From CDs to Spotify – A Bleak Future for Musicians

Review: A First Look at Rhapsody Cloud Sync

This is the first (and only) review of Rhapsody’s new cloud-based music sync service. When you see this on Engadget in a few months, remember that you saw it here first.

Even though cloud-based music services like Rhapsody have been around for more than ten years, they are the hottest thing in digital music today. Spotify, Google, Amazon and of course Apple are all getting tons of press about their cloud-based music services. There are two different types of cloud-based music services:

  1. Subscription music services like Spotify and Rhapsody
  2. Music lockers like Apple’s iTunes Match, Google Music and Amazon’s Cloud Drive. And of course we can’t forget the world’s first music locker: My.MP3.com, which launched all the way back in January of 2000.

With so many music lockers out there, does the world really need another one? Rhapsody apparently thinks it does. So let’s take a first look at Rhapsody Cloud Sync and see if we agree.

The Pitch

All cloud-based music lockers have the same basic benefit: Sync your music with the cloud once, then access it from your computer or mobile devices anywhere in the world. Sounds good to me. Let’s see what the system requirements are:

There’s nothing too scary in the system requirements. Rhapsody Cloud Sync should work with most computers and Netbooks sold over the past five years. Some people will be disapointed that no lossless file formats are supported (e.g. FLAC). And of course if you purchased music from iTunes before they removed DRM, you’re out of luck.

Membership has its Privileges

Rhapsody Cloud Sync is currently in Beta and only available to what Rhapsody calls Sounding Board Members. I was probably added to this list because I’ve participated in earlier Rhapsody polls. Although this Beta is closed to the general public you can download Rhapsody Cloud Sync for yourself if you follow me on Twitter @rickschwar. I recently tweeted the download link along with the username and password that you’ll need to get access to the software. You’re welcome.

The Installation Process

After you enter the credentials and log-in, you’ll see the first installer screen. For most, there’s nothing to change here, so press Continue and move on.

I didn’t take the time to read the license agreement. I just blindly clicked “I Agree” like everyone else does. What we don’t know can’t hurt us right? Reminds me of the South Park “Human CentiPad” episode.

The actual download and installation process was fairly fast.

Hurdle #1: Now we’re asked to log-in to Rhapsody. It would have been nice if they mentioned that a Rhapsody account is needed in the System Requirements. Although I have an account, here is where most people will stop. It’s worth mentioning that it took about 15 seconds to authenticate me after I logged in. Hopefully it doesn’t take that long every time you log-in.

Of course the software needs to know where your music is in order to scan it. If you have your music in the My Music folder, or the default iTunes path, you can press the Scan and Match button now.

The Long Wait

Hurdle #2: I don’t know why I thought something would happen within a few minutes, but that is not the case. Here is how my screen looked after one hour and ten minutes. Notice that the software has only been able to sync about a third of my music library so far. :(

During the syncing process, it was clear to me that something was slowing my computer  down. I checked the CPU usage and found it jumping between 4 and 20%. That surprised me considering the fact that I have an Intel i7 860 CPU which runs at 2.79GHz. My network bandwidth is 42Mbps upstream and 45Mbps downstream, so network bandwidth was not the cause of the slowdown either.

The Result

After about 2 hours and ten minutes the cloud sync process finally finished. The bad news: Only 4849 of my 6923 tracks were identified. It’s possible that some tracks were identified, but Rhapsody doesn’t have permission to sync them, but I scanned the error log and 99% of the missed tracks said “No match found in catalog”. And it wasn’t just the more obscure songs that were missed, many popular artists had albums which could not be sync’d.

Hurdle #3: I then clicked on the Open My Library button for the big payoff I had been waiting 2 hours for, but I had to sign-in again. This is probably a temporary restriction due to the Beta status of this software, so I won’t complain about it.

Hurdle #4: Really? Another sign-in page? This is starting to test my patience…

As you can see, Rhapsody is promoting the social features of their music service. Since I’m fed up with Spotify announcing what I do to my Facebook friends, I passed on the option to setup a music profile and connect to Facebook.

The Big Payoff

Although the software is still beta, it’s not the cleanest user-interface I’ve ever seen. I clicked on profile and was a little surprised to see that Taylor Swift was my favorite artist. I never listen to her music. I was even more surprised to see that cabaret was one of my favorite styles of music. Again, I never listen to that type of music — not that there’s anything wrong with it. Then I remembered my daughter uses my Sonos controller 24/7 to music from Glee and Taylor Swift. Mystery solved!

The Interface

There are six tabs on the interface: Profile, People, Library, Playlists, Listening History and Suggestions. All of the tabs are pretty self-explanatory. You can see the Suggestions tab above. Profile contains info about me and my favorite artists. The People tab is blank because I didn’t link with Facebook. Playlists showed all of my Rhapsody playlists, which is nice.

The Browse and My Music tabs at the top also take you to the Rhapsody subscription music pages. I like the player interface on the right, and how it works for my sync’d songs and music in the Rhapsody service. Playback was almost instant. Sound quality was good, but not great. Last I checked, Rhapsody was using the Windows Media codec streaming at 160kbps.

Cloud to Mobile

I launched the Rhapsody app on my iPhone 3G to see what the experience was. Truth be told, I don’t use this app, because the last time I tried it is was painfully slow. It appears not much has changed. It took almost a minute simply to launch the app. The splash screen touted substantially improved music playback times. I can’t wait to find out if that’s true. I clicked on the My Library cloud icon at the bottom. Nothing appeared on the screen for the next 30 seconds. Then a screen worth of artists appeared, but it took another minute for the Updating icon to go away. I clicked on the artist “Adele” and it took more than a minute for album art and songs to appear on the screen. Granted, I currently have Wi-Fi off and I’m on AT&T’s horrible 3G network, this performance is unacceptable. Finally a picture of Adele appeared along with her bio, but still no songs. Another few minutes goes by… and finally two albums appear. This time it only took about 12 seconds to display the songs. I click on a song and 20 seconds later I hear music. If this is “substantially improved” playback, I can imagine what it was like before.

UPDATE:
I just tried Rhapsody Cloud Sync with an Android phone running on Verizon’s 3G network. Playback speeds were much better on both 3G and Wi-Fi. It took about 2 seconds to begin playback over Wi-Fi, and 5-10 seconds to begin playback over 3G. I suspect their iOS app is capable of similar performance over Wi-Fi or a good 3G/4G network. Rhapsody has also release a new update for tablets, but I can’t run it because my Rhapsody account only lets me run on one mobile device. You have to pay more to run on 3 devices.

The Rhapsody Beta program has been expanded to include a new tablet version.

Final Words

Rhapsody Cloud Sync appears to work pretty well on computers. Although it’s still Beta, I didn’t encounter any problems other than the ones I attribute to their slow iOS app. Although this service seems to work as advertised, I gotta be honest, while I’m a big fan of subscription music services like Spotify and Rhapsody, I don’t see that much value in uploading music to the cloud. The idea of anytime access to my music from computer, tablet or phone sounds good, but it only works when you have a good Internet connection. My experience using Rhapsody Cloud Sync over AT&T’s 3G network was very poor.

Maybe I just don’t get it. Make a comment below to let me know what you think about this (and other) cloud-based music lockers.

- Rick

Copyright 2011 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.

Follow me on Twitter @mostlytech1

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