Everybody has a cloud-based service for music these days, but they’re certainly not all equal and they all have many different features. Xbox Music Pass, is Microsoft’s rebrand of their old Zune Music Pass cloud music service that’s been around since about 2007. The new service is mostly the same, except a few old features have been removed, but a few new features have been added. Xbox Music Pass includes a lot of features, many of which should compete nicely with other popular cloud music services. Let’s take a look at how it compares.
Unlimited Streaming/Downloads vs. Spotify
Zune Pass has always had unlimited streaming of all music available in the marketplace on wireless Zune players, Windows Phones 7/8, desktop Zune software, and the web browser as long as you were signed in with a Microsoft Account (Live ID) that had the subscription enabled. Xbox Music Pass no longer supports the web browser at this time, but we think that feature will be returning once the web-based music marketplace is back online. You can stream full songs from the entire Xbox Music collection as long as you’re a subscriber. This is very similar to Spotify where you simply search for the music you like and press play to listen to it.
Xbox Music offers a free unlimited streaming service that’s only available on the Windows 8 version of Xbox Music and is advertisement-supported with the following limits: The first 6 months there are no time limits, but after that you are limited to 10 hours of ad-supported streaming per month. These limits are exactly the same as Spotify’s free service which is also only available on desktops.
Paying the $10/month for Spotify’s Premium service gets you ad-free streaming as well as Offline downloads of songs and playlists on up to 3 devices (including Mac OS X, Windows, Apple’s iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry), however the offline downloads are limited to 3,333 tracks. The Xbox Music Pass subscription for $10/month or $100/year includes unlimited offline downloads on up to 4 devices, but is limited to Windows PCs, Zunes, and Windows Phone 7/8 (Xbox 360 supports streaming only). However Android and iOS support is said to be coming in early 2013.
Spotify’s big advantage is its social networking integration which is actually something Zune had for many years, but has recently removed from Xbox Music (though we hear it may come back in a different form in the future). Spotify’s social features integrate with Facebook and allow sharing of playlists with your friends and browsing your friends’ shared playlists.
Cloud Collection Sync vs. iTunes Match
One of the new features in Xbox Music Pass that separates it from the old Zune Pass is the Cloud Collection. When I first looked at this feature on Windows Phone, I noticed that it had listed all of the MP3′s I had bought using Zune Pass song credits (or my credit card) over the years in the Zune Marketplace. That was pretty nice, but it gets better. If you’ve got a large music collection and you upgrade your PC to Windows 8 with Xbox Music, then the Xbox Music app will automatically import your music collection and start to match your songs with the songs it has in the Xbox Music Store library. In other words, it creates a “cloud collection” based on the music you already have. You can then access that Cloud Collection from Windows Phone 8 or other Windows 8 PCs or Windows RT tablets (up to 4 devices). You can stream your cloud collection music if you have a good internet connection, or you can selectively download whichever songs you want for offline listening.
This sounds a lot like Apple’s iTunes Match service which you can subscribe to for $25/year. One difference is that Apple’s Music Match gives you high bitrate quality songs to download instead of whatever your original library consisted of. Microsoft’s version leaves your original MP3s intact where they were first purchased/downloaded, however if you download them again from your cloud collection onto a different device, that’s going to give you a digitally rights managed version that will only work as long as you are a paying Xbox Music Pass subscriber. This makes sense since obviously the content providers don’t want you to have a ton of unprotected copies out there even though you only purchased one. In other words, with iTunes Match, you can download full quality unprotected MP3s to up to 5 Macs or PCs as well as up to 10 iOS devices associated with your iTunes account with no penalty if you stop subscribing to the service (other than losing the streaming features).
Another difference between Apple’s iTunes Music Match, and Xbox Music’s Cloud Collection is what happens with songs that are not matched. With Xbox Music, if it doesn’t find a match, that song just isn’t added to the cloud collection. You’ll have to manually copy those files to the other devices you’d like to listen to them on. With iTunes, you can add your MP3′s to the Music Match cloud for streaming on any of your web-connected Apple devices, but you are limited to a very-large 25,000 of those extra uploads.
iTunes Match also works with the Apple TV for streaming your entire music collection via the cloud. This works only for the songs that you own where as the Xbox Music Pass on the Xbox 360 allows you to stream anything in the store.
Both iTunes Match and Xbox Music Pass offer the synchronization of playlists as well, which I suppose would be nice if you’re the type of person that still creates those manually. With Xbox Music, you can import your old playlists from Zune (including Mix Tapes and Channels) or Windows Media Player however, playlists created on Windows Phone 8 don’t sync back to the cloud collection and auto-playlists don’t auto-update. Playlists do sync with the Xbox 360 in case you have that connected to a good stereo system.
Smart DJ vs. Pandora
Instead of creating playlists manually, Pandora has found a great way to create playlists based on a particular music taste associated with an artist of your choosing. This is why Pandora is so popular. You don’t have to put any effort into making a playlist with a nice variety of whatever music you might be in the mood for. You just say to yourself, “I want to listen to some music by so-and-so, but I don’t want to listen to only that artist.” You pick the artist that you’re kind of in the mood to hear and Pandora uses a bunch of server side data to automatically generate a playlist full of all sorts of music that you might like based on that first artist you selected.
Xbox Music happens to have a button called “Smart DJ” that does the same type of thing. If you have an Xbox Music Pass, Smart DJ can pick out music from the entire online music store library as well as your local music collection to automatically generate playlists based on an artist of your choosing. These mixes of both online and offline content will often play you songs that you’ve never heard of before and you’ll probably find that you really like many of them. In those cases Xbox Music apps generally have “Download” button so that you can download or purchase that song and save it to your cloud collection (which can also be set to synchronize to your other authorized devices.)
Pandora has the advantage of being available on a much wider variety of stereo equipment and operating systems, while Smart DJ is only available on Zune devices, Windows Phone 7/8, Xbox 360, and Windows PCs (though will probably come to iOS and Android in 2013).
While Pandora doesn’t support offline downloads, their streaming service is free for up to 320 hours per month with advertisements and a limit of 12 song skips per hour, while Smart DJ is part of the Xbox Music $10/month or $100/year subscription fee, it has no such limits, no ads, and allows you to go back to previous tracks to listen to them again. With Pandora, and $36/year, you can remove the ads and skip limitations.
With Xbox Music Pass you also get unlimited streaming of music videos on the Xbox 360. Music Videos that you’ve bought automatically show up in your “My Downloads” section of Xbox Music on the Xbox 360. While music video purchasing is still part of iTunes, you may find it a bit hidden these days. Still music videos you purchase on iTunes are also available to stream in Apple TV, but Apple, Spotify, Pandora, and Google Music do not have any unlimited streaming services for music videos.
Google Music and Amazon Cloud Player
Google Music and the Amazon Cloud Player are similar to the Xbox Music Cloud Collection and iTunes Match services. Any music that you purchase from Google Play is available via the Google Music cloud just like with iTunes and Xbox Music, and any music you buy from Amazon is also available for free in the Amazon Cloud Player. Unlike Xbox Music, with Google Music you can manually upload up to 20,000 MP3s to their cloud service for free streaming through a web browser or the Google Play Music app on Android. Amazon’s Cloud Player is similar except it only allows free uploads of your first 250 songs, while you can upload up to 250,000 MP3s for $25 per month. Both have clunky web-based music players for desktop playback, though of course you can download the MP3s and use any other media player you want to. Amazon’s Cloud Player has apps for the Kindle Fire, Android, iOS, Sonos, and Blackberry while Google Music’s cloud player only works on desktop browsers with Flash installed, iOS web browsers and the Google Play Music app on Android.
Obviously each cloud music service has numerous offerings to differentiate themselves from each other. Choosing one is heavily based on which ecosystem you’re already invested in or would like to invest in. None of these cloud services support a terribly wide range of devices, so you’ll really be locked in to whichever service is supported in your ecosystem. Xbox Music Pass seems to give the greatest variety of functionality and value as long as you stick to Microsoft’s ecosystem with an Xbox 360 in the living room, Windows 8 on the desktop, and a Windows Phone in the pocket.
Do you use any or more than one of these cloud music services? Let us know which you prefer and why in the comments below.
Jaime Rivera contributed to this post.