TechnologyPaul McAleer

Beats Control

TechnologyPaul McAleer
Beats Control

This is a post in a series evaluating streaming music services. Have a peek at Me & Music, and cold Rdio.

I'll be honest with you: I had used Beats a bit prior to their acquisition by Apple. But once Apple bought them, I thought I'd give them another go. I was also simply interested in using different things day-to-day just to gain other perspectives.

Beats is better than I remember. It's excellent for music discovery - probably the best discovery experience I've had since Pandora 11 years ago -  but it is missing a couple of features I care about. It's delightful enough to use and has so much personality that I'm very tempted to use it anyway and just forgo the rdio features I really want.

The Sentence

Easy to love.

Easy to love.

By far, the best thing about Beats is The Sentence. It's a Mad Libs for your music, basically. I can choose a sentence like, "I'm in the car and feel like chilling out with myself to vintage soul & funk." This works way, way better than I expected.

I had come to rely on the simple love/hate ratings of rdio and Spotify, but felt they weren't really doing anything. Beats offers that too. But instead of a radio devoted to an artist or genre, The Sentence is the main way into a radio-like interface. (There are other ways, and they're pretty good too.) With this entry point and the love/hate, I feel like Beats actually kind of understands my musical tastes. This, despite having almost few items in my collection (never bothered) and going solely on ratings and an initial "tell us what genres and artists you like" with one of the most awkward UIs in the world.

The Sentence has introduced me to loads of deep cuts and songs I just haven't heard before. Whereas with rdio, it's gotten so good at predicting me that it just doesn't surprise me anymore on radio stations - even "Paul FM". Beats definitely tries more. Sometimes it misses, but sometimes it introduces me to artists I've never heard before - like Quadron. And then it's all worth it.

One nice touch to note: one rainy morning I started The Sentence, and each of the first five songs had "rain" in their title and/or in their choruses. I don't know how they did that or if it was just a coincidence, but damn, it was a nice touch. It at least gives the impression that there's a person out there on the other end.

Not everything is amazing with The Sentence. It's got a somewhat fidgety UI. The "blanks" for the Mad Libs are limited. And, I can't just save a Sentence for later use. Despite all this I love it anyway.

Silence in the Library

Well hey, at least the pause button is big.

Well hey, at least the pause button is big.

When it comes to using my library of music, Beats foists a good-but-not-great UI and listening experience on me. This is the area where Beats could do a lot better.

It gets simple management right. There's the ability to download tracks for offline use. I can love and hate songs and tracks. I can follow artists (meh). I can add things to a playlist. The interface carries over the "voice" of The Sentence and discovery features. This is polarizing. On the one hand, it's nice to see a different approach to the Now Playing screen. On the other hand, you can't see the album art easily, so too bad. You can see that most of the controls are as expected and stylized. Even though I have grown quite accustomed to seeing album art and only album art on the play screen, this is surprisingly functional.

Overall library management in Beats is nothing to write home about. I prefer to sort by artist, and I can do that. Each album and song is readily available to play and shuffle. It's table stakes.

Not Present

Beats falls down on a number of little, annoying things and a couple of great big things. First, the little stuff:

  • The music isn't equalized across songs. Some tracks will be VERY VERY LOUD and others whisper quiet. I thought we solved this years ago?
  • There's no way to pivot from an artist or song to a radio filled with recommendations based on your selection. (I see this as a philosophical choice, but I still miss it.)

But here's what keeps me from just using Beats all the time: the lack of a play queue, the fact that almost no one I know uses it, and on everything but a phone the experience is pretty shitty.

Let's talk play queue: this is elementary stuff. I should easily be able to line up a few tracks together and then tell the thing to go. I shouldn't have to bring in a playlist construct for this. rdio does this perfectly: you press a song, a menu pops up, you choose "Play Later". Done. It's perfect. In lieu of having a play queue, I didn't bother making playlists or anything of the sort; I simply listened to more music via The Sentence, or album tracks sequentially.

I rarely use the social features of rdio or Spotify, but I missed having something like that here. "Following" people on Beats is a part of the social aspect but it seems half-baked. And when doing a search against the people I follow on Twitter, not very many came up as options to follow; this isn't the case on rdio. (Clearly, I run with an rdio crowd.)

Let's talk about something that rdio gets right that I feel is so, so important: its seamlessness.

I can start a song on my phone, pause it, and then hop over to my computer and finish it. Or, I can control the phone remotely from the computer. This is glorious and is exactly how a streaming service should work for me. It's about the music, not the device; it transcends the technology.

Beats doesn't offer this. Worse, its player options on non-phone platforms out and out suck. The laptop version is a Flash-based (!) web player (!) that doesn't allow you access to your library (wha?) And, the iPad version is straddled with the same limitations. It's almost the opposite of rdio: the seams are showing. Beats is a phone-only service.

To get around this, I'd usually just forego control of Beats on my Mac or iPad. Inconvenient.

Missing Persons

When August rolled around, I concluded my time without rdio and signed up for the service once again. And you know, I missed using Beats right away.

A few weeks prior I dipped into rdio just to check if something was there, and its interface stood in stark contrast to Beats. rdio is clean, simple, and beautiful (even with its flaws). Beats, by contrast, was more brash, helpful, and opinionated. The color choices, the language in the apps, the interactions... these all contribute to an app's personality. And frankly, Beats just makes me feel cooler. rdio feels more perfunctory by comparison: if I was going to build a streaming service and hire a good designer, I would expect to build rdio. Beats is what would happen if I hired a great designer who really understood her subject (music!) better than I did.

Beats is simply more interesting. Despite its missing features, despite its terrible non-phone clients, despite its bugs, Beats got me more excited about finding new music than rdio almost ever has. That's all worth something to me, and even though I'm back with rdio for August, I'm not sure if I'll still be with it come September.