Review: Apple Music v Spotify

We’re all magpies for new technology. For all that we say we love our stuff, something shiny and new always draws the eye. In this case, Apple Music.

I’ve used Spotify since 2009. Like everyone else I downloaded music in the early noughties and lived through the dark days of MP3 files and Windows Media Player to use them. iTunes coming along and the advent of the iPod was a personal revolution in 2004/05 and for most people it transformed listening to music into something that could be capricious and hassle free.

10 years later and I’m kitted and booted in Apple. With my predilection for wear and tear travel, I make no apology for this being the 5th year of my Mac, iPhone and iPad. I have no plans to upgrade, the stuff just seems to keep going on and on and on (touch wood). I never saw Steve Jobs as messianic and don’t oblige novelty, but this is solid kit; intuitive and adaptive to my work and altogether practical in a way that Windows never was for me.

With that in mind, the announcement of Apple Music presented a tantalising, albeit suspicious, opportunity. Apple’s march into gimmickry recently began with their watches and looks set to continue. There are even rumours that they’re launching their own mobile network. Novelty has replaced revolution and you wonder if they’d be on the market at all if Steve Jobs hadn’t uploaded to the big iCloud in the sky.

Nevertheless, at the behest of my brother, I downloaded Apple Music to my iPhone, iPad and updated iTunes on the Macbook Air. The interface is identical on my different devices and on the Mac it is used through iTunes; integrating with existing functionality, playlists, previous purchases and television and film downloads. I signed up for a three-month trial period for which you can assign up to six other family members and cancelled my Spotify subscription to immerse myself in something potentially better (“revolutionary” always had a certain allure).

So what did we think?

Of the major differences, Apple Music has a more detailed interface than Spotify’s black one. Spotify always looked beautiful, particularly on mobile devices, and its album artwork display has come a long way since the early days. On all devices, Apple Music has embraced this model and adopted a minimalist presentation for playlists that removes multiple viewing options, including browsing by album art, but in exchange for more functionality. When you find a song, album or artist you like you can click to see more or click the ellipsis button to see more options of what to do. Each playlist has a basic header but each page for a musician or band has a stylised one; perfect for the person who knows their music and takes pride in it (rather than tries to hide what they’re listening to on the bus). Altogether it’s just more polished, brighter and artistic than Spotify.

Of particular use on the Mac is the integration feature. Music will stop for Skype calls and come back on when you’re finished and the media keys will control iTunes. Notifications in the top right appear for each new song, a feature that sits nicely in with the option to enable an extension that will show what’s currently playing in the three-finger swipe Notification Centre. Whatever your technology of choice, seamless integration is a functional charm.

If you dislike using the Notification Centre, the iTunes MiniPlayer is by far the best alternative, with the option to have it stay on top of any open window. This was Spotify’s biggest weakness, but it has a disappointing omission: you cannot search the Apple Music library, only your own, which is both clunky and annoying and somewhat defeats the purpose altogether.

On this point, there is a strange dichotomy across all devices between ‘My Library’ and ‘Apple Music’ where you need to click one of them to search that library. It’s a curious throwback, a sort of reassurance for those who have spent thousands on music that it wasn’t in vain. It’s a dated aspect of Apple Music, not least as music added to your library will appear alongside your purchased music. It’s an annoyance, one that Spotify has bypassed with the means to integrate your purchased iTunes library into your Spotify library (not playable unless it’s available on their servers). It’s a predictable hangup from Apple: one foot into streaming what is essentially free music and the need, and habit, of having iTunes as a billion dollar enterprise.

The aesthetic and functionality of Apple Music across Apple devices is much the same. In comparison to Spotify, the most noticeable absence is the ability to ‘star’ songs as favourites which would then appear in a starred playlist. You can, however, hit the ‘+’ button to add songs, albums or artists to your library. The favourites issue is easily remedied by creating a playlist and labelling it as ‘favourites’, but it is again a curious omission from Apple. The function to ‘heart’ songs (which makes better ‘For You’ suggestions) is a disappointing red herring, particularly when it is so prominently featured on the locked screen player in the iPhone and iPad.

The payoff, however, is that Apple is extremely intuitive about your listening preferences. Genius, a previous feature of iTunes, works to play music in your library that matches the song you’ve selected it from. It works with both your saved music and music you’ve purchased.

Better than this is the ‘For You’ section of Apple Music which will make recommends on both your music preferences and music you’ve ‘loved’. Some confusion surrounds the equivalent of one of Spotify’s superior features, its radio. When you start a ‘new station’ in Apple Music from a song or stations, it plays music similar to that but with no ability to calibrate it to what you like and don’t like as you can do in Spotify. Despite the oversight from Apple, you can return to your created station in the radio section of Apple Music to play it again. Here is another typically Apple novelty, albeit a nifty one: Beats 1, Apple’s own in-house radio station hosted by real DJs. You can also start other stations by genre but the day Apple bites the bullet and finds a way to have a live stream of a country’s radio stations will be a happy one.

Major issues are few but notable. On the iPhone, a strange issue with created playlists is that songs do not automatically move onto the next but will replay. Whether or not this is a common issue or a dramatic deficiency is unclear, but when you don’t really want to be going back to your pocket every 3 minutes (or if you’re a fidgety listener) it’s a significant irritation. Additionally, I have no wireless data on my iPhone at present and rely on wifi. If the phone is searching for wifi it won’t play songs which are supposedly downloaded offline and such the wifi needs to be switched off.

On the iPad there is the bizarre issue of  having a keyboard half displayed on the screen. When I go to search for something my normal sized iPad keyboard will appear but half will appear off the screen. Whether or not this is unique to my device is unclear but it appears sporadically and isn’t immediately solved with a restart. Additionally, sometimes when I switch on my devices and open Apple Music it doesn’t recognise that I am already using it and I am asked me to log in again. Not the biggest problem in the world, but like other issues an unnecessary glitch.

The big problem for both devices is battery life. Apple Music destroys the life of my iPhone and has been known to reduce a full charge down in an hour (this is with the phone playing in my pocket with wifi and the screen switched off). The iPad shares the same problem but it is nowhere near as pronounced. The phone is 4 years old but never suffered as much under Spotify.

Apple has a reputation for forcing its own commerciality on you, whether it be downloading U2 albums without permission or, in this instance, having a ‘Connect’ page and link that takes you to the latest news and activities of artists. It’s a bit gimmicky and sullies what otherwise feels like the right balance between tailored recommends and letting you see what’s new. If you add an artist to your library you automatically follow them which is not ideal for people who just want to listen to their music. Most people are wholly disinterested in the activities of the musicians who play the music we love.

Yet Apple Music doesn’t saturate with its need to recommend based on your interests and it doesn’t suffocate you if you like to be surprised by new stuff beyond what you already know. It is in the best sense brightly mainstream.

All of this helps and compares it to the daddy of all issues – the size of the library. As someone with a penchant for film soundtracks, some obscure and some not, I can report Apple breaks even with Spotify with what they have available. Spotify has about 30 million songs against Apple Music’s 43 million and I’ve not stumbled upon a disappointment or anything that is available to Spotify and not in Apple Music

Ultimately Apple Music stirs something of the old free marketeer in me. What Apple promised as a revolution is more of a broadside against Spotify. This is no bad thing and it will be interesting to see in the months ahead if this leads to mutual innovation on the part of both companies.

There isn’t too much of a price difference. After the three-month trial period, a family pack for up to six members will be £14.99 and a single user licence £9.99 (the same as Spotify). They part ways with having a free version, but Spotify with adverts was never an enjoyable experience.

They say there’s no zeal like that of the convert, but in this case let’s call my change of heart tempered enthusiasm. There’s hope, and enough promise in Apple Music to make me stick around, but the integration features have most likely made the shift from Spotify to the new kid on the block a permanent one.

Special thanks to my brother Ewan for setting it all up.