Apple Music review: Spotify, beware
Welcome to our review of Apple Music, the music-streaming service launched by Apple at WWDC 2015. We expect major changes to Apple Music's features and interface to be unveiled at WWDC 2016, as the service passes its first anniversary - read our What to expect at WWDC 2016 article for full details - so stay tuned for a comprehensive update to this review as soon as the changes are confirmed.
Apple Music is the new iTunes-based music streaming service that arrived on iPhone, iPad and Mac with the iOS 8.4 update on 30 June. That means that every compatible iOS device that has been updated to the latest version of the software has Apple Music installed, and with a three-month free trial it's an appealing service for Apple users that has rivals such as Spotify scared, and for good reason.
Apple Music review: Pricing & competition
As of May 2016, there are three membership tiers: Apple Music costs £9.99 per month for the individual membership, £14.99 per month for the Family membership (for up to six people to share using Family Sharing), or £4.99 for the student membership. Selecting the student option is sightly different from the other two - you need to go through a verification system to demonstrate that your university or college is eligible, and that you're signed up to it. Here's how to get an Apple Music student membership discount.
Some of Apple Music's features are available for free, but they're very limited and there's no ad-supported version like there is for Spotify, which is where we think Spotify wins. If you don't want to pay £9.99 per month for a streaming service, Spotify lets you listen to unlimited tracks for free, but you'll also hear some adverts and you'll have a limited number of skips in some parts of the service.
If you've already signed up for the Apple Music free trial but don't want to pay once it's over, make sure you check out our article on how to stop Apple charging you for Apple Music.
Apple Music review: The app
We found the Apple Music app very overwhelming when we first started using it. Even the setup process with its bouncing balls is a bit chaotic. There are five sections to the app, and each has more sections within, all with varying menus and options.
There's a lot to get used to, and we found that it took a lot of trial and error, but after a few days of use things are becoming clearer. If you've been using Apple Music and you're still confused, try our 12 Apple Music tips and our Complete Guide to Apple Music to help you master the app and make the most out of its offerings.
Additionally, we're disappointed to find that Apple Music is a bit on the buggy side. It's early days and we're sure it'll improve with further updates, but right now there are lots of bugs in Apple Music, which can be very frustrating.
Apple Music review: Music library
The Apple Music library features over 30 million songs from iTunes, though that's not the full amount of tracks available to buy from Apple's iTunes Store – there are more than 10 million tracks missing. That includes Prince and The Beatles, but Apple has managed to convince Taylor Swift to sign up after she wrote an open letter to the company in protest against its plan not to pay artists for the three-month free trial. That letter led Apple to change its policy and in turn encouraged Taylor to allow your music to be streamed there. Apple Music is the first streaming service she's allowed her music onto.
But it's not just the songs that make the music library in Apple Music great. It's also the curated playlists put together by teams of experts in every genre. You'll find playlists for each genre, as well as moods and activities, and those playlists can only grow and improve over time.
There are also playlists created by music magazines and websites, including Rolling Stone, Q, Pitchfork, DJ, Mojo and Shazam.
Apple Music review: Music discovery and recommendations
Despite the setup process, which makes you choose genres and artists you like to help it decide what it thinks you'll enjoy, Apple Music didn't get our music tastes quite right. In addition to the artists and genres you choose during setup, it'll also scan your Music library to see what you've already downloaded from iTunes.
However, the recommendations you'll see in the For You section of the app will improve over time as it learns what you like and don't like. You can tell Apple Music that you're enjoying a song by tapping the heart icon at any time, and you can tell it not to recommend that again by tapping and holding, and then pressing "I don't like this suggestion." With a bit of tinkering, you should find that eventually the For You section gets it right almost every time.
We love that you can add a song to the My Music library at any time, and even better you can save them to listen to offline. This will mean you'll be downloading songs onto your device, so it'll begin to take up space pretty quickly, but if you're about to jet off on holiday on a long flight, or if you spend lots of time on the London Underground, for example, it can be very handy to have some new music to keep you company.
Apple Music review: Sound quality
Apple Music streams at a 256Kbps bitrate, which makes it lower than Spotify's Premium 320Kbps, but higher than the 160Kbps offered with Spotify's free version. However the services use different audio formats and you'll find it difficult to tell the difference in quality between Spotify's Premium quality and Apple Music. Both are satisfyingly good and it should only be audiophiles that are left wanting more quality.
Apple Music review: Connect
Connect is an interesting idea but we think it has limited appeal. So far, since we started using Apple Music, we've not looked at Connect at all. It's a feature that lets artists post videos, photos, messages and more for fans to see, like and comment on. Users are unable to post their own content, but can interact with the posts from their favourite artists.
If you're particularly fond of one artist that's active and posts exclusive content, you'll enjoy using Connect, but how often artists will actually use it is yet to be seen and we can't imagine everyone using this feature.
However, it is one of the features available for free, so even if you don't pay the £9.99 to subscribe to Apple Music, you'll still be able to see what's happening on Connect.
Apple Music review: Radio
The star of the show when it comes to Apple Music's radio section is Beats 1 Radio, a worldwide, 24-hour radio station that is broadcast live from London, LA and New York depending on the time of day.
While listening, you can add songs being played to the My Music library to listen to later if you like them.
You'll also hear interviews with artists and other additional content, and many are comparing Beats 1 Radio to BBC Radio 1.
However, a bit like Connect, Beats 1 won't appeal to everyone. With the same tracks playing to every listener around the world, you're not going to like everything. You can't skip tracks like you can with the other Radio stations in Apple Music, and we've heard reports that it's prone to the occasional repeat if you're listening for long enough.
That said, it is one of the free features available even if you don't subscribe to Apple Music, and it has captured lots of fans already, including Macworld's own Lewis Painter.
As mentioned, the other Radio stations available in the Radio section of Apple Music compare more closely with Spotify's Radio feature, acting more like infinite, skippable playlists based on a specific genre rather than live radio complete with DJs like Beats 1. They're essentially carried over from iTunes Radio, Apple's service that never actually made it to the UK.
You can also create your own Radio station inspired by a single song or artist at any time, by tapping the three dots and then Start Station.
Radio is unavailable to listen to offline, though, so you'll need to be connected to the internet at all times for that.
Apple Music review: The Apple Watch and Siri
Apple Music is designed to work with Siri, with new questions about music available. You can ask Siri to "play more songs like this," for example, or to play the best music from a particular year, movie or genre. You can even ask Siri to play popular songs from your birthday, or say "After this song play Black Magic by Little Mix," (or whatever song you like).
Apple Music is also available on the Apple Watch.
Apple Music has a lot going for it, and we imagine that it's going to encourage lots of people to sign up, and a large percentage of people to leave Spotify, not least because it's automatically on every iPhone and iPad running iOS 8.4. It's seamlessly integrated into devices making it the most natural choice for Apple users.
Most people using an iPhone or iPad will sign up to the three months free trial, even if they didn't really know about music streaming services and what they offer. If they find that they're using it on a regular basis, they are likely to continue paying the £9.99 per month once the trial is over.
Of course, right now it's only available for iOS, but when it comes to Android later in the year Spotify will be even more concerned. For Android users and anyone looking for a free way to stream music, Apple Music is currently not an option, but it won't be long before that changes.
There's a lot of room for improvement with Apple Music, but it's certainly off to a good start. We'd recommend signing up for the three month free trial and trying it out to see whether you think it's worth paying for. You might be surprised with how much you enjoy using it.