, is available to me again.

On the other hand, the app's design, particularly on the iPhone, is crowded, complicated and tough to navigate. There is too much information stuffed into some sections and not enough elsewhere. And menus are full of so many options it's overwhelming. Bugs have also hurt the app, including problems with iCloud Music Library, music that doesn't play and sluggish performance.

Above all else, Apple Music has a tougher learning curve than Spotify and other competing music services. For that reason, I recommend Spotify over Apple Music for its comprehensive catalog, straightforward design and abundant features. That is, at least until Apple makes some changes to Music and improves the experience.

However, if you're curious, sign up for Apple Music's free three month trial to test it out for yourself. You have nothing to lose, and you'll get the chance to see if Apple Music ultimately works for you.

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7.3

Apple Music

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 9Interface 6Performance 6