Apple Music feels at home on Android, but it's missing a few things

Far from a quick-and-dirty iOS port, the music service looks and acts like a proper Android app.

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Apple is off to a solid start with its fully premium streaming music service, as Apple Music has racked up some 15 million users since launching on iOS and Mac this summer. Granted, more than half of those are still riding out their free three-month trial plans (as of last month), but at least a lot of people are giving it a shot.

Why on earth are we pointing that out? Because as of yesterday, Android users can also check out the service via an official Apple Music app released to the Play Store. That’s right: Apple created an Android app meant for everyday use on the platform, as opposed to its last one, which was designed simply to vault folks over to iOS devices (and was roundly slammed by Play Store reviewers).

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Apple Music on a Nexus 5 (left) and iPhone 6s Plus. Much is the same, but Apple has tweaked the experience for Android users.

What’s most surprising about Apple Music on Android, once the initial shock of the whole situation subsides, is that it really does look and feel like it belongs on the platform. Strange as it may seem, this is an Apple app built around familiar Android design tenets, even as it keeps most—but currently not all—of the functionality from the iPhone version. And as a service, it has some real perks over Spotify and other rivals.

Apple’s advantages

Like Spotify and Google Play Music, Apple Music offers a huge library of music to explore—at least 30 million tracks and growing. But it has a few feature additions that help set the service apart from the streaming pack.

Beats 1, its always-on streaming radio station staffed by real DJs, is a highlight. True, radio might seem like an unnecessary relic in an era of on-demand music and custom stations on the fly, but there’s something to be said for human curation when it comes to discoverability. It’s a little jarring at first, especially if you tap the listen button and stumble upon something you don’t like, or wouldn’t choose to listen to.

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Beats 1 is Apple Music’s exclusive live radio station, offering big exclusives and artist-hosted shows.

Stick it out! Or try again later. Seriously, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to discover on Beats 1, and the exclusives are a big part of it. You’ll find radio shows hosted by artists ranging from Elton John to St. Vincent and Dr. Dre, all of which are archived if you miss them. Ex-BBC DJ extraordinaire Zane Lowe is the face of Beats 1, and he always seems to have beloved artists in the booth for his blocks—like Taylor Swift, Eminem, and Weezer.

Apple Music also has intriguing recommendations elsewhere in the app, notably in the For You tab. I like the themed playlists that relate to something I’ve listened to: a list of tracks from a rising hip-hop producer, for example, or all the collaborations a certain artist has done. The many human-created playlists provide additional means of finding great new stuff, and it’s always great to find a well-crafted, thoughtful collection of tracks.

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Curated playlists help you find intriguing new tracks, explore genres of all sorts, and dig into an artist’s library.

Connect should be a major feature of Apple Music, but it’s underwhelming. It’s positioned as a social link between artists and their fans, letting bands and musicians share content and updates with fans, but many just use it to blandly promote music videos or singles with links. And when Coldplay posts a photo from the studio, for example, it still feels like part of a calculated PR cycle—not a genuine moment that they just couldn’t wait to share with fans. Given the lack of significant interaction on the user side of things, as well, Connect just isn’t a terribly exciting feature.

Music videos are also included in Apple Music, although the selection is spotty—and more importantly, they’re not on Android just yet. Apple Music is branded a “beta” for Android right now, and music videos are the biggest feature omission. Given that Google just bundled ad-free YouTube Red with Play Music’s subscription plan, Apple might not want to wait too long to bring its own video offerings to Android. 

And while this might seem less important to Android users on the surface, one of Apple Music’s biggest strengths is that it exists within the Apple ecosystem. That means you have the ability to access the music in your iTunes computer library on your Android phone via iCloud Music Library. Anything not already found on Apple Music is uploaded to the cloud for you to use anywhere and anytime—so long as your subscription remains intact. For anyone with a big local iTunes library they want accessible on the go, that’s a big benefit.

Made for Android

Apple Music is a nicely attractive app on iOS, with a brighter color palette than Spotify, along with large, striking use of album artwork. But navigation can be truly confusing, thanks to loads of options and no clear path through menus at times. So maybe it’s for the best that the Android version isn’t simply a quick port of the iPhone release.

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Much of the iOS design is retained, but Apple has embraced familiar Android UI and navigational elements.

No, it’s not a dramatic reinvention of Apple Music’s mobile experience: the sections are the same and the overall visual aesthetic is largely carried over between versions. But here, you get a proper Android navigational experience. The “hamburger” menu icon is there on the upper left to tap, or you can pull out the same menu drawer by swiping from the left side. Putting the various sections in that menu means they aren’t available on-screen at all times as small buttons, but it also minimizes the clutter to some extent.

All told, it’s a fair balance between approaches. You get the familiar look of Apple Music on iOS with concessions to how things are done on Android, and it all works well. The screens can still feel cluttered in places, but that’s something for Apple to refine across the board as the service matures. The Android version even gets a little extra customization in the form of the ability to set the size of your local playback cache, which helps smooth out playback and trim data waste.

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Rather than always-visible buttons, you’ll tap the hamburger button or pull out the drawer for section access.

Unfortunately, one of Apple Music’s biggest perks isn’t yet fully available from an Android phone: the well-priced family plans. While Spotify charges $5 per additional user on your family plan over the $10 base fee, Apple Music only wants $5 extra in total for up to five more users. Got a six-person family? It’s still just $15 a month. 

That’s awesome, but the Apple Music beta on Android doesn’t allow family sign-ups from the app. You’ll need either an iOS device or Mac to tackle that process. You can sign up your family from iOS or Mac and then use that account on an Android device, or just sign up for a single account via Android and then convert it later on one of those devices. Surely Apple will sort out its family plan issues by the time those three-month trials end, so the latter option might make sense if you don’t own any Apple hardware.

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You can sign up for a free trial as a single user, but family accounts require a Mac or iOS device to create or convert.

Sadly, Apple Music also isn’t fully compatible with Google Now voice commands at this point; if you ask Google Now to play an artist or song, Apple Music won’t be listed as one of the available apps, and you can’t ask Now to go directly to something in the app. There’s no word yet on whether that functionality is even planned (we’d love to have it), but it would be a helpful addition to help put it on par with other Android streaming options.

Beyond the couple of notable omissions, Apple Music also earns its beta tag with occasional bugs. I ran into a couple instances where unresponsive buttons wouldn’t let me stop a stream, for example, forcing me to reset the app. And I also noticed some jittery moments while playing Beats 1, which I haven’t experienced on Mac or iPhone. Early issues on a relatively new platform for Apple, no doubt, but by and large playback has been reliable thus far.

Anyone already deeply entrenched in another streaming service will have to decide if the added value of Beats 1, various exclusives (Taylor Swift! Drake!), and iTunes Cloud Library are enough to pull you away, but the free trial should eliminate any hesitation. Sign up, give it a shot, and just be sure to cancel before the three months are up if you’re not swayed. You never know—you might actually like Apple’s Android offering.

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