Review by Andrew Kameka on Tuesday January 21, 2014.
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Beats Music positions itself as the anti-Spotify. It's also the anti-Pandora and anti-iTunes Radio because it relies less on a series of algorithms to decide what song to play next and more on the knowledge of music experts who have spent years writing about or playing the hits and under-appreciated gems. Beats still uses user feedback to inform decisions and make suggestions about what kind of songs to play, but it is a system built on human input. If you're looking for suggestions of what to listen to, or a more diverse radio option, I'm not sure that's the best way to go.
From a visual standpoint, Beats Music is prettier and simpler than most of its competitors. Using the Android app was very favorable thanks to its use of large icons and album covers neatly integrated into the design. I also love that instead of a progress bar, there's a progress circle that users can drag to skip ahead or back. Launching the app reveals a Just For You tab that tries to find albums and playlists that match the clues users provide when setting up the app. Swiping right leads to further discovery options like highlighted playlists and a directory of curators and playlists organized according to genre.
It also has an on-demand element, so you can bypass the suggestions altogether and just jump directly into your favorite music collection. Beats includes support for a My Library section that stores Albums and Songs, as well as a personalized Playlists section. For the average consumer just looking for a music service, you can store any of Beats' catalog of more than 20 million songs and have your favorite collection available. Songs can also be stored for offline listening and then filtered by tapping the icon at the top of of a playlist or album directory. That's also where you organize by date added, most played, least played, or alphabetical listing,.
Beats Music on Android and iOS - the Windows Phone version launches Friday - are fluent when it comes to design; they are merely proficient when it comes to recommendations. Beats has a smart setup process that quickly gauges what kind of music to supply based on marking favorite genres and ranking some artists according to love, like, and hate. Those recommendations change as more songs are played and rated, but they are severely limited early on. Informing the app that I like The Killers, love EPMD, and hate The Game somehow convinced the app that it should recommend a strong helping of early era hip-hop and nothing else. Many of the artist suggestions are ones that I at least like, but several could easily be classified as hate, and others would be in the "Not Interested" column if such a designation existed. Several curated playlists also skewer heavily towards music from one region or era, which omits many of the artists and songs that I enjoy just as much, if not more.
The best feature of Beats is not the curated lists pushed to users; it's The Sentence that crafts a playlist based on a fill-in-the-blank mood and genre setting. There are also cases where one or two songs on a set playlist might fit a theme but don't mesh with the rest of the playlist, such as "Covered: Bob Marley." That's the kind of mistake I'd expect a machine to make, but I've never seen Pandora that far off the mark. Songza, another music service that prefers curated list, does a much better job of song selection; and it has more than the 15 to 20 songs typically found in a Beats playlist. Therefore, I can say that the problem is not necessarily the model of Beats's inclusion of humans, but the problem is that the biases and personal tastes of experts are not as accurate to the listener's preferences.
Beats Music works because it has most of the same songs as the competition and looks beautiful. Where the streaming service fails is that its recommendation system is too human. If you're looking for a radio mode, your choices won't be as personalized and informed as they are on other services. Beats is a good streaming service at $9.99 if you're set in your listening ways, and it's a great value if you sign-up for the $14.99 AT&T family plan. When it comes to finding the best streaming package, Beats Music still feels a little off.
Note: Beats crashes every time that I attempt to connect to its social networking features, so I'm unable to review that aspect.
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.