The Xbox is rapidly becoming the go-to entertainment hub for the living room. It has nearly every base covered, with video from sources such as iPlayer and Sky Go, to movie rentals from the Zune marketplace. But what about music?
Enter Xbox Music, Microsoft’s plan to steal you away from iTunes and get you to cancel your Spotify subscription. But what exactly is Xbox Music - a revolution for the Hi-Fi or Napster all over again?
What is Xbox Music?
Xbox Music is a new music player built into your Xbox console. The app is based around both streaming and downloads, bringing you unlimited music, on demand, to your games console.
At launch, Xbox Music exists in two different forms. It can be used either as a free, ad-supported version -which will be subjected to a limited number of streaming hours after six months - or a paid-for option, called Xbox Music Pass and priced in at £8.99, that does away with the adverts and lets you listen to as much music as you want.
As for downloads, you can opt to pay for songs individually via the Xbox Music Store, saving them locally on your devices. This will also let you play some tracks which Microsoft won’t have available for streaming.
Where can I get Xbox Music?
Xbox Music is due to go live on the Xbox itself on 16 October. This isn’t where Microsoft’s plans for the service end, however. It is to launch on 26 October on Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8.
Microsoft doesn’t intend to roll out Xbox Music on Windows Phone 7 or Windows 7, however, making either a software upgrade, a new phone, or an Xbox necessary in order to use it. Xbox Music will be coming to iOS and Android "within a year", according to Microsoft.
How does Xbox Music work?
The Xbox app is based around Microsoft’s Modern UI. It uses a tile-based interface that allows you to search for and pick out whatever song you want to listen to and then stream. If you have used some of the other Xbox Live-based entertainment applications, then expect a very similar experience.
Pick a track and start streaming - simple as that, really. You get the same experience, or as close as possible, on tablet, phone and console. Naturally each one can create playlists and search through artists, everything you would expect from a proper music player. You can also share songs socially with friends on Facebook, which is pegged as coming soon by Microsoft.
If you choose to download tracks rather than opt for the paid-for ad-free version, then those tracks are yours forever. This means that if you cancel your subscription, you can still listen to them without adverts and take them with you on your mobile or other music player. The mobile version will also cache songs you are streaming so that if you go out of an area with reception, you should still be able to keep on playing music.
Smart DJ is Xbox Music’s attempt at taking on the likes of Rdio and Spotify’s built-in radio services. You can start a playlist or mix from favourite artists, leaving Xbox Music to select songs for you to listen to based on your interests.
Another clever functionality tweak is Microsoft’s inclusion of music videos from VeVo. Don’t expect every single artist to have videos, however, because not everyone has paired up with VeVo yet.
Microsoft has also talked about an up and coming iTunes Match-style Cloud Drive-based syncing service. It should allow you to back up a current track library and listen to it anywhere. Again, this is marked down as coming soon, with no definite release date yet.
As for actual playback, there isn’t any word yet on whether or not you can pair the system with Sonos or other wireless Hi-Fi systems. We do expect though that you will be able to push audio from your phone via Bluetooth to your stereo, should it support it. Otherwise it appears the traditional hard-line from Xbox or PC is the best possible route to play music through your sound system.
How much does Xbox Music cost?
We have already mentioned that Xbox Music is going to be priced in at £8.99 per month, undercutting Spotify by £1. But it is important to factor in the added cost of a necessary membership to Xbox Live to gain access to music on the console. Yearly this will set you back around £29 if you order a card from somewhere like Amazon.
You can of course avoid this cost if you just wait for the Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 versions of the service to arrive on 26 October.
Downloading a track or album will vary by cost and Microsoft hasn’t announced any prices yet. Expect it to compete with iTunes though. It is important to note as well that Microsoft says not every song will be included under the Music Pass monthly subscription, so you may need to factor in some track download costs if you want everything advert free.
The SkyDrive-based cloud syncing of your music hasn’t been priced up yet, but again, we expect Microsoft to try to compete with Apple here. iTunes Match costs £22 per year.
How much music is there?
We can’t list exactly which songs, artists and labels are going to be available with Xbox Music because we would be here all day: Microsoft promises a 30 million-strong track library, which is impressive.
Spotify gives you more than 21 million and iTunes has 26 million but also adds upwards of 3,000 TV shows and 45,000 movies.
Anyone who opts for Xbox Music shouldn't be disappointed with the number of songs on offer. Naturally, there will always be some rarities missing, but hey, that's what YouTube is for.