By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 9:01 pm
When Real said that it had submitted a version of its Rhapsody music service to the iPhone App Store, I was still smarting from the Google Voice Voice debacle and feared the worst. Would Apple decide that Rhapsody would confuse users and reject it, or send it into limbo? But the news tonight is good: Rhapsody was approved and should be live on the App Store as you read this. And it’s quite good–maybe the best thing to happen to music on the iPhone (and iPod Touch) since the iPhone, in fact.
In most respects, it’s very much like the Rhapsody that’s been available for PCs for eons, but with an iPhone-esque interface that’s a close cousin to Apple’s own iPod app. You can search for albums, songs, and artists from Real’s catalog of 8,000,000 tracks; add them to your queue for listening; create playlists and save music to your library; browse preprogrammed radio stations in various genres and autogenerated ones based on the work of any artist; and read about artists as you listen to their work. Everything’s integrated with PC-based Rhapsody, so the music you save to your library shows up anywhere you can listen to the service.
All of this music is streaming, so it’s available anywhere you can get cellular or Wi-Fi access, and isn’t anywhere you can’t (such as on airplane flights, for instance, unless Wi-Fi is available and you pay to connect your iPhone or Touch to it). Real says it may release a version of Rhapsody that can store music locally; for now, it’s integrated the app with the iTunes Store. When you listen to something you like so much that you want to own it, you can tap and hold the song title to bop over to iTunes and purchase it in downloadable form.
In most respects that matter, Rhapsody is well done. The quibbles I have all stem from my attempts to listen to it on the road via my car stereo. Like all iPhone streaming audio apps, it occasionally loses its connection; when it does, it gives you an error screen without any buttons or clear indications of what you should do. (I exited the app and reconnected, but I’d rather that it gracefully reconnected on its own.) And it’s lacking two features which I wish all iPhone music apps had: landscape mode view and the ability to keep the iPhone screen on indefinitely when it’s plugged into a power source. (Okay, it’s also missing the ability to play in the background while you use another app, but there’s nothing that Real can do about that.)
If music fans have a major issue with Rhapsody on the iPhone, I think it’s going to relate to the cost, not the app or the service. Real is making iPhone users pay for a $14.99 a month Rhapsody to Go subscription, the plan designed for handheld listening. But on other portable devices, Rhapsody permits downloading to the gadget itself so you can listen without an Internet connection; Rhapsody for the iPhone is closer in capabilities to the PC version which costs $12.99 a month. And even that is pricey given that archrival Napster charges $5 a month for unlimited streaming and five downloads a month. (Napster says it’s written an iPhone app but music rights issues would make it unrealistically expensive to offer; maybe Real is locked into the price it’s charging by licensing issues.)
Ultimately, I think that Rhapsody is worth fifteen bucks a month to some folks, since it gives the iPhone unlimited on-demand listening for the first time and costs as much as an album-and-a-half from iTunes. (If it could store songs on the iPhone itself, it would definitely be worth it–and I’m fearing the worst again just thinking about whether Apple would approve such a version.) In any event, I’m glad the service has landed on the iPhone; this is the first time that a subscription music service has been available on an Apple device, and it’ll be fascinating to see if it it catches on. (There’s a seven-day free trial–if you give it a try, let us know what you think.)
After the jump, some screen shots.