Microsoft’s Music experience is much better today than it has been in years

Earlier this week, Windows software engineer on the Groove Music team, Ellen Kilbourne, alerted her Twitter followers to a rather significant update to the app headed to mobile devices. The new update brought many requested features as well as a handful of neat new additions to the app, unfortunately, for Ellen, her tweet got snagged on bewildered former Zune and Xbox Music users.

During a recent discussion with a colleague, I realized that the long-held perception of Xbox Music and subsequently, Groove Music, may have led to the current criticism Ellen’s update tweet may have received. Looking back on what the update brings and what Groove Music has evolved into as of today, it seems Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile users have a more than comparable music service to use, albeit lacking some features still.

The most recent update to the Groove Music app for mobile brought some handy features such as press and hold to reorder tracks within a playlist, new listings for recent plays, additional Cortana support, and OneDrive/Groove song duplication alerts.

Access

Beginning with new users, a 30-day free trial is provided access to 40 million song library ad-free. Specifically, users will gain access to a trove of over 18 million tracks from the US as well as over 38 million tracks found globally. For new or existing users, they can access their music content from a web page, PC, Xbox, iPhone, Android devices, and Windows Phones. Similar to Spotify, Groove Music can be accessed practically from any device.

For paying customers, a Groove Music Pass includes a monthly or annual subscription pricing tier. For a month to month subscription, customers are looking at $9.99 US plus tax or many can opt for a yearly price of $99.00 US plus tax. Microsoft also offers discounts to the both monthly, quarterly and annual pricing structures in the form of Work & Play bundles, or Bing Rewards, throughout the year. As for international availability, customers are encouraged to visit the Groove Support page for more details.

Playing in the Cloud

Similar to Spotify, Groove Music can be accessed practically from any device. With clients on the web, PCs, Xbox, iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone, Windows users on any platform are poised to get the most out of their subscriptions. Utilizing the cloud, Microsoft has also given the Groove Music Pass activation for up to five devices at a time in addition to using the web, changes to a music collection span across device and platform. Recently, Groove Music added the ability incorporate songs and albums stored in Microsoft’s cloud offering, OneDrive. Before some recent business policies, OneDrive users could practically stream their entire music collection in OneDrive and use the Groove Music interface as their personal music player, equipped with full art, and varying degrees of meta-data included. Groove’s integration of personal music also included music collected through iTunes as well.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Groove Music has been a bit of a hit and miss with hardcore Windows users[/pullquote]

The new Groove Music ‘locker’ is a feature that is becoming an industry standard as other music services such as Google Play Music, Amazon Music, and iTunes Match are now offering them respectively. Unfortunately, services such as Spotify, Rdio, and Songza do not provide the same cloud-locker integration.

Usage

Even with matching other streaming services with on and off device services, Groove Music has been a bit of a hit and miss with hardcore Windows users, specifically, zealot-like Zune holdouts when it comes to the apps fluidity between mobile, Xbox and PC. Preceding the long and troubled past of the Groove Music app ‘rebuild’, the new app has undergone a visual and functional redesign for better or for worse, to say the least. The new app, as of today, brings the controversial hamburger menu, that can now be accessed with or without a swipe to help improve one-handed usability. Identical to the previous Xbox Music app on Windows Phone, users have access to volume, track navigation and one-tap access to the app from anywhere within the OS by tapping the hardware volume buttons.

Other features that have been added, addressed or worked on over the course of the Groove Music app development include:

  • Artist based radio stations. (perhaps the closest thing users will get to curated playlist for some time)
  • Detailed artist info.
  • Improved exploration, shopping and downloading experiences.
  • Landscape viewing and navigation.
  • Songs and albums in your collection, sort by the date you’ve added them by default. You can still switch to sorting alphabetically. (or by artist in the case of albums)
  • You can now swipe from the left to bring up the hamburger menu. It makes it easier to use the app with a single hand.
  • Press-hold to re-order tracks within a playlist.
  • Previously, only plays from your collection would appear in Recent Plays – now it also includes things you’ve played directly from Explore.[Groove Music Pass Required]
  • Shows download progress in the title bar, and also, provide an entry point to the download manager from within the left nav menu. This aligns with what the Movies & TV app includes.
  • Tell Cortana to ‘Play Electronic’ and she will shuffle all your electronic music for you. [where Cortana is supported]
  • In the event that, during an upgrade, a data base needs to be rebuilt (this should be very infrequent), it’ll show a little explanatory dialog explaining what’s happening.
  • Detection of songs which are duplicated between OneDrive and Music Pass pop a notification asking if you’d like us to automatically remove them.
  • Reverted the recent change to the font size of the song title in Now Playing. It’s smaller now.
  • Updated the layout of the artist gallery to have proper spacing, alignment and remove the color-matched square backgrounds.
  • Added the Explore modules to the Artist Details page at larger resolutions. [Groove Music Pass Required]
  • Updated the layout of Explore at higher resolutions to look correct, and also respond better to scroll wheel. The modules also have a flipper control to allow scrolling within the page. [Groove Music Pass Required]
  • Updates to the Search results page layouts to look good at higher resolutions.
  • Updates to the layout of the Add-to menu at higher resolutions.
  • Updates to the layout of the Recent Plays gallery at higher resolutions.
  • You can share a link to music by tapping Share in the context menu. Tell your friends what you’ve been listening to!
  • Automatically show more albums for artists you’re exploring if you aren’t on a metered data connection to reduce data usage.
  • The theme setting in the app is now tied to the related system setting.
  • Improvements in the way the app searches for music on your mobile device.
  • Popular settings from the desktop version of the app are now in the mobile version – look for settings related to Downloads, Media Info, and OneDrive in the mobile app.
  • Read album reviews.
  • Update to Playlist header.
  • Remove things from Recent Plays.
  • Improved Live Tile UX Showing the Groove logo when artwork is displayed
  • Showing album art.
  • Removing the black half gradient.
  • Shuffling the metadata around to be more useful.
  • iHeart Radio integration.

Comparison

While most of the above list have been features set in place to address holes left by the transition from Xbox Music app written in Silverlight to the new Groove app written with an entirely different code, it is proof that the Groove Music app offers much of the same experiences as the competition. Furthermore, on Windows devices, particularly Windows 10 Mobile where competitive offerings are lacking, the Groove Music app offers a stellar listening experience.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]the app has been met with criticism on its design and discoverability[/pullquote]

Apple Music was recently updated with the purchase and integration of Beats Music to add curated playlist and Online Radio offerings and in doing so, the app has been met with criticism on its design and discoverability. During its initial launch, reviews complained of too many menus, hidden tools and mismanagement of music libraries on both devices and in the cloud. While Spotify remains the poster child for social sharing of music, curated playlist, cross-platform availability, its Windows offerings tend to trail behind in features, settings and updates compared to iOS and Android platforms. Google Play Music offers a very comprehensive music experience and has recently bolstered its efforts adding bits of YouTube to its customers, yet, once again, Windows users are forced into a web-only experience. Regardless of how the pie is sliced, a Windows user will have a void in their music experience across devices and platforms using any of the leading services.

Due to Windows relevancy in the market, it seems that for folks tied to Windows devices, Groove Music by default is an excellent solution. Perhaps that is not saying much, but for a many, Groove offers a lot. Furthermore, the app is making strides as it gains Sonos support, iHeartRadio integration, and is making more of its APIs accessible for other possible future alliances.

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Yes, Groove lacks a Family Plan offering comparative to the rest of the industry as well as an adequate curation solution beyond Artist Radio, but as a cross-platform, cloud-connected music service, it has been remarkably rebuilt. With almost bi-monthly updates (some, mainly bug fixes) the Groove Music app for both Windows 10 PCs and Mobile devices has retained much of what it lost during its rebuilding stage and seems better prepared to incorporate new industry standards as they arise.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For many Zune and Xbox Music refugees, years of complaining may have colored reality with perception[/pullquote]

As each new Groove update hits the Windows Store, it’s evident that user feedback is being addressed, albeit not in any particular order or with any regard to user requested timeframes, but addressed nonetheless. For many Zune and Xbox Music refugees, years of complaining may have colored reality with perception, but the Microsoft music experience of today is much better than it has been in years.

Groove Music
Groove Music
Developer: ‪Microsoft Corporation‬
Price: Free
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