Love or hate Windows 8, you have to give Microsoft credit for its tenacity. Most companies would’ve tucked their tail between their legs and run home crying after the disaster that was Zune, but Microsoft doubled down to bring a better-than-before effort rebranded as Xbox Music to its Live Tile-equipped ecosystem. With unlimited music streaming and the ability to buy individual tracks, Xbox Music looks like a hit on the Surface. (Get it?) But how does the new music streaming contender stack up to Spotify?
Round 1: Music Catalog
Device support and ease-of-use are important, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the real reason to subscribe to a music service is for, well, the music. Xbox Music and Spotify stand neck-and-neck if you plan on sticking to streaming, with each offering around 18 million on-demand songs. Even the coverage gaps are largely similar; neither service streams Pink Floyd, The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, for example.
Xbox Music earns the nod here because many of the artists that aren’t available for streaming can nevertheless be downloaded (after being paid for) as stand-alone albums and tracks, in à-la-carte iTunes fashion. Spotify doesn’t match that ability, but Microsoft’s advantage doesn’t matter if you’re only interested in streaming songs.
Xbox Music focuses on its oh-so-attractive design to the occasional detriment of usability. “Too Close,” indeed.
Winner: Xbox Music
Round 2: Pricing
With all tunes being equal on the selection front, let’s take a look at pricing: Which streaming service dishes out dirty deeds dirt cheap? Again, it’s a close call. Disregarding the à-la-carte Xbox Music Store downloads, a full subscription to either streaming service costs $10 per month, and each offers up free and unlimited ad-supported listening, as well.
Spotify shines in the details, however. The old hand offers truly unlimited ad-supported listening, while Xbox Music says its free ride drops to a fixed number of monthly hours after half a year of rocking out. Spotify also offers a $5/month plan for listeners who want to ditch the ads on their PC client but don’t want the full subscription’s mobile and home theater device support.
Round 3: Device Support
Speaking of device support, people who haven’t drunk the Microsoft Kool-Aid need not apply at Xbox Music. The service’s native Windows 8 inclusion is a killer feature that services like Spotify can only dream about, but Xbox Music’s non-PC support is limited to the Xbox 360 and the Windows Phone 8 handsets—you know, the phone platform that isn’t selling any units. Microsoft promises Android and iOS support will pop up sometime in the next year, but Windows Phone 7 and Windows 7 users will be stuck with Zune Marketplace forever.
Or, more likely, Spotify. Spotify works with Windows 7 and Windows 8 alike, while a $10 premium subscription opens up streaming to all the major mobile phone platforms and several major home theater electronics.
Click the next page for round four (audio quality), round 5 (interface), and the final conclusion
Round 4: Audio Quality
Which service delivers sweeter sounding music to listeners’ ears? When it comes to free music streaming, the answer is neither. Xbox Music’s 192kb/s tunes technically outgun Spotify’s 160kb/s stream, but both sound equally ho-hum to the indiscriminate ear: neither horrible nor noteworthy.
Xbox Music’s pay-per-download tracks offer a better listening experience at 256kb/s, but streaming music maestros will want to check out Spotify’s $10 premium service, which slings out its dulcet tones at a sultry 320kb/s. Internet-based music quality doesn’t get any better than that. (Be sure to keep a close eye on your data usage on mobile devices, though!)
Spotify ain’t purdy, but the janky UI hides powerful control options, including a bevy of handy-dandy apps.
Round 5: Interface
We really, really wanted to give this round to Xbox Music. The Modern-style app delivers appealing visuals in spades, whereas Spotify’s cluttered black interface gives us the heebie-jeebies every time we gaze our tired eyes upon it.
Despite Xbox Music’s beautiful facade, however, Spotify’s clutter makes it much more useful in everyday practice. A fountain of information hides in the abundant options littering the left-hand column, searching works great, and there’s an array of advanced tools you can use to become a true Spotify power user (see our Spotify Cheat Sheet here).
Xbox Music simply sacrifices too much navigational ease in order to look pretty and pimp paid downloads. On the other hand, we like that those paid downloads seamlessly fuse with your favorite streaming tracks in the My Music section.
And the better music streaming service is…Spotify
It may not be pretty and it may not be new, but after winning four of the five rounds here—and tying on the fifth if you’re only interested in streaming—Spotify is definitely still the champ, emerging unscathed in two hard-fought heavyweight bouts. (See the Rdio K.O. at bit.ly/uLzOab.) Xbox Music is a deep and stylish option for Windows 8 users, but pretty much only Windows 8 users; that won’t cut it against the champion.