Hands-on: Sonos app 2014 review (video)
Sonos has updated its iPhone and Android controller apps bringing with it a new look and new features including universal search.
We've been playing with the yet to be released iOS version of the app on the iPhone to see how it compares against the current apps and the beta of the Android version that is already available to download in beta for those interested in having a play.
Both apps witness a complete overhaul in terms of design and are fairly similar in their design approach. In this new one size fits all mantra, gone are the blue hues of the current app and in is a more black and white experience that is very similar to the Spotify iPhone app. The app is very in keeping with the flat design ethos of the iPhone and iOS7 - yes even the Android version.
That design influence from iOS7 is present everywhere. Whether it is the thin fonts, buttons, lack of buttons, iconography, or anything else for that matter, this is very much an iOS 7 app through and through, even for the Android offering.
A new approach to the menus
Rather than focus around the zones (i.e. speakers) that you have, the new app focuses around playing your music and letting you do that as quickly as possible.
The app is broken into a number of areas, the first being the main menu system, the second the zoning page, and the third the music you are actually listening to.
The home page jumps straight into letting you access your music services, your Sonos favourites, your music library and your playlists. There's also access to your alarms, the settings, and if you have a Sonos Playbar, those controls for your TV too.
Accessing the music you are playing is via a bar at the bottom of the screen that tells you what zone you've got selected, what is playing, and whether or not it is actually playing.
Regardless of wherever you are in the app you can always press the Sonos logo (at the top left of the screen) to go to the homepage. It is something is not made apparent at all to begin with, but once you realise this, then everything starts to make a bit more sense. If you don't, you'll be staring at the app for sometime scratching your head (we certainly were).
Likewise to access other zones (speakers) you have to press the name of the zone you are in (top right) to reveal the list. Simple, but confusing to start with, especially as the iconography doesn't suggest it is a button. It's the same for both Android and iOS.
Sonos has stripped back the design so much that it has perhaps in parts gone too far. For example, you have to know that an icon with three bars and an arrow pointing to one of them, is the music queue button. At least Sonos have ditched the invisible button in the current app that lets you access the shuffle and cross fade features.
Design concerns aside, and we have to say that once you work it out it is all very straight forward, playing music is quick and simple, even more so than it was before, which is the main aim here. Playback controls are all there as expected, while Shuffle and Cross fade have been made clearer to access.
We like the ability to quickly see what you are playing wherever you are in the app (clearly borrowed from Spotify), and pulling up extra information about the artist is again much easier to do, once you work out the icon to press (it's even different between the Android and iOS versions).
There is also a much stronger focus on album covers and that's handy, if like us you know your track is from a certain album, can't remember the name, but know the album cover was blue for example.
With so many music services, the ability to pull in music from your iPhone, from a network drive, from radio, or other places, trying to find the track you are after is always a problem. Now that's been made a lot lot easier with universal search. Press the search icon (one that actually looks like you would expect it to look) and you can start searching straight away.
The results are broken down into Artists, Tracks, Albums, Stations, Hosts, and Podcasts & Shows, and results are pulled in from all areas and services. All that's left for you to do is find the track you want and press play.
Whenever anything changes there is always a recoil as you learn to adapt to the thing that is now very different to how it was yesterday.
Good design normally guides you through the transition allowing you to embrace change, and educating you along the way.
Sonos hasn't taken that approach here, and the result is one that many will find themselves recoiling from too much in first 10 minutes as they try to understand what has changed and how to embrace those changes.
Once you do work out that words are in some cases buttons or that pressing an icon that looks like nothing you know already is a menu to another system, then the app makes sense and is a joy to use.
We love the universal search, the design, and the fact that is it now a lot more in keeping with the iOS operating system it is being used on.
For Android users, be prepared to see what it is like to use iOS 7. This app is a vast difference from what you use on Android day to day and it takes no design queue from Google at all. But then we know that you'll probably be used to not having apps stick to a cohesive design language anyway.
Yes there are improvements we would still like. The Sonos controller app is still a tool to helping you listen to music, not one that will help you discover that music for you. Spotify still doesn't have an artist radio feature for example in the app.
Sonos has said that new features are coming and that this update is all about putting the foundations in place for bigger, better things.
Let us hope that by the time the app is launched, in April, there is a quick tutorial to show you what all those new buttons are, else you'll find that you'll be scratching your head a lot to start with.