Xbox Music for Windows 8 review: first look
For those of you already up and running on the RTM version of Windows 8, Microsoft has today released an update for its Music app that gives us our first taste of the company's Spotify rival, Xbox Music.
The premise is very similar to Spotify: for free you can benefit from unlimited streams from the catalogue of 30 million songs, provided you're willing to put up with the interruption of adverts. (Update: the streams are unlimited for the first six months for Windows 8 buyers, and will then drop to 10 hours per month.) Alternatively, you can pay £8.99 a month for a Music Pass (that's a whole quid cheaper than Spotify), and avoid the ads, as well as use the service on your Windows Phone handset.
Now, let's get the bad news out of the way first: if you're one of those people who thought the Spotify audio ads were like nails being scratched down a blackboard, you're going to be even more annoyed by the Xbox Music messages, which can appear in full-screen video as well as audio. You're not forced to watch the adverts - they can be shunted into the background, and so far they seem largely to consist of promos for Xbox Music itself, but Microsoft will surely convince more third-parties to jump aboard in time.
That said, we're not going to throw rocks at Microsoft for using advertising to fund free content, and if you don't like it, there's probably a shop down the road still selling CDs.
So how do you find music to listen to? The homescreen of the Music app provides a variety of ways to access music, although the distinction between what's stored on your PC and available online isn't always perfectly clear. The All Music selection allows you to drill down into various genres, while the top music section gives you access to the most popular artists of the moment. To stream music, you simply need to click on an artist or album, and click to play the album or individual tracks.
However, by far the simplest way to find what you want is by searching. As with all Microsoft's Metro apps, there's no search box apparent within the app itself -- instead you have to use the Search charm, by shunting your mouse into the top/bottom right of the screen, flicking your finger from the right edge of the screen on a tablet, or by pressing the Windows key + Q. Get used to that: you're going to be doing it a lot in Windows 8 apps.
You can search for tracks, albums and artists, with the search menu sensibly breaking down the results for you. However, what isn't at all clear is what songs/artists are available for streaming and which are not. Search for Noel Gallagher, for example, and you're presented with a selection of tracks from a live album. But when you attempt to click on these, the app rather unhelpfully informs you the track is "Not available". Other albums and tracks merely offer the option to listen to a 30-second preview, and not the entire track. It would be helpful if Microsoft allowed you to weed such tracks out of the search results.
That gripe aside, there's plenty to like about Xbox Music. The option to add a song to a playlist can be found by right-clicking the mouse on the Now Playing screen, or by flicking your finger your up from the foot of the screen on a tablet. There's also the option to "Play Smart DJ", Microsoft's equivalent of Spotify's artist radio, where it attempts to find tracks from artists similar to your chosen songster.
It all works impressively smoothly and looks magnificently slick - it's a cut above Spotify's glorified spreadsheet. The artist pages, in particular, are beautifully presented, with a rolling slideshow of artist pics in the background, a potted bio, and quick access to the artist's other albums. Better still, the Music app can be docked into a thin sliver on the side of the screen, while you get on with browsing the web, using another Metro app, or something more boring. Equally, it can left to run happily in the background.
With Spotify, Deezer, We7 and other free music services aplenty, Xbox Music hardly constitutes a killer app for Windows 8. But it's a very nice freebie, and another good reason to consider that tempting £15 Windows 8 upgrade offer.