In late 2010, Cricket Wireless came to CNET's San Francisco headquarters to show us the Samsung Suede, a cell phone it intended to launch at CES. While the touch-screen handset itself is fairly standard, it earns the distinction of being the first to house Muve Music (pronounced "move"), an innovative music-centered pricing plan that promises unlimited music downloads, ringtones, and ringback tones along with talk, text, and data.
We were so impressed by the concept, we nominated Muve Music for a Best of CES award. However, Muve had a hard time getting off the ground, at least from our point of view. Cricket delayed the phone's launch when it discovered a glitch in the software, and even after that was fixed, CNET still had to wait a couple months for a review unit until Muve would work outside of Cricket's coverage areas (San Francisco uses Cricket's roaming network). The service doesn't quite live up to expectations, but with some work, Cricket Wireless can still move fast enough to patch up the holes.
There are plenty of ways to describe Muve Music, but we think the best is as a music rental program. We say "rental" because the music comes from one source (it's approved by the major U.S. labels), it isn't transferable onto a computer or any other device, and you lose access if you stop paying your monthly bill. At no point do you ever truly "own" the songs.
When you enter Muve by pressing a button on the Suede (it's embossed with a music note), you're greeted by five application icons on a black backdrop. There's the My Music library of tunes, the Get Music download store, and the My DJ app, which aggregates genre-based playlists that you can download to the phone. There's also a version of Shazam's music identifier that's tailored for Muve, and the Get Social app for interacting with other users based on your musical preferences. On a smaller navigation strip, you'll see an inbox for "shouts" (messages broadcast by other Muve Music users), and Help and Settings options (the settings control your Muve Music profile picture and sync settings).
Moving around in the music portion of the OS is mostly straightforward, but there are rough edges. Not every arrow or button is clearly labeled, which leads to some trial and error. To exit the music mode, for example, you press the End button, and not the music key that you press to get in. You can press the music button to jump to the currently playing song from wherever you are, but we'd also like to see a Now Playing ticker in the software.
It takes too many clicks to get into a playlist, and it's difficult to edit or add to the playlist on the fly without interrupting the playback. It's almost too easy to delete songs from Muve as a whole, and you can also erase entire playlists without the phone asking for confirmation. Strangely, though, deleting individual tracks from a playlist is much more difficult.
None of this is helped by the Suede's relatively small display size, which makes onscreen controls tinier and harder to see and press. We wish that My DJ streamed songs over 3G in addition to downloading tracks. Muve's player also emits an annoying metallic beep every time it moves on to a new song. A fade out would be much better, or at least the ability to turn the beep off.
The service itself, however, is immersive enough to push past the usability snags, particularly if you're part of Cricket's music-hungry clientele. The music libraries are well stocked with hits and recommended tracks, and the My DJ portal helps grab tunes by a range of genres. Muve adds all the album art and automatically organizes tracks in your library. You can shuffle songs and view links from the player to some of the other Muve features. Also, you're able to create a ringtone or ringback tone from many songs, and the software lets you set the start point and duration and play back a preview before you create the tone. Since the service is all-inclusive, there's no penalty for experimentation or for aural gluttony.
Although Muve operates separately from the Suede's TouchWiz 2.0 OS, incoming calls will pause the player and give you a chance to pick up where you left off (wait a few seconds for a dialog box to appear.)
Cricket plans to add Web tools to its Muve Music Web site, so you can start manually adding tunes and transfer songs you already own from your computer to the Suede. This wasn't available at the time of the review.
Cricket hasn't announced plans to pair Muve with any other phones. While it's understandable for Cricket to gauge Muve Music's popularity before pushing out piles of compatible handsets, at the end of the day we wish Samsung had offered up a better flagship device to match such an interesting new service.
When all is said and done, Muve Music continues to delight us with its smorgasbord of music access, but it doesn't deliver smoothly on all the finer points. The all-you-can-eat music plan is a smart idea, and a useful one. However, with its slow interface and small touch screen, the Samsung Suede isn't the best device for the job. What's more, we hope Cricket's software team will streamline the Muve Music OS to make it easier to use, expand the service to other handsets, and get its house in order so that all its supporting products and services are immediately available to the Suede's customers.
That said, Muve is a compelling service that's priced right and offers a full basket of features for its target audience: young audiophiles who may wind up using the phone as their primary source for tunes. At $55 per month, Muve Music is just $10 per month pricier than a regular unlimited plan. The handset itself costs $199 without a contract, but it's available for a limited time for $99 after in-store and mail-in rebates. The Suede is currently available in 14 of Cricket's markets, with more cities on the horizon.