Xbox Music Pass and the Fail

My wife has recently been trialling some of music subscription services. As a Windows Phone household with Lumia 820’s for both me and the wife, she tried Nokia Mix Radio Plus first as she’d loved the free version. She wasn’t really impressed as it wasn’t really much better than the free one.

She moved on to Spotify next and I decided to try out the free 30-Day Trial of Xbox Music Pass. I had high hopes for Xbox Music Pass as I already love the free streaming for Windows 8/RT devices listening to the odd song on it. The cloud syncing feature is great for me too because it means on my work Windows 8 desktop I can access the majority of my music that’s at home and have it streamed to my work PC courtesy of the Xbox Music service. Being able to create playlists and Smart DJ playlists on my home PC and then have those available on the Xbox, my Windows Phone 8 device and my work Windows 8 desktop was pretty appealing.

After enabling it on my Microsoft Account, I first tried to create some Smart DJ playlists for some artists I’m enjoying at the moment thinking I could discover some new music. To name two artists I’m enjoying currently, Avicii and Gareth Emery, neither of them allowed me to create Smart DJ playlists. Not a good start considering a search of the Xbox Music Store reveals quite a few songs for both artists so it’s hardly like they aren’t indexed, classified or categorised. I figured I’d come back to this another day to test the true extent of the problem

I created a static playlist called Favourites and started adding music to it, only to discover that about a third of the songs I am enjoying currently aren’t available to stream on Xbox Music but require a purchase. What was most annoying is that it allowed me to add them to the playlist but then when playing the playlist it would skip over those tracks with an exclaimation mark warning instead of telling me from the offset before adding them to the playlist.

Why am I going to pay £8.99 per month for a service which doesn’t actually have a third of the music I am interested in? I know Spotify doesn’t have some of the value-add that Xbox Music does around Windows and Xbox features and integration but for an extra £1 per month I would actually be able to listen to whatever I wanted and not have to buy the songs.

I thought I would see what the experience was like on the phone with the playlist I’d just created. Opening the Music hub, I navigated to Playlists and after a few moments, the phone realised I now had Xbox Music Pass and showed me the playlist and I started to play it. Some of the songs were detected as already existing on the SD card of my phone from my conventional music library but the majority of them were streaming. I was started looking for the download option as I wouldn’t want to be streaming this over 3G when I left the house. I couldn’t find it.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the fact that I needed to go directly into a song to download it. Seriously? My playlist is only 20 songs currently, but what if it was 200 or more songs? Am I seriously expected to go to each song and select the download option? With Spotify, my wife can just download the playlist and all the songs within it are downloaded automatically. I’d go as far as to say that I think if she adds and removes songs from the playlist that it will probably automatically update what’s held on storage automatically too.

The other failing of the Music hub on the phone is that there is no option that I can find to show Storage/Cloud/Downloaded music specifically. In the Music app on Windows 8 there is the option to only view music in a certain storage location, especially useful on a phone if you want to only select music that is on SD card storage to prevent a big 3G usage bill each month. Searching for Music in the Xbox Music Store is pretty straightforward however really I think it takes too many screen taps to go from playlist to store, store to song selection and then back to playlist with the new song added.

The Windows 8/RT Music app has been getting a lot of attention recently with updates and I think it’s probably time that Microsoft turned their attention to the Windows Phone Music hub and gave that a matching overhaul to bring the features and UI of the two in closer alignment as it’s needed. I haven’t tried it on the Xbox yet, but I suspect that will probably suffer some of the same fates as the Windows Phone environment. I think if there are a lot of gaps and cracking in which artists you can and can’t stream or setup Smart DJ for then this also needs to be addressed.

It’s a real shame, because I want to like Xbox Music Pass and I almost want to actually give Microsoft £89 a year for a one year subscription, but with simple flaws like this, I just can’t, it’s not practical. I think Microsoft also need to look at making an Xbox Live Gold with Xbox Music Pass bundle where if you renew and buy the two together you get a slight discount.