Samsung Music Hub Update Makes It a Compelling Offer

Two weeks ago I published my experiences on Ritchie’s Room regarding the new Samsung Music Hub, which promised to usher in a new way to discover and enjoy music. At the time, there were many excellent features to be explored and used instantly on the Hub, which can be installed via the Samsung App feature, and was exclusive to the Galaxy S II.

The interface, with an array of album cover images, scrolling functions and tap commands, was quite intuitive to use. The depth of music selection was compelling, with many tracks that I thought I’d have trouble finding, popping up in the search results, much to my pleasure.

At the same time, there were some features which seemed to need some additional work. The ability to use the Music Hub on the Galaxy S II without a SIM card or on flight mode was an issue, and the caching of music tracks to playback without streaming was fraught with difficulties.

I mentioned this in my earlier post, along with a few suggestions to further improve the Music HUB service, which I see as a real game changer if the functionality is delivered as promised across multiple devices.

Samsung's Music Hub is all about discovering music, and the latest update adds stability and better functionality.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’m sitting down for a coffee and chat with Bruce Webb, the Applications Partner Manager for the Telco division in Samsung, who was instrumental in the design and launch of the local Music Hub app.

Bruce is excited to show me the latest iteration of the software which is due for release to the public in the next few days. The update addresses many of the points made in my previous article. Bruce says that Samsung estimate three quarters of the installed base of Galaxy S II users have downloaded the app, and they are working feverishly to ensure the user experience is flawless.

Full functionality is now available if there is a Wi-fi signal but no SIM card or 3G connection , and cached songs now play without issue, in normal mode or in flight mode.

In fact, there are a few additional features that Bruce demonstrates to me on his Galaxy S II using the updated Hub. One of them is an offline mode that retains all other functionality on the phone but blocks internet access to the Hub app, allowing you to play the locally cached playlists with no other restrictions to the handset.

Another improvement is a quick method of resetting the Music Hub app completely if any file was corrupt and is disrupting the functionality, and using the cloud to restore playlists once the App was wiped clean on the local handset storage.

The cloud plays a big part in the grand scheme of Samsung’s efforts to bring the music service to its customers. Once you are verified and registered with the Music Hub, the playlists you create reside in the servers that manage the service. Whether you use a browser, a phone or a TV, you can pick up where you left off, with the added benefit of a repository of ten thousand music videos on the Smart TV application. The upgrading of your devices has no bearing on the lists you may have built up over time; once signed in, the devices synchronise with your account and it’s a seamless experience.

Drop new songs and albums into the Play Pit, then create playlists which will be stored on the cloud.

Bruce sees the Samsung Music Hub as a natural evolution of the way we consume entertainment. “We’ve gone from physical media, to downloading digital files, to now streaming music”, he says. Technology has been the great disruptor, making it possible to utilise services like 3G to choose and play music that is completely customisable.

“I’ve been on a six hour trip to Tamworth, streaming music over the network through my handset the entire trip and played back through the car’s Bluetooth connection”, bruce boasts. Although most customers probably wouldn’t want to chew up their mobile data limit so frivolously, it does show how far we’ve come from having a stack of scratched, dusty CDs in the glove box.

The high point of the conversation occurs when Bruce removes a small USB dongle from his pocket and offers to update my Music Hub app to the latest version (v1.05 for those technically inclined). He certainly didn’t have a chance to withdraw the offer, and I’ve been trying out the revamped app ever since.

Knowing some of the frustrations I had with the original app, the latest version does indeed live up to the proposition of access to a massive collection of music across all genres. I held my breath while synching playlists and then playing back in various modes, and the locally stored music played back without a hitch.

Putting this offer in the context of purchasing music, whether online or on CD, is extremely compelling. For the cost of one discounted album per month, you have access to millions of songs, which can be played back instantly, and you can choose 50 albums worth of music to have on your device to be played back without streaming.

Take a chance and get a randomly assembled playlist from a selected genre. Feeling lucky?

This is another step forward for Samsung, who can make a big dent in the music market with the sheer size of their mobile phone, tablets and AV installed base. Bruce also shows me the Music Hub app running on an older Samsung smartphone, with a lower resolution. The app has a couple of adjustments to take into account for the smaller screen real estate, but otherwise it’s the same experience. Likewise with tablets, Bruce explains that the layout will be different again to take advantage of the larger screen space available.

It was a very open and frank discussion with the very person who helped create the Music Hub in Australia, and it’s the sign of a progressive electronics company reaching out and engaging with the community, taking on that community  feedback and including it in the development of its products and services.

As for the future, Bruce intends to roll out further updates regularly, with deeper genre subcategories to explore, expanded pre-packaged playlists and even celebrity or musician-based playlists. “It’s going to evolve constantly”, he says.

If you own a Galaxy S II and have been holding off because of what you’ve heard or read, the latest version due to be deployed in a matter of days is worth downloading and at least trialling. The Music Hub is all about music discovery, so install the latest version of the App and go on your own musical adventure – you never know what you might find.

Will you be giving the Samsung Music Hub a go? Feel free to comment below on your experiences using the latest version of the app.

Samsung Music Hub Review using the Galaxy S II

Update (24/11/11): I met with a senior manager from Samsung yesterday to talk about the Music Hub and have published a new article about improvements being made. I think the changes should make all Music Hub users quite happy! Click to the article right here

As some of you may have read, I had given my iPhone 4 up for a Samsung Galaxy S II , and have been enjoying its features since then, even having an opportunity to write about my experiences on Carrypad.

One area that I didn’t really explore was entertainment content. After all, most of my music is on my iTunes, and I am still using a dedicated iPod, with all my playlists and favourite albums.

When Samsung announced the impending launch of their new music and video streaming service, I actually decided against moving back to the iPhone 4 when iOS 5 was released. I wanted to see if the Samsung Music Hub, as it was called at its launch, could actually provide a decent alternative to what iTunes provides now.

Samsung HUB streaming service

Samsung Music Hub streaming service directly to your mobile device for a nominal monthly fee.

On paper, it sounds very attractive. Three million songs on launch, searching by many different genres, and the ability to cache the songs onto the phone for playback even when out of network range, like on a plane or a car. The songs could even be pumped out over my car stereo using the Bluetooth connection. All this for under ten dollars a month!

Loading the Music Hub was a simple process via the Samsung Apps location. Interestingly, Samsung Apps won’t load if there is not a SIM card inserted and activated, probably to authenticate what country you’re from to filter the appropriate applications. After loading and registering the Music Hub, which is powered by a service by the name of InSong, I was advised that my phone was eligible for a 2 month free trial. Very generous, and definitely enough time to put the service through its paces.

The first thing I did was look for a few new tracks through the general search field, and to my pleasure it found them right away. Album and single covers appear, and you can see the entire album that the song has been lifted from. If you haven’t created a playlist, then the songs you select go into what’s called a “Play Pit”.

Samsung HUB discovery

Could do with some more sub categories in the Samsung Music Hub discovery menu.

One of the things I found was that the music discovery process didn’t have enough categories and subcategories to explore. I personally would have loved to dig deeper into some progressive rock or thrash metal that I hadn’t yet heard, but instead I had to be satisfied with a general “Pop/Rock” section. Generally speaking, you have to know what you are looking for, whereas streaming for me is more about discovering things I hadn’t heard before.

Playing from the “pit” worked fine, and the streaming was fairly fast. It was when I started creating playlists that trouble loomed.

I created a playlist called “New Tracks”, and loaded the songs into that from the Play Pit, an easy enough process. The songs still played nicely via streaming. The audio quality was somewhere between a good quality stereo radio and a standard bit rate local drive MP3 player.

Samsung HUB create your own playlists

Samsung Music Hub lets you create as many of your own playlists as you like.

For me, one of the major attractions of this service is the ability to cache the songs for use when in Flight Mode or otherwise aren’t connected for streaming. Samsung claim that up to 500 songs can be cached for listening anywhere, anytime.

So I chose to synch the playlist to my phone, and all the songs just… stopped working. As an experiment I removed them from my phone so they had to be streamed and… no joy. I then restarted the application and chose songs from the playlist and they played back in streaming form just fine. I tried caching the playlist again, and ran into the same problem.

Then I put the phone into Flight Mode, and the Music Hub app promptly force-closed itself on me. It wasn’t until I was back in normal connection mode that the Music App would  stay open without shutting down on me.

So to avoid these shut downs I simply tried using the Hub as a streamer, nothing more, and as a basic streaming service it works really well. I could find most of the artists I was looking for, streaming was quick and I did find a few random songs I wouldn’t have thought of in a few of the Discover sections.

So as a first impression, I think the Samsung Music Hub needs a deeper search function and a good hard look at the caching function will make a big difference to the current experience. When the streaming works, it works well, and it’s not too hard to navigate around the environment.

Samsung HUB has over 3 million available

Samsung Music Hub has over 3 million tracks ready to stream to your device.

The opportunity is definitely there for this to be a successful music subscription service. I haven’t found much information or indeed feedback from users online, so I hope this article finds its way to the right people.

My wish list:

  • Caching needs immediate attention. At the moment streaming and saving streaming lists are all I can do, unless another user can advise otherwise. No localised (cached) playback is possible right now.
  • Create a widget with basic functionality (play, stop, back and forward)
  • Allow searches by genre/artist/song name/album filter
  • Create more rich lists of music, including a “new release” section for sub genres in each broad music genre block

We will be back for another look at this once Samsung update the app, as I’m sure they will based on user feedback.

Has anyone else had a play with the Samsung Music Hub, and what are your thoughts? Please provide your experiences and comments below.

Apple Announces iPhone 4GS with Increased Capacity and Improved Camera, Voice Command

The new iPhone 4S looks like the current iPhone 4 on the outside, but has a raft of upgraded software and hardware features on the inside.

Today, Apple released details on their latest update to their iPhone, called the iPhone 4S. Looking very similar externally to the outgoing model, the processor has been upgraded to the A5 dual core processor, and includes dual-core graphics.

This extends the iPhone’s ability to play higher-end games that require more graphics power, and in turn opens up a wider usage model for the iPhone as a more serious gaming device in addition to the other entertainment and productivity tools it currently offers.

The new iPhone 4S also comes with an upgraded 8MP camera, with an f/2.4 aperture, meaning casual snappers can take some impressive depth of field shots among other compositions. It can now also film in Full 1080p HD.

Another new feature announced was Intelligent Assistant, a comprehensive voice control feature. The Assistant will be able to action an extremely wide array of tasks via voice, including texting, searching the web or points of interest, find live stock prices, give directions, and set alarms.

Apple took the world from buttons to touch screen... will they now create the voice control revolution?

The assistant will also use data such as GPS location to set up other actions, like sending a text to someone when you leave a predefined area, for example leaving your office to an off-site meeting.

The phone will be released in its major markets, including Australia, on October 14th. The new iOS 5 operating system, which will upgrade the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 and latest iPod touch and all iPads, will be released on October 12th.

iOS 5 includes Twitter integration, improved notifications, over-the-air software updates, and a text chat service for iOS 5 users. A new feature of iOS 5 which was announced this morning was Find My Friends, which allows users to release their location to other users, which could be useful when arranging a group gathering or helping direct people to your current location.

iTunes Match, which has only been released for US residents at this stage, will be launched at the end of October. At a price of US$24.99 a year, iTunes will match the songs in your iTunes library to Apple’s database, regardless of whether they were purchased there, and upload any remaining songs for streaming at a high 256kb/s quality to any of your iDevices.

iTunes Match is part of Apple’s new iCloud service, which provides back up and synching of all your apps, text and MMS messages, photos and video you’ve shot, and documents. This service is free with up to 5GB storage.

As with any impending Apple event, rumours flooded the online discussions. Here’s a quick rundown of how some of the major rumours panned out:

  • iPhone 5 or entry level iPhone 4S – as it turned out, the iPhone 4S was very much an improved upgrade to the iPhone 4, retaining the same form factor as the current model.
  • Larger 4” screen – no screen change as the iPhone 4 retina screen continues.
  • Upgrade to 8 megapixel camera – this was confirmed, with a raft of improvements to the camera function with speed, resolution and full high definition video recording.
  • Expand range to 64GB capacity – this was confirmed for the iPhone 4S
  • Macbook Air-inspired sloping design – Some rumoured iPhone 5 designs included a sloping design similar to the Macbook Air. However, the emphasis on gaming would require a more symmetrical design, which the iPhone 4/4S offers.
  • Intelligent voice commands – Apple’s purchase of Siri last year has materialised in the Intelligent Assistant, which according to Apple can pretty much help with anything you need actioned hands-free on the iPhone. Personally, I can’t wait to see this in action.

We’ll be following up with a rundown of the iCloud and iOS 5 features later this month when it’s released.

Will these improvements give you a reason to upgrade your current phone to the iPhone 4S?

Signs of Things to Come?

Although I haven’t posted a blog in a couple of weeks, I have been watching and considering a lot of the news coming out of the IT sector. In the last couple of weeks a few key events have been reported which in isolation are newsworthy, but when looked at as a group, point to a possible shift in some of the key areas of technology. All events seem to have the same basic theme underpinning them all – and that is “choice”.

Choice is what drives competition and spurs companies on to innovate, and separate themselves from the field to offer consumers a viable alternative. You may have already heard about all the news stories below, but I’m looking at them from the angle of how they propagate the theme of consumer choice.

The first one was the news that the new Generation 2 Intel processors had a fault on the motherboard that was designed to be used in the majority of retail computers. This has required a complete return of any Gen2 i3, i5 and i7 computers so they can be reworked with a new motherboard that addresses the original issue, which is related to degradation of hard drive performance over time.

Coincidentally, AMD held their launch of their new APU processors the night of the Intel recall, and it brought to mind a Steven Bradbury situation, where AMD may be able to take the opportunity to offer their processor alternative in light of the Intel issue. I’ve spent time with their new netbook APU, which we’ll be reviewing shortly, and it does impress.

AMD have a very strong new product range and vendors are looking seriously at offering more products with their new APU chip. The Intel recall may provide more impetus for computer manufacturers to produce these alternatives which will give consumers more variety to consider.

The second piece of news was the launch of the online Android marketplace. Although not the first app store launched, the online environment allows for over the air installations. In other words, your google account, which is linked to your Android phone or tablet, is all you need to enter the browser-based marketplace. When you select an app (paid or free), it will be automatically downloaded to your selected phone.

This is great because the online marketplace provides more detail on the apps on offer, and has already been touted as a more visually appealing environment in which to discover and select Android apps than directly from the marketplace app on relevant Android handsets. You can even upload reviews via the browser. This is a great example of innovation to drive choice and add value in the smartphone market.

The third interesting snippet was a report that Sony was considering pulling its artists out of iTunes in order to offer a cloud-based service for users of its TVs, gaming and handheld consoles, and Sony Ericsson mobile phones. It seemed to be the first major crack in the polished and seemingly unbeatable ecosystem that Apple has created, fusing content and hardware together in a closed loop that has to date been massively successful in changing the rulebook for music and entertainment distribution.

The alternative that Sony are offering means a very different way of consuming content, particularly as the content is in the cloud, and therefore would be accessible across multiple Sony devices. It remains to be seen whether this threat is a parting shot from Sony at Apple, or whether they are making their true intentions known.

From the aspect of choice, once again consumers would have an attractive alternative that makes use of the latest technology to deploy content. Cloud-based content and computing is the future, and companies that offer solutions based on this will have a head start as consumers learn to make the most of a non-localised computing system.

The final and perhaps most surprising piece of news to emerge was the Nokia-Microsoft alliance, which will bring Windows 7 Mobile to new Nokia Phones. Nokia and Microsoft are calling it “the third ecosystem” after the Apple and Android environments. This will be a very interesting developing story, because Nokia has not been competing strongly against the likes of the iPhone or the many and wide Android handsets.

Is Windows 7 strong enough to compete with the app-driven system that Android and iPhone/iPad users are so familiar with? Nokia and Microsoft are talking about combining Bing, navigation via NAVTEQ, Xbox Live and Office into an integrated offering on new Nokia smartphones. Right now we have no idea what this may look like, but it does have the potential to be a serious competitor and if its points of difference are compelling we may well see a three-way battle of the Smartphone market. And as I mentioned before, nothing drives innovation like deep competition. This announcement may lead to more choice and better alternatives for users’ lifestyle and usage requirements.

So there we have it: an Intel recall; the Android Marketplace moving online; Sony stoushing with Apple; and Nokia partnering with Microsoft. It’s been a big fortnight for tech news, and I do see a pattern emerging from these individual developments. It highlights that many of the major companies vying for the technology dollar spend are looking for ways to invigorate their market share and position, and consumers will ultimately be the winners with more choice in product and content, and differing platforms on which to enjoy them. And that’s what makes this industry so exciting – the possibilities are huge. We’ll be keeping tabs on all the above, so stay tuned.