Technology Jam | Beats Music - Good, Bad And Ugly

A couple of years ago, Beats Music would have been revolutionary. Not only does it have a mobile app and a Web interface with a catalog of millions of songs on demand, it also offers some features that the early streaming sites did not provide. This well funded and high profile music service boasts likely the largest pre-rollout marketing campaign that any music service has ever had the luxury of benefiting from and is spearheaded by music legends Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Yet, this isn’t two years ago and in 2014, does Beats have what it takes to win customers and become a leader in the music streaming space? Time will tell if they can steal customers away from competitors and get others to subscribe to a paid service for the first time. In the meantime, after a few days of use, let’s look at a few things that Beats has going for it and some strikes against it.

First, the good news.

    PROS:

*Gorgeous user interface: This is the case for both the mobile apps and the web portal. The design is fresh, vibrant, sleek and modern looking. I really like the dark color palettes used with lots of black that is punctuated with red, magenta and violet. The fonts, size of text and all layout considerations make everything easy to read, pleasing on the eye and a major upgrade over the now very dated looks of competitors like Spotify.


[Now Playing]

*Beats Learns What You Like: When starting up the app the first time, you are presented with some big floating bubbles of different genres of music that you enjoy and then are tasked with picking a handful of artists that you like. Then, your suggestions of “Just For You” are presented and these recommendations will get better over time as you like or dis-like tracks.

*Curated Lists: This is supposed to be one of the major selling points of Beats. A staff of curators drill down into sub-genres of music and build playlists that really work and therefore you won’t be subject to awkward selections that you’ll sometimes get with other services. In addition to Beats staff, there are lists curated by musicians, radio stations, websites and celebrities. So firing up Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” or Pitchfork’s “Top 20 Songs of 2013” gives easy access to these types of cultivated lists without having to create your own playlists. Similarly, there are Songza styled playlists centered around “Activities” like “celebrating”, “chilling out” or “cooking.”

*High Bit Rate and Huge Catalog: As most services have done, Beats tracks are 320kbps while streaming and you can pick which bit rate to cache for offline use (with the ability to pick a lower bitrate if you have to be careful of your mobile data usage). Beats sports 20 million tracks with a broad catalog of artists that is likely pretty much the same as Rdio or Spotify.

*“The Sentence”: This is a cool feature that Beats is really advertising a lot. It allows a Mad Libs style sentence creation which produces a custom playlist. Thus, “I’m on a rooftop and feel like starting a riot with my inner child to sounds of the ‘70s” kicks back “Gimme Shelter” by Grand Funk, “Hello There” by Cheap Trick and “Saturday Night Special” by Skynyrd, among others.


[The Sentence]


*Family Plan: This is a killer feature and one that many people are eagerly waiting for on other services. However, at the moment, this is only available for AT&T customers, but it allows for the sharing of one plan among five separate users for a nominal increase of only $5/mo. over the base rate of $10/mo. This feature alone might fetch Beats a bunch of additional users.

*Essentials: I like this feature too. Beats signifies which albums are “Essential” when searching for artists. This feature is curated by humans and not an algorithm of most played or most recently released. Thus, if someone is new to the Grateful Dead, they’ll be gently pointed towards “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead” and can save “In The Dark” and “Go To Heaven” for later.

While there is plenty to like about Beats, unfortunately it is not all rainbows and lollipops for the new service, despite the heaps of praise that it is seemingly getting from most media sources. Frankly, at this point, the drawbacks so grossly outweigh the pros, that I can’t imagine this service appealing to too many people. Of course, Beats just rolled out and is bound to improve. Yet, the other services also continue to improve and have a huge head start. Can Beats catch up? We’ll see, but here are some of the shortcomings and drawbacks of the service:

    DRAWBACKS

*Buggy and Very “Beta”: Beats likely will not admit it, but the roll-out has been a disaster. With an enormous marketing push and advertising, you’d think they would have been ready for the big roll-out. It was difficult to get the app to work at all and it remains extremely lethargic and laggy with lots of broken features and constant crashes. I wanted to use the app for the week, but became so frustrated trying to use it that it became a challenge to stay focused enough to continue. It’s also frustrating that the Android app does not work over Wi-Fi at all and that you must use mobile data. Beats e-mailed that they are working on fixes and have temporarily disabled new sign-ups. Not a solid start and I’ve yet to see any improvements.

*No Play Queue: This is a non-starter for me. I expect any music app that I use to have a play queue that I can add songs to while playing, reorder playback sequence or delete songs from on the fly. I don’t always want to create a playlist, listen to an album straight through or continue having to pick songs as each one ends. MOG, which Beats bought of course, had a play queue and in 2014 I just can’t imagine this basic functionality has been omitted.

*Limited Feature Set On The Web: Again, this seems like a relatively important feature of a subscription music service. It is great to have a music service that can be accessed across all devices: tablet, mobile and desktop. The desktop part of the equation is a failure. There is no way to cache music for offline use, like Spotify, and anything that resembles your library or “collection” is totally missing. Basic functionality like “Search” is also crippled and this seems like a total after-thought. Since I mentioned “tablet,” it is also worth pointing out that there is no iPad app yet, which is also a big omission.

*No “Radio” Feature: Again, while there are playlists created for different activities and recommendations tailored for you, there is no radio feature which allows streaming of Pandora style stations. This was one of the better features of MOG and something that many users have come to expect as a bare minimum necessity. It should be noted, however, that the “sentence” feature sort of acts like a radio feature but it’s really not the same as having artist radio or genre radio stations.

*Difficult to Use and Navigate: Having a beautiful interface is nice and Beats’s interface is very nice. However, more critical is having an interface that works and is intuitive. Sadly, this is not the case with Beats. It is difficult to find things, features are buried and frankly it simply wasn’t designed so much as a music player as it was a music discovery engine.

    WRAP UP

There’s no doubt that Beats will improve over time and hopefully address some of the shortcomings. The $10/month plan is equal to what Spotify and Rdio charge for their unlimited streaming plans, but they offer more functionality and a better user experience across tablet, desktop and mobile. The $15/month for five users offered to AT&T customers is a steal if you have several family members with separate subscriptions and want to save money. Unfortunately, there is no free tier of service, so after an initial trial period of 7 days expires, will the many people who were disappointed in Beats be inclined to drop ten bucks and give it a whirl again? I’ll be in no rush, that’s for sure.

Written By: Parker Harrington

[Published on: 1/27/14]

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