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Sony Music Unlimited Android app: Hands-on pictures and first impressions

Sony’s Android app for its Music Unlimited streaming service arrived in the Market earlier today and we’ve spent the afternoon getting to know it a little better.

As nice as the Android app is, the Music Unlimited service is up against some stiff competition. Spotify and its respective mobile apps are a firm favourite here at Recombu Towers and pretty much everywhere else.

From the Guardian and Observer’s genius History of hip-hop and R&B playlist, the many lists regularly featured over on music blog The Quietus and Charlie Brooker’s infamous ‘Aural Contraceptive’, Spotify is everywhere.

There’s also Amazon and Google’s forthcoming music offerings to ponder over.

Both of these however are currently US-only with the Google one in beta at that. But we don’t expect that either of these giant companies will be sitting on any laurels and will roll out rest-of-the-world launches in due course. Then of course there’s Apple’s iCloud, announced at WWDC 2011 last week. It’s safe to say that Sony has got it’s work cut out.

That said, we’re quite taken with the Music Unlimited service and the Android app is very slick and polished. If you’re keen on streaming music from your phone and the idea of accessing tracks from a virtual cloud locker is of interest, then you’ll want to check this out.


What you get for your money

The Music Unlimited app is free to download and is available for Android phones running 2.1 Eclair and above.

Though the app itself is free, you’ll need to take out a subscription in order to actually use it. Subscriptions are of either the Basic (£3.99 a month) and Premium (£9.99 a month) variety and it’s only the Premium subscription that allows you to stream playlists from your phone.

A Basic subscription gives you access to the Music Unlimited Channels – these are Last.fm-style radio stations that are broken up into Genre (pop, metal, reggae, etc), Era (50’s, 60’s etc) and SensMe, a feature seen on Sony Ericsson Walkman phones back in the day. This groups music according to mood into categories like Relax, Energetic, Upbeat and so on.

The overall affect and impression created by this is one of a touchscreen pub jukebox on your phone. It looks great and we like the big vibrant icons.

While the Channels are a fun and useful way to searching for new music, non-demand is nowhere near as fun as on-demand. Being able to put your own playlists together is something that you can only do with a Premium subscription.

Also, at the moment, all playlists have to be arranged in the browser app. You can’t yet do this straight from your phone.

While you can indeed search for new music and tunes from the mobile app you can only save them to a folder called ‘My Library’ which is synced between the phone app and the browser app. You can currently only create, name/rename playlists and shuffle song orders from your PC.

Right now, you can sign up for a free 30 day trial of the unlimited Premium service to try this out for yourself and see how it works.

 

Install Music Sync to ‘upload’ your music

As well as all this, there’s also another big feature of Music Unlimited – something called Music Sync.

Music Sync allows you to ‘upload’ tracks saved on your computer to the My Library folder. It does this by scanning the contents of your computer’s music folder and then matching them to tracks in Sony’s Music Unlimited library.

So you don’t actually upload anything as such, rather you tell Music Unlimited what songs you have and it’ll look for them. This is cool because you can basically create a virtual mirror of your existing music with Music Unlimited that you can play from your phone, without having to squeeze several GB’s worth of tunes into your Android phone. This gives you more space for other things like apps, pictures and all the rest.

There’s just a couple of fairly obvious snags with this. Music Unlimited can only mirror stuff that’s a) DRM free and b) it has a copy of in it’s library.

So yes, while there’s Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, there’s also a Fab Four-shaped hole in the Music Unlimited library.

Chances are though, you’ll be able to find a lot of what you like in the 7 million strong catalogue. We found the celebrated proto-techno/musique concrete classic ‘An Electric Storm’ by White Noise, an album by Afrirampo, and a load of Marcus Miller stuff all rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jessie J, Rihanna and Justin Bieber.

Things we’d like to see in future updates

The ability to play local MP3s and sync offline playlists

We’d really like it if there was a way to access and play ‘local MP3’s’ i.e. music you’ve already got saved on your Android phone. This would help mitigate the problem of a song not being available in the Music Unlimited library somewhat.

The Spotify Android app, which we see as Music Unlimited’s biggest competitor right now, allows you to do this. This gives you the ability to listen to a mixture of created playlists and your own music all through one convenient app.

Having access to 7 million songs is great and all, but we’d like to be able to listen to our own stuff from outside the Music Unlimited umbrella as well.

There’s also no ‘offline mode’ either, which would allow you to use this anywhere where there’s no 3G or Wi-Fi – another thing we really like about the Spotify app.

A lock screen widget

We’d also like for there to be a lock screen widget added in a future update. We’ve seen these on Android music apps like the Amazon MP3 and PowerAMP and they’re really useful; they allow you to pause and skip tracks from the lock screen, saving you from having to unlock the phone and open up the player to do so.

An option to buy music would be nice

£9.99 or a tenner a month for unlimited music streaming is a pretty good deal – that works out at roughly £2.50 a week. Not bad for all you can eat music. However it’d be nice to be able to get something a bit more permanent for your money too.

Should I bother with Music Unlimited on my Android phone?

If you’ve bought an Android phone chiefly to act as a replacement MP3 player, then you should definitely give Music Unlimited a go. You can try the Premium offering at absolutely no cost for 30 days, so there’s nothing to lose by giving it a go.

When you sign up for a Premium account, you’ll need to have some credit card details to hand. Though you won’t be charged anything initially, but after your 30 day trial expires, you’ll be billed £9.99 for your first month. If you don’t get on with it, make sure you cancel your account before the trial expires.

We think that Music Unlimited has the potential to grow into something pretty special. Sony is going to have to work hard though if it wants to persuade Android owners with Spotify Premium accounts from giving it their £9.99 a month instead.

Also, with similar Android offerings from Google and Amazon (the latter of which allows you to purchase songs) we’re curious to see how this will stand up in the long-term.

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