Apple Music review: Two years later, the service is finding its voice

On June 30, 2015, Apple Music turned its speakers on, began blasting Beats 1 to over 100 countries, and presented music lovers with a question: Could Apple beat streaming giant Spotify at its own game? Two years later and 27 million active subscribers later, the answer to that question isn't "yes," but it's much closer than it ever has been. As Apple Music has grown over the last 24 months, the service has taken what works — Beats 1, the streaming catalog, custom playlists — and amplified it, and remixed the parts — social and iCloud Music Library — that didn't.

In 2017, Apple Music is still recognizably the service that launched in 2015: For You and Radio are still the service's top draws, as is the integration with your iTunes Music Library. It's still a paid-only service, in contrary to Spotify's ad-supported free tiers. And it's still experimenting with new ways to differentiate the service — most recently, introducing exclusive video content.

But there have also been shifts, improvements, and missteps that have marked the service's evolution. Apple Music is turning two: Let's celebrate with a quick breakdown of where it is.

For You is even more personalized

When Apple Music launched, it offered custom playlist and album suggestions based on your past listening history and your iTunes library; that baseline is still there, but has been augmented with weekly custom playlists of New Music and Favorites (and, come iOS 11, a relaxation mix called Calm).

Apple's iCloud Music Library, which promised to combine your streaming tastes with your previously purchased and ripped music, has also improved. It ditched the feel of "DRM-laden gimmick" last summer to fully support DRM-free downloading of your existing content without an additional iTunes Match subscription; both the Music app and iTunes app on iOS and Mac were further organized so that users who wanted to see their subscription tunes separately from their personal library could.

To me, For You is still the backbone of Apple Music, and why so many users subscribe: Apple's playlist editors are smart, track-savvy, and constantly learning what people like and don't like. It's not perfect: For one, the service's weekly mixes are still far too capricious around what you're listening to lately versus your general taste. (If I go off on a Dear Evan Hansen kick one week, my mix the next week is likely to be over 50% musicals and a-capella.)

But having recently compared all the major music services head to head, Spotify's the only service that even comes close to Apple Music when it comes to great curation. They all have issues with balancing taste, in part due to their various computer and human music algorithms. It just depends on which service's flair fits your music listening style.

Apple also seems to be adjusting slightly to account for these wide disparities in tempo and style: The company has started beta testing a Chill mix that pulls out some of the more laidback tunes from your New Music Mix, and there's hope Apple may experiment with more custom mixes in the future.

Playlist sharing is going to be huge

It's not quite here yet (unless you're playing around with the developer or public iOS and Mac betas), but the Fall will bring arguably one of the biggest improvements to Apple Music since its DRM-free iCloud Music Library change: You'll soon be able to share your own live-updated playlists and recent listening history to the world (or just your friends, depending on your privacy choices).

This is a feature Spotify has had for ages, and it's been a much-requested Apple Music feature. While you can currently send links to your playlists via the service in iOS 10, those links are to static playlists that don't update if you change a song or rearrange the order. There's also no way currently to search the service for user-created playlists or find more playlists from a certain user.

All of that is changing with iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. Playlists are live-updating and searchable. Users have full profiles showcasing created playlists, what they're listening to, and their friends and follows. For You will get a new section called "Friends Are Listening To," which I've been using nigh-constantly to find great work music.

How to view and share playlists with friends in Apple Music

Forget Ping. Forget Connect. This is the social music sharing service Apple should have released years ago, and even in a rough beta stage, it's great. Come the fall, it's going to completely explode how Apple Music users interact with each other and the service.

After all, Apple may not need to create 20 special weekly "Mixes" if you can save weekly playlists from your favorite user DJs.

Beats 1 is less prominent but no less important

Apple's streaming online radio station Beats 1 was looked at of something of a novel curiosity when it launched, but it's died down in the tech press as of late. Without a new "Beats 2 or 3" station launching to captivate our interest, we just aren't that excited about online radio.

But plenty of Apple's subscribers are, as evidenced by the increasing number of specialty shows on the service. Apple Music now offers over 40 specialty shows on Beats 1 in a large variety of genres, from tastemakers and superstars alike. Elton John, Ryan Adams, Anna Lunoe, Run the Jewels, and others run weekly shows with full archive support, allowing users to essentially pick the musical podcast of their choice.

The Radio tab also now offers streaming for 4 news services (CBS, local NPR, ESPN Radio, and Bloomberg) in the United States along with a slew of automated radio stations for all sorts of genres.

Radio may not be the primary reason anyone subscribes to streaming media in 2017, but Apple continues to keep watching the space and delivering interesting variations for the users who care.

Betting on video

Apple Music was never meant to be a video streaming service — unless you count the occasional music video. But until the company decides to fully launch its TV streaming option, video has started living in Apple Music. That includes live concerts like Taylor Swift's 1989 tour and made-for-Apple disaster pieces like Planet of the Apps, along with an upcoming digital version of James Corden's Carpool Karaoke.

There's an argument to be made for Apple just offering a one-user-fits all music and video service called Apple Streaming — the company certainly has enough cash in the bank that it doesn't have to rely on multiple subscriptions to push its services revenue. And in that hypothetical realm, having a TV & Movies tab in the Browse section wouldn't seem that out of place.

In Apple's currently-existing music service, however, it just feels off. Maybe I'd be less opposed if the content were better. But given how hard Apple worked a few years ago to separate its music and video offerings on iOS, it's odd to have some video back in the same place again. (Especially when it doesn't link to your other video iTunes content, the way iCloud Music Library supplies your past music content.)

Hopefully the messaging for this will become clear as Apple Music goes through its third year; until then, consider me skeptical on this front.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.