Review: MusicConnect


[Update: SmartMusic is now 'MusicConnect', so I've updated the name throughout.] MusicConnect isn't the very first attempt on Windows Phone to try and present an all purpose SkyDrive/OneDrive streaming music solution, but it does at least make the right noises: 'maintains a persistent connection so that long play times for a playlist will stay connected' and so on. Sounds about right for this sort of utility. But how well does it work and can it effectively be (Android's) Google Play Music but for Windows Phone?

Buy Link | Download / Information Link

The idea of keeping one's music in the cloud is relatively recent, of course, since it depends on ubiquitous fast and cheap mobile Internet, something which is very definitely not universal yet. But if your location and situation sounds suitable then you can, if you so choose, keep some or all of your music 'in the cloud' and err.... play it from there, rather than having to copy the audio files onto every device you want to hear music on.

I get the concept, though in the UK, fast 3G or 4G is rare where I live and so it usually makes more sense to simply put my music directly onto a device's memory card or internal storage (depending on device). The capacity issue does make cloud storage alluring, mind you. With enough SkyDrive/OneDrive space, you can keep your entire music collection online and keep storage free on your devices, just streaming the tracks you want when you want.

[Note that all this is separate to streaming music that you don't already own (or have copies of), for example with Nokia MixRadio - last covered on AAWP here.]

On Android, there's Google Play Music, with a professionally managed music storage architecture and native client, with an extra paid option to stream stuff you don't own, this latter essentially mirrored by Microsoft's Xbox Music/Zune Pass, last written about here, but as far as I can see there's no simple 'put your own music in the cloud and stream it from Microsoft servers onto Windows Phone' system. 

MusicConnect takes aim at this gap in the market and pulls it off - at least, as a proof of concept - or, more charitably, as an early beta in terms of sophistication. 

The idea is to first of all put some or all of your music (mp3, m4a, wma, etc.) in folder in your SkyDrive/OneDrive (henceforth I'll just use the new name!) Now, this could be done in small quantities on the phone itself using the OneDrive application, but it's obviously far easier to do this from your main desktop or laptop.

SmartMusic screenshotSmartMusic screenshot

Once on OneDrive, MusicConnect's job is to let you browse your folders of music, construct playlists and then listen to the tracks streaming down from OneDrive, just as smoothly as if the music was coming from the chips in your phone.

The latter condition is the kicker, since Windows Phone has legendary restrictions on what applications (and their 'background agents') can do when other apps and activity are front and centre. In other words, while you get on with your life and use dozens of other applications on your smartphone, the music that you've queued up has to keep on playing.

SmartMusic screenshotSmartMusic screenshot

MusicConnect does this, as far as I can tell, by using a low level background agent that somehow keeps access to OneDrive 'persistent' - tracks do seem to be downloaded one at a time, when needed, rather then cached, so I'm guessing that (short of queuing up a 25 minute Pink Floyd epic) the very nature of needing to grab something every five minutes or so and shoving it in the direction of the Windows Phone music playing interface is enough to keep things active.

The downside is that there's a noticeable pause (typically four or five seconds, or more, depending on connection speed) between played tracks. Gapless playback this ain't.

SmartMusic screenshotSmartMusic screenshot

But the system does work. I queued up an hour long folder/album of tracks and MusicConnect played quite happily while I, in turn, started a dozen other apps and games, and then ignored the phone with screen off etc. No glitches, no dramas, just the music I expected to hear.

However, MusicConnect looks and behaves like an early test application, with multiple points of confusion around selecting tracks and placing them in playlists. For example, you tap on 'Folder Drilldown' and your OneDrive folders are shown, as expected. Tap on the 'Choose' tool and checkboxes appear besides each folder. You tick a couple and tap on the 'play' icon and... nothing. You're taken to the main music playback screen with a deafening silence and an empty playlist.

SmartMusic screenshotSmartMusic screenshot

Or you dive into a folder and, again, tap on 'Choose' and start picking songs and then tap on 'play'. This time the music starts and your picked songs are indeed nicely queued, but there's no way to save this list of tracks as a new playlist - tapping the 'playlist' button just takes you to the current list of other playlists. Moreover, if you create a playlist from the homescreen, there's no way to actually add tracks to it, so it ends up empty.

And, at each stage, the message 'Resetting paths...' keeps being displayed - something which means absolutely nothing to end users! As I say, all very 'beta'.

Maybe it's be being stupid, but I suspect it's more that there simply hasn't been any usability testing here - hopefully this very review and some downloads from real world users will soon knock the UI into shape.

But I have hope, since the core functionality is here. Plus some potentially nice extras, such as backing up and restoring playlists to and from OneDrive. This all works as advertised, so I guess that once playlists are actually all working then at least they can be backed up in case of device problems.

SmartMusic screenshotSmartMusic screenshot

The search function is quite good too, with partial matches found within artist name, track or even genre - and anything turned up can be chosen and queued - with the playlist caveats already mentioned.

MusicConnect is available in trial version, shown here, fully functional, but with ads, or you can just buy it directly. Definitely a utility that I'm going to keep an eye on, since - connectivity permitting - it has the potential to free up my music within the Microsoft server ecosystem, playing it on any Windows Phone or Windows tablet or laptop, etc.

Reviewed by at