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Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity Review

For those of you who don’t know what Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity (seriously, who thought of that as a name) is, it’s a subscription based music service by Sony, with quite complicated branding. It’s PSN, it’s Sony Entertainment, no, it’s Qriocity, all at the same time. I don’t even know how to pronounce that properly, so luckily that isn’t a requirement for a text based review.

The deal is, you pay $13 (AUD) a month, and get unlimited streaming of any song in their library. It sounds like a pretty good deal on the surface, but is it really? Let’s find out.

Music Range
Well, it’s Sony, so anything Sony related is in there. That said, all the major label seem to be represented, meaning that it will have 99% of the music most people want (since, by definition, what most people want is mainstream music.) It won’t be able to cover some unique indie bands, and I have found at least one that I would have liked to have, but most of the time, the music I want to listen to is there.

One thing I have found with their range is it’s sometimes too comprehensive. Do we really need 3 or 4 versions of the same album appearing? Or maybe a double or triple album that bands sometimes release to make it easier for new fans to buy the old CD’s.

Stanley Climbfall apears 4 times. Two contain identical bonus tracks, the other two do not. What’s the point in having the non bonus track ones?
Hawkology is actually the first three albums in one. The idea is new fans can get the old albums at a discount when buying old albums. The three albums that are in the Hawkology are available separately (not shown in screenshot)

I will give Sony a plus here though, because it would cost heaps of money to sift through everything and extract actual duplicates, as it could upset some people if there happens to be something in one version of the album that isn’t in the other (maybe an extended track or something,) and I’d rather have more content with a lot of overlaps than it missing one of my favorite songs.

Now, if there are one or two artists that you can’t find, you can upload your own music in a Google Music like style with a program, creatively named, Music Sync. The downside with it, the music can only ever be from one computer. Install it on another computer and all your uploaded songs from previous computers dissapear. It seems strange that they would do this, rather why not just give users some space to upload any songs that they want and be done with it?

Anyway, it seems as though the programs smart enough that it will identify songs that aren’t available from the Sony library, and only uploads them. It also uploads any iTunes playlist if you’re still that (is anyone?) If only they could make a good user interface to match.

Interface
There is no desktop software other than the Music Sync program, it’s all web based. Web and flash based. I personally don’t have anything against Flash, and I can’t say I’m eagerly awaiting the day that HTML5 is the dominant web standard, though on the same token, I don’t loath the day. I’m indifferent what technology is used, as long as it works. If Flash is used and it works well, then that’s great. If HTML5 is used and it works well, that too is great. Given that HTML5 is still upcoming, and it’s probably easier to find Flash developers, it’s not a surprise that the whole site is built around Flash.

My verdict on the overall interface? Well, it works. It’s not absolutely amazing, but it also doesn’t involve lengthy processes and debugging to try and get it working. There are plenty of small annoyances (biggest one so far? leave a song paused for more than a few minutes, and when you come back to playing it, it will start from the beginning), but given the service that it offers, I’m willing to overlook these small things for now. I imagine that Google would do a much better overall if they integrated a subscription service into Google Music (which I can’t imagine happening soon, the major labels won’t even let Google sell music like iTunes, though that could be partly Google’s fault with not wanting to compromise.) So whilst it’s the only service like this (others aren’t available in Australia,) it’s going to get all the money from people that want to use it. The problem they will have is when others do start poping up: due to it’s design, it’s much easier to swap services than it is to swap email addresses (having to let everyone know, forward emails, auto-reply, etc.) or cloud syncing services like Dropbox (having to move over all your files, and working out the deal with shared folders.) You don’t own anything on there, so you move services and you’ve got everything you already had.

So, yes, not an amazing interface, and it has it’s downfalls, but it works. I just can’t get out of my head that Sony is mainly a hardware company, and their software has always been sub-par compared to companies where software comes first (look at what they did to Android! The interface on the X10 is heaps slow and buggy, where as stock Android on the X10 is really good.)

Mobile App

One of the best features is they have released a mobile app for Android, and given what I just said about Sony and making software, it’s surprisingly good. Considering most people would at some stage want to listen  to music on a portable device, and lots of people are starting to use their phones as that portable device. There isn’t really anything much to say about the mobile app. It’s heavily based on the website (though with fewer annoyances, such as the pause issue,) and it works. I still like doubleTwist better, but I was genuinely surprised at how well the Android app worked.

What it’s missing

That definitely is not the right album art.

  • With the Android app, the ability to cache a couple of albums would be awesome. Firstly, it’s going to chew through data, and most phones in Australia are on sub gigabyte data caps (Sony do realise this with a data warning when you start the app, and an option in the settings to stream only when connected to WiFi). It’d be awesome if, when I got up in the morning, connected to WiFi and gave it two albums to cache so I could listen to them on the train. An alternative to this reason would be to make deals with Telcos to make data for Qriocity unlimited, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Second reason, dropouts and congestion. Even if someone has a data plan big enough, mobile data in Australia is much to be desired. I know on a train trip I regularly take there’s about 5 to 10 minutes of no reception, so caching would really help there.
  • Improve the web app. As I said, it’s OK, but not great. It’s really relying on the fact that it’s got millions of songs readily accessible for people to use it. It’d be awesome if they not only had an awesome library, but an awesome media player.
  • Less important, try and cut down on duplicates without removing any content. If the same album appears four times, and they are all identical except one has a couple of bonus tracks, remove all of them except the one with the bonus tracks. No songs are lost, and it’s cleaner overall. That said, I’d much rather have a lot of duplicates than Sony accidentally removing a couple of songs.
  • Also, try and get the right album art for all the albums. There is at least one album I’ve come across with album art that had nothing to do with the artist. It’s not a biggie, but it makes the whole experience seem a little less polished.

Would I recommend it?
Well, I’m not entirely sure. It really depends on who you are. If you love to discover new music (it does have suggestion features built in to find similar artists, but I haven’t tried it) and want to listen to whole albums before you buy it, then it may be for you. If you, like me, listen to most music on a portable device without enough data for regular streaming and have a smaller range of artists, though buy most of the albums from each artist, then you may be better off buying an album a month. That way you own it for ever (well, if you buy it on CD and don’t lose it,) and you don’t need to rely on a data service to be able to listen to music.

Whilst I’ve found it quite good whilst using it on my computer and phone when I’ve had WiFi reception, without the ability to listen to it on the train or in the car without getting “bill shock” when my mobile phone bill comes through, I’m probably not going to renew my accidental subscription when it expires. If they implemented caching on the Android app though, where I could select albums to cache without playing them, then I will reconsider the service.

Asus U31F Review

Today I took the plunge and bought a new laptop. With limited funds, it really came down to how much benefit would it be verses how much I’m willing to spend. I really wanted an ultra-portable (though not a netbook,) as my old laptop was quite large and weighed 3kg with the power supply, and I also wanted the battery to last (power points at Uni are at a premium.) In the past week or so, I’ve really been noticing the strain in my back of carrying my laptop around in a messenger bag, so I figured for that alone it’s worth getting a laptop that’s over a kilo lighter (it all adds up.)

After looking around online, I finally settled on the ASUS U31F, a 13.3 inch LED screen, supposedly less than an inch thick, only 1.8kg and 10 hours battery (at best.) I have always trusted ASUS when it comes to hardware quality, and when it comes to this laptop, they certainly don’t disappoint.


Hardware



So, firstly, the overall build quality on this laptop is excellent. Definitely the quality that I expected from ASUS. The keyboard feels really nice, the lid is nice and sturdy, and the screen is excellent. Definitely a vast improvement on my previous laptop (though, admittedly, that’s not that hard.)

I think 13.3 inch is the sweet spot between portability and productivity: I could barely do any Uni work on an Eee PC, but a 15 inch or 17 inch is just too big to carry around. It does come at a cost: no optical drive. These days, that is a lot easier to get away with. Most software is been distributed online instead of by disk, and it’s possible to use an optical drive from another computer over the network to install products (and if you don’t have another computer, external drives are relatively cheap, and you can leave it at home when you’re not using it). The only area I can see this been a potential issue is when you want to use the laptop for entertainment, you’re definitely more restricted with what you can do (no DVDs on the go, which can be useful in laptops sometimes.) For me though, if I’m likely to want to watch a DVD, I’ll take a rip of it on my main computer and transfer it over. With a 500GB HDD, it can get away with that.

I’m not as much into audio as some people, so I am cautious when commenting on the speakers. Everything I say here, in your mind append the phrase “for laptop speakers” at the end of everything. For what I’ve used them for (just music so far,) they seem pretty decent when you consider that. They can also get quite loud, which could be handy for small presentations that require video. So to sum it up, out of all my laptops I’ve had (3 laptops,) they are the best I’ve used, but the ones in my other laptops weren’t that great.

As for performance, it’s got an i5 processor with 4 gigs of ram by default, so it can definitely handle all every day tasks without any problems what so ever. It only has Intel graphics, but I also didn’t buy it to play games, so if you’re not planning on playing games, that’s not going to be a problem at all.

Software
Here comes the ugly side. I really wish that hardware vendors would start taking a real interest in the overall use experience of pre-loaded software. Rather what I see is a standard package, and a large standard package at that, of programs that just get dumped on the computer and just left there. Whilst I’m sure they are tested, they don’t seem to get tested very well.

I booted it up at first and it went through the standard setup account in Windows, which was all good, nothing wrong there. It’s when the computer restarted and logged in that it turned sour.

So, to get it started, when I logged in, a popup just above the task bar came up asking me to create a backup disk for Windows. Quite a standard practice these days in laptops, they don’t have to spend money shipping a disk for you. The problem with this is, as mentioned above, the laptop doesn’t come with an optical drive. I thought I’d go through the process to see what it asked me to do. The first thing it asked me to do was to get a blank DVD ready. So I did… not sure what I was to do with it, but I had it ready! Upon clicking next, an error came up promptly reminding me that there’s no optical drive and that it can’t continue. Seriously? Why on earth did this piece of software end up on the computer if it can’t even function in it’s default configuration (and really, whose going to have an external drive plugged in when they first use their computer?) Also, how much do companies really save by not shipping installation disks? 20 cents a disk? The laptop actually did come with a driver disk, why not throw in a Windows disk as well and forget about having to burn it yourself.

So after failing to burn the disk from the lack of optical drive, I proceeded to do the first thing I always do on new computers from a major manufacturer: head to uninstall programs and, well, uninstall pretty much everything that wasn’t a driver or seemed rather important for system functionality. Sadly, it was quite a long list that I removed. About 10 different games from the same company, Trend Micro (I already have a subscription for ESET, and if I didn’t, I’d use Microsoft Security Essentials,) and believe it or not, CyberLink “Power2Go.” I actually wasn’t sure what Power2Go was when I first saw it, so I thought I’d try and launch it before I removed it… it actually didn’t launch, instead came up with a DLL error. I quickly Googled to check out what it was, and turns out it’s burning software. Remember what I said about the lack of optical drive? Again, seriously Asus, why was this even installed?

After removing everything that I didn’t want, I wanted to go and install programs I did want (such as Google Chrome.) Turns out that Chrome was pre-installed, so I thought I’d launch it and update it from within the browser, as it was an old version. Well, I can tell you that it didn’t launch. I tried a few times, and it just didn’t come up. So I downloaded the newest version maually and installed it hoping that it’d over write the old version and update it, but instead I ended up with 2 versions of Chrome installed at once, which isn’t exactly what I want. So I went to uninstall the old version (easily identifiable thanks to the Chrome logo change,) but the uninstaller didn’t launch either. Great, now I need to remove it manually and be left with a computer less than day old already building up stray registry entries.

And now, again a software issue, the function keys don’t work. I don’t think it had anything to do with uninstalling software, as I left all the Asus software in place (I may go and remove some later, but for now I didn’t want to accidentally remove anything important, such as power management software, as that’s what get’s it 10 hours.) And even if I did remove the software for function keys, on most computers, basic ones such as volume, will still work. I’ll look into it further, but I shouldn’t have to: my volume keys should just work.

So, I’ve gone from been prompted to do something that can’t be done with the default configuration of this computer, to 10 pre-loaded junk games, 2 programs that were broken (and one shouldn’t have even been there at all,) to function keys that don’t work. Not really the best user experience possible. I have blogged before about Apple’s marketing, and I can start to see the appeal in Apple products. Whilst I’m not personally likely to buy a Mac for my own use, Apple have complete control over both hardware and software, and actually work hard to make the overall experience a nice one. I wouldn’t have minded paying a little more for this laptop to not have bloatware (which I do realise reduces the price of the computer some what) and having a nice polished operating system when I booted it up. Windows 7 is actually nice and polished to begin with, I would have thought it’d be easier for them to leave it be and only install essential stuff rather than actually make it worse. So, a message to major manufacturers: Step up your game, people are paying a premium for Apple products without all the bloat, no harm upping the price by $50 to not have bloatware on your computers.

Battery Life
I haven’t yet had a chance to fully test the battery life. So far it’s definitely better than what I’m used to, but can it live up to the 10 hours it claims? I’m going to write a program to run on the computer and write to a text file every 10 minutes, leave it in battery saving mode with wireless tuned off (but I’ll leave the screen turned on,) and see how long it can last. In theory, it should last almost 10 hours. When on full charge, with wireless turned on, Windows estimates 7.5 hours. I’ll do a seperate test with wireless as well later.

I haven’t had a chance to do a proper run down test without using it, but really, does that offer good results? I think the best results come from using it, which I have done, and for general usage, you can expect around 7 hours with wireless on.

Overall
Even after an eventful run in with software issues, I’d still recommended this laptop. Software issues can be fixed, possibly with a complete re-install from vanilla Windows (which I’m still debating, as I’ll need to source an external optical drive, and ensure that I install the right utilities to get power management working proper,) but I’m also a the “tech guy” so to speak, so I’m happy to do that. Good thing for Asus that the build quality is good enough that it makes up for a poor user experience on the software front at first.

Additional Notes (Edit)
The exact model that I’m using is the “RX132V” model. This is the one that DSE and JB-Hi Fi sells, and doesn’t come with Bluetooth (and only comes with Windows 7 Home Premium.) There is another model available for sale, the “RX112X” model. As far as I can tell, they are identical except the latter model comes with Bluetooth and Windows 7 Professional. It’s also interesting to note that the DSE website says 6-cell: I bought mine at DSE and it’s an 8 cell battery. That’s not to say that if you order it online it will be 8-cell, but it could possibly be a typo, so check in store.