Editorial

Where Xbox Music still falls short (and the few things it gets right)

In its short lifetime, the Xbox Music app for Windows 8 has improved by leaps and bounds. While the pre-8.1 Music app clearly suffered from a strict adherence to Microsoft’s “Modern UI” design guidelines (see below ) and a laundry list of other frustrating issues, the most recent iteration of the Xbox Music app seems to demonstrate that developers are actually attempting to address user requests and complaints.

Play or pause controls? Unnecessary!

That being said, there are still a number of lingering issues (some major, some minor) that have yet to be addressed, issues that often render any attempt to fully rely on the Xbox Music app for all of your music needs a frustrating experience.

Let me elaborate. 

Inconsistent access to media shortcuts

When playing music on my Lumia 920, I only have to press one of the hardware volume buttons to quickly access important media shortcuts such as play or pause and back or forward. The situation is largely the same on my laptop and Surface tablet. A press of the volume up or down buttons and the “now-playing” widget pops into view. 

Attempting to access these controls with a traditional mouse and keyboard setup is a different story.

In the most recent version of the Xbox Music app, it is impossible to access the “now-playing” widget unless you have access to a keyboard with multimedia functions. As a desktop user, the only way to pause or skip a song is to navigate to the full-screen app and select pause or next track. As a writer that loves to listen to music while typing away, nothing is more frustrating than having to completely leave behind whatever I’m doing to simply skip a song. I could sacrifice a quarter of my screen space to gain quick access to the media shortcuts by “docking” the Music app to left or right side of screen, but I refuse to surrender all of my dignity to Microsoft (I already bought a new multimedia keyboard . . .)

I guess this is progress . . .

To add insult to injury, activating the “now-playing” widget on any Windows 8 device requires a user to execute a potentially unwanted command to access a desired one. Whenever I press volume up or volume down to activate the widget, I’m adjusting the volume whether I want to or not in order to skip a song. The Windows Phone developers, being the smart cookies they are, made it so that the function of the first press of the hardware volume key only brings up the now-playing info and leaves the device volume unchanged. Take notice Windows OS developers!

Lack of social features

Xbox Music clearly lacks the social features of its competitors and even its predecessor, Zune.

With Spotify, I can create collaborative playlists that allow my friends and I to add songs to a single playlist over the course of weeks and months. Without leaving the Spotify desktop app, I can post a link to this playlist too on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumbler. I can also see what my Facebook friends are listening to. If I don’t want to see this information, I can simply right-click on their name and select “unfollow.”

In the official Xbox Music app, selecting a playlist and accessing the share charm offers me the following options.

Oddly enough, the Xbox Music web app actually offers more functionality in this regard. When viewing a playlist, the web app provides a “share on Facebook” button that will post a link to Facebook that those with or without a Microsoft account can easily listen to. Very cool Microsoft! Just add it to the damn native app too!

The few things . . .

While there are many other things I could complain about, the Xbox Music service, apart from the app itself, also offers a few benefits that have led me to continue to choose it over other music streaming options.

Xbox Music distinguishes between My Collection and Playlists

Spotify allows you to listen to anything it hosts in its catalog, but the only way you can catalog the music that you want to listen to is by adding it to specific playlists. Things can quickly become overwhelming as you start to create playlists for particular genres, artists, and other mixes.

In contrast, Xbox Music allows you to create a collection that is wholly separate from Microsoft’s larger catalog of music and from your playlists. The ability to create a collection allows me to avoid the alternative of having to create cumbersome playlists containing, for example, all of the albums belonging to a single artist.

Xbox Music is still the best choice for Windows Phone users

Saying that Xbox Music is the best option among mediocre alternative isn’t exactly a flattering statement, but it is, at the moment, still true. The Spotify app is rarely updated, lacks the ability to play radio stations, and still crashes from time to time. Google Music is currently MIA and it appears that upcoming music services such as Beats Music will focus primarily on apps tailored for Android and iOS smartphones.

Hope on the horizon

Despite the frustrations that sometimes result from using the Xbox Music app, I still believe that there is hope for the future.

We know that Microsoft is capable of building music software that includes great social features (see Zune Media Player) and the company’s cozy relationship with Facebook suggests that we should expect to see further integration beyond what is currently available in the Music web app.

Lastly, the rumored ability to run “Modern UI” apps from the desktop, an addition that is rumored to be added in the upcoming Threshold update, would go a long way to addressing some of pitfalls of using Xbox Music on a daily basis. 

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Matt Sharpe said,
There's plenty more wrong with it than this article lists!
How about the complete inability to edit metadata. Sure, you can attempt to "match" album details (though this fails a lot of the time), but even then it doesn't actually update the files' metadata, only the app's library.

It's a huge step backwards from Zune, which was itself a step back from WMP.

Right now it is little more than a Music Player and tool to keep content in sync between your devices/cloud.

For editing type features like metadata, stick to WMP for now.

I feel your pain. If I had included every complaint I could make about Xbox Music this article would have pushed past 2000 words

Also a lot of options are buried under the app, like the properties, when you are looking to edit the metadata of a song, but when you get there, just a stupid window, you cannot edit the information. Cloud sync is a pain when your music is not in the default Music folder. My library of music have more than 24000 songs, it's on another drive, wher ei stored most of my media, only 65 of them are in the cloud, I was manually syncing some albums, but still the're not in the cloud. The only ones they are, are the ones in the Music folder, which i removed from the search path, WTH???

It feels like only one or two developers are working in this project.

I agree that this article left out a lot more problems. At least the MS devs are working on the app, but still fells like they're care more about the looks and not the functionality. They should learn a lot from Spotify or even Apple. This app is really a step backwards.

For now WinAMP, iTunes and Foobar2000 are the definitive audio players for Windows 7-8.

Edited by mjedi7, Jan 12 2014, 8:47pm :

mjedi7 said,
Also a lot of options are buried under the app, like the properties, when you are looking to edit the metadata of a song, but when you get there, just a stupid window, you cannot edit the information. Cloud sync is a pain when your music is not in the default Music folder. My library of music have more than 24000 songs, it's on another drive, wher ei stored most of my media, only 65 of them are in the cloud, I was manually syncing some albums, but still the're not in the cloud. The only ones they are, are the ones in the Music folder, which i removed from the search path, WTH???

It feels like only one or two developers are working in this project.

I agree that this article left out a lot more problems. At least the MS devs are working on the app, but still fells like they're care more about the looks and not the functionality. They should learn a lot from Spotify or even Apple. This app is really a step backwards.

For now WinAMP, iTunes and Foobar2000 are the definitive audio players for Windows 7-8.

If you add your Music folders stored on another drive to your Music 'Library', it will sync them, without having to take them with you.

I have a mild 15,000 song collection and 14,799 of the Music (located in a separate folder) was added to the Xbox Music collection. The only songs that didn't make it were a few that are not digitally available, and a few that I had tagged incorrectly, which I could go back to WMP and adjust if it they were important.

The Xbox Music 'App' is good for playing and Syncing. If you need to adjust your metadata/tags, the Windows 8.1 App is not 'currently' designed to help with this aspect.

Also if you are using alternative 'databases' for 'tagging' your Music that may not be 100% accurate, you will run into problems when it tries to find the cloud version of the song.

Some of my songs that are improperly tagged, are set as tracks for a UK/Australia bonus track Album, when they are not, and this causes an issue. Xbox Music tries to use the 'metrics' of the song file, when in doubt, which will often 'properly' tag the song, but not match what Album you have it tagged as being from. - If there is a metric difference. Also if the particular Album you have is not digitally available, it will use an album variation of the song that is available.

(Be careful with iTunes, it is consistently in the top 5 software Apps that allow malware on a system. It uses their Safari/Webkit engine without much security. Unless you have a lot of iTunes content, you are better off to do a lossless transcode and give up iTunes.)

Xbox Music is a good service that is still transitioning from Zune licensing, which has server side growing pains. The rather pedestrian Xbox Music App on Windows 8.1 is not going to win users, it is just a basic player interface and syncing tool.

(Yes the Music App needs a major revision, unless Microsoft has given up competing with other solutions and don't want to provide a full music 'management' version.)

Mobius Enigma said,

(Be careful with iTunes, it is consistently in the top 5 software Apps that allow malware on a system. It uses their Safari/Webkit engine without much security. Unless you have a lot of iTunes content, you are better off to do a lossless transcode and give up iTunes.)

I don't see how iTunes allows malware in any system, it only browses the App Store and the iTunes Store, maybe Safari, but I use Chrome.

There's no way I will transcode all my media, why?

I been using iTunes Match for like 8 months and of my 24145 songs, only 25 are not in the cloud, not because of the tagging, but because of the bit-rate: 64Kb/s. Also the iD3 v1 &v2 tags on the Mp3s are fine, I don't use ape. So the tags shouldn't be a problem for the XBOX music app.

Matter of fact, it adds the music to the library fine, but it didn't upload or match any of my songs. So I got tired and frustrated with the app, I don't try anymore try to upload/match my music. Maybe in the next years MS could fix some of this and make a decent music player/manager for windows. But in the meantime, it's just a good player for a not so good interface (metro or modern whatever it's called).

mjedi7 said,

I don't see how iTunes allows malware in any system, it only browses the App Store and the iTunes Store, maybe Safari, but I use Chrome.

There's no way I will transcode all my media, why?

I been using iTunes Match for like 8 months and of my 24145 songs, only 25 are not in the cloud, not because of the tagging, but because of the bit-rate: 64Kb/s. Also the iD3 v1 &v2 tags on the Mp3s are fine, I don't use ape. So the tags shouldn't be a problem for the XBOX music app.

Matter of fact, it adds the music to the library fine, but it didn't upload or match any of my songs. So I got tired and frustrated with the app, I don't try anymore try to upload/match my music. Maybe in the next years MS could fix some of this and make a decent music player/manager for windows. But in the meantime, it's just a good player for a not so good interface (metro or modern whatever it's called).

iTunes uses the Safari engine. Check out the 2012 and 2013 reports from security sites like Secunia.

It is more dangerous to have iTunes installed on a PC than Java.

Couldn't have said it all better myself. The inconsistency between volume button activation behaviors in Windows 8 and Windows Phone always irritated and confused me. Microsoft really needs to get its act together when it comes down to the functional and behavioral discrepancies between Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox. They are presenting them as a unified ecosystem, but it's still only skin deep.

I can't believe you're not even mentioning automatic playlists and song/album rating.

These 2 simple and ubiquitous features (in any respectable music player) have been missing since they decided to throw the Zune client away.
I don't know how they think music lovers can actually perform basic collection management without this.

Also, not too long ago, the Music team went public saying that about half the features were integrated in the current version and that we would see quick updates to deliver the rest.

Honestly, considering how important this application is for the Microsoft ecosystem, I have a hard time understanding the very low velocity of this project.

looks like I see a seekbar. I might use the music app finally. Thanks for the editorial.

Baffling why seekbar is not in WP8.

XBOX Music really needs to merge with Nokia Music, particularly for the sake of Bollywood Music. It is severely lacking compared to iTunes and Nokia Music has a great collection.

So many things, so many things. Zune had a lot right, is it tech limitations or tech policies that hold things back? The simple task of being able to hit a thumbs up or a thumbs down on a particular song, seems like such basic stuff that they could add to this app. Sometimes I think they have different coders running around to different apps to fix some stuff and not others. Are the same guys that made a decision not to add print functionality to the calendar in Outlook.com the same guys that decided to leave out the heart button on music? So many things right and so many things wrong all at the same time. I look forward to the fruits of the re-organization, will it makes things across the board less disjointed, and when will we see the fruits of it all. I patiently wait. But they have fixed quite a bit in the last year at Xbox Music, many of us wonder why did they have to fix so many things that Zune already had right.

I have an Xbox music pass, but I really am not liking the software. I miss the experience with my Zune HD and Zune pass, the Xbox Music service just doesn't compare at all. In some regards, it's a step forward from the Zune software, but in many aspects, it's a step back.

I have about 42 GB of music in my Music library (that's using the library features in W8.1). The major problem I have with Xbox Music is it only recognizes 588 of my songs in my collection. It's so frustrating, and their support say try reindexing, which doesn't work.

I agree. Microsoft has not addressed the glitches in the software at all. I have a large music collection as well... and it's very frustrating when some technician at Microsoft uses the phrase "one by one" to address this issue. Sorry, I won't do that.

Microsoft needs to get this right already. It's been a problem for awhile now.

The lack of any ability to access it without a paid subscription on non windows 8/8.1 mobile devices is a big downer.

Xbox Music cloud matching isn't very great. And if you choose to do manually you have to go song by song, wish there was a way to open up everything at once to try and add to cloud collection for the songs it can't do

I just wish they would add the ability to be able to login as a different user within the Xbox Music App, like you could with Zune. Not having this is so friggin annoying for families that share a subscription across different PC's.

My opinion: They need to do a much better job of identifying music. A lot of people have already spent a lot of time manually fixing things in other players they're using, if those players can't do a decent-enough job of it already. Nobody wants to re-do that with another player.

Solution: MS needs to spend the resources to read that metadata from these other apps (third-party or otherwise) rather than trying to re-invent everything with Xbox Music. That is, if a user's already got the Zune player (MS's own, for god's sake) then they need to import its data rather than guessing. Same with WMP, Media Center (again, both their own), Winamp, Foobar, iTunes, or whatever else the user might have.

Personally I was using it for a long time, but unless it's up front on my system it has a tendency to duck the volume with no way to change it. I can't stand that.

So I'm using Zune again. And Pandora, at the moment.

The best option on Windows Phone? I'm not subscribed to either service but Nokia Music seems better than Xbox Music. I've picked Xbox Music as my daily app mostly because of the beautiful live tile.

I love XBOX Music, haven't seen anything quite like it. but honestly, the biggest problem with MS in general is that they tend to lose focus. they cannot just focus on one thing and get it right and go to next. as some one has mentioned before what was wrong with Zune branding? still XBOX music is good but they initially hurt the brand name by poor app on Windows 8, Lack of support in WP 7.x and older version of windows like 7 or vista. Service itself is quite good and impressive, even web version is good. but they don't promote it as much as they should. instead they make T-Shirt and ads to attack Chrome OS and google... sighhhh. Look at search engine. They had MSN. nothing wrong with branding, changed to Live again nothing wrong and now Bing. honestly part of the reason people lose confident developing for MS platform is this attitude of losing focus. I know Microsoft won't read this comment and even if they do they won't listen but its important to focus on one product instead of jumping around. so frustrating for developers and consumer. again I love XBOX Music and new Win 8.1 app is OK. (windows 8 version was horrible but they improved a lot on 8.1)

To summarize:

The Xbox Music...

Service as a whole = Excellent!
WP8 hub = Good but can be improved
Windows 8 app = Okay; Better than before but still not on par to Zune
Other platforms = ditto

In my opinion, they should have just rebranded and built on Zune instead of starting the platform from scratch. They would have saved lots of time and kept all the great design, excellent features and social features that Zune had.

Agree. I also think Xbox Music needs a fully-functional desktop app... that does everything that WMP, and Zune, and Xbox Music can do. NOW that would be awesome.

Instead, Microsoft has three (now, two) hobbled music apps... and it's not working.

I just want the heart (<3) and broken heart (</3) system back. It worked great in WP7 but now it's just an icon that does nothing. In Zune/WP7, all you had to do was love (<3) a song and it auto-synced to your phone, or if you unloved (</3) a song on your phone it would unsync it. So simple and instant.

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