As an Android user, I have to admit that I envy the iPod/ iTunes way of doing things. I’ve been
making due with my simple, unassuming Android Music Player for a while, secretly suspecting
that there was so much more that could be done.
Thus, the quest for five music apps for my Droid. The goal seemed simple; a better player,
maybe an Internet radio app, a platform to bring order to the chaos of my existing music
collection, and hopefully a window on the world of new musical discoveries.
More after the break
1. Music Players is a self-explanatory category; these are the apps that will play music
files from your collection.
Top Choice: Android Music Player is, for many people, still the best bet; it integrates perfectly
with the OS, rarely needs any bugs fixed, and its range of basic EQ and audio enhancements
aren’t really all that bad. Sure, it may be visually unexciting and occasionally frustrating in its
organization. But what it lacks in extras, it also lacks in extra cost and headaches, compared to
some of the alternatives.
Runner Up: Winamp is my PC music player of choice, with even the free version offering many
features and options for customization. The Android app is a different story; EQ, browsing by
folder, Crossfade, and gapless playback are all $4.99 ‘Pro Bundle’ features. What do you get
with the ad-supported free app? A decent player, with wireless sync (including iTunes support),
Shoutcast radio, and voice control.
Honorable Mention: PowerAmp is very popular due to a good UI design; many supported
audio formats, and a 10-band equalizer that’s good enough to fool you into thinking that it
actually improves sound quality. You’ll have two weeks to get used to what makes PowerAmp
special, and then you’ll have to shell out $4.99 for it.
Dishonorable Mention: I really wanted to like MixZing, because it offers plenty of tag editing
features (automatic cleanup as well as user-controlled) and the option of arranging your music
collection by folder (Winamp is one of the few that do this, but only in the paid app). Even with
messed-up tags, MixZing will try to identify songs, as well as access album art and lyrics. Toss
in a graphic EQ and music recommendations, and you have a winner… except that MixZing just
manages to fail consistently on all of its promises. Recommendations and lyircs rely on a single,
limited source, there aren’t many supported audio formats, and the $4.99 upgrade doesn’t
even remove the ads. And finally, in addition to the usual Full Internet and Phone Identity
permissions, MixZing will also require Personal Info and Modify System Settings permissions.
2. Music Discovery apps give you new music recommendations when you tell them a
genre, an artist, or a single song that you already like.
Top Choice: Pandora is extremely popular. Powered by the “Music Genome Project,” you’ll
certainly discover plenty of new artists and tracks (and maybe also some insight as to what
makes you tick as a music lover). Unfortunately, the dark side involves the occasional clipping,
stuttering, buffering, freezing, and of course ads to interrupt the journey. The Pandora One
subscription ($36/ year, or $3/month) removes the ads, and the limit of skipping past 12 songs
per day… but not the 6 skips per station per hour limit. Permissions include personal info, ugh.
Runner Up: LastFM takes a more classic ‘social’ approach to recommendations, interpreting
your own listening choices as well as those of your friends. I do like the personalized radio
on the free PC version, but the Android app ends your free trial after 50 songs — after which
only $3 per month will coax LastFM to play any music on your phone. Permissions are pretty
Honorable Mention: Slacker Radio is a lot like Pandora. You can skip six songs each hour,
select preset stations, or start with a specific artist or track and explore from there. However,
the disruptive audio ads are a serious buzzkill. Slacker Plus ($3.99 per month) removes ads
and gives you ‘unlimited song skips,’ while Premium ($9.99 per month) makes the service more
like a Spotify-type streaming player — queuing up specific songs and albums, creating your own
playlists, and ‘caching’ them for offline listening. I also have to give the Slacker site credit for
clearly showing what you get, and how much you’ll pay for it — a surprising rarity among app
3. Music Identifiers are part music player and part search engine — you find music by
singing, humming, or holding your phone up to a song playing (on the radio, in a movie,
even in the background of a store at the mall).
Top Choice: Shazam. An incredibly popular “acoustic fingerprint” identifier, Shazam works best
with prerecorded clips (i.e., not great for singing and humming). Shazam integrates well with
Amazon MP3, YouTube, Spotify, Facebook and Twitter. Lyrics display tends to be a bit hit or
miss, and you’ll have to endure ads unless you pay for the $4.99 upgrade — and no matter what
you pay, Shazam doesn’t play well with WiFi-only networks. Permissions include Location Info,
which makes no sense to me.
Runner Up: Soundhound. It’s debatable whether SoundHound really identifies music more
accurately or has a bigger database than Shazam. But it’s sometimes quicker about it, and the
Midomi-powered engine does better with singing and humming. Oddly, the $4.99 paid version
still has ads, and doesn’t seem to provide any additional features. Permissions are the same as
Shazam, but at least you can turn off location in options.
4. Cloud Players make your music collection available anywhere, anytime. Obviously,
this helps with the limited storage space of mobile phones, while taking advantage of
increasingly higher-bandwidth mobile connections.
Top choice: Google Music will host 20,000 songs for free. Sure, uploading a good-sized
collection will hog your Internet connection for hours or days, but still — 20,000 songs! Any
Android Market purchases are automatically added, and you get to share them for free with
friends on Google+, as well as download anything on your cloud for offline listening. On the
minus side, unless you devote extra time to editing tags and keeping track of what’s already on
your phone, you’re likely to wind up with a big long list of disorganized tracks. Playback is good
quality, but not without pauses and glitches even with a strong connection.
Runner Up: Amazon Cloud Player is nearly neck and neck with Google. You start with 5GB
of storage space to upload music (or any other kind of file, really), and buying an album from
Amazon will get the total bumped up to 20GB. Not only that, Amazon MP3 purchases will be
added (not subtracted) to your total space (i.e., if you buy 20GB of music from Amazon, you’ll
still have 20GB free for uploads). The lack of playlist or tag management is a problem; you do it
Amazon’s way for Amazon’s songs, and uploads are stuck however they show up. Playback is
about the same as Google, too.
5. Streaming Music apps include many of the contenders from the other categories here,
but I’m more specifically focusing on the Internet Radio and On Demand aspects of the
apps (rather than their ‘discovery’ or ‘cloud’ capabilities, for example).
Top Choice: Spotify can indeed do discovery and social media pretty well (Facebook
registration is now a necessity), and you can sync your collection — wired and wireless — and
save Spotify tracks offline. Still, the main reason to use it is to stream music from Spotify’s
collection of 15 million tracks. Unfortunately, the Android app itself is NOT the best reason
to like Spotify. You may be able to live with the subscription ($10 per month) and intermittent
performance and connection issues, but unless you’re sorting and managing your music from a
PC or Mac, you may find the mobile UI too cluttered and frustrating to work with.
Runner Up: Grooveshark seems to do one thing wrong for everything it does right. The P2P
format assures smoother playback than most streaming services — but only in areas with
decent connections. It has some top-notch music recommendation and social-media features,
but the ‘open community’ database makes everything more disorganized (not to mention the
possibility of violating someone’s copyright, if that matters to you). You get decent sync options
— unless you use iTunes. You can’t get it from the Android Market, making it more of a matter
of faith, and seeing the prominent ‘unable to install?’ link on the download screen isn’t exactly
encouraging. There aren’t any ads — because after the free trial, the only way to use it is by
paying $9 per month ($108 per year).
Honorable Mention: the free TuneIn Radio app provides 50,000 radio stations, local and
global, music and talk, and anything else that comes over the airwaves. Not essential as a
music player (other than being able to change the station, you have no control over what you
hear), but it’s still a nice replacement for your FM/AM devices. Car mode allows you to control
the app via voice, and the cheap $0.99 pgrade removes ads.
Sean is a music-obsessed Droid-user that loves everything from Iron & Wine to Wiz Khalifa,
and always keeps a spare set of headphones around just-in-case. Find him contributing to
ATTSavings.com or on Twitter @SeanTR.