Out of all the apps in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the Music app was arguably the most limited. It supported the playback of some content stored locally on your computer, but there were some major gaps. The lack of support for the Zune Music Pass, in particular, was a showstopper. Thankfully, the Music app received a major update to coincide with the public availability of the Windows 8 Release Preview. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a significant improvement over the previous version.

The number one feature in the new Music app is support for the Zune Music Pass. If you have a subscription to Microsoft’s all-you-can-eat music service, you’ll be able to stream and download content straight to your Windows 8 PC. The interface has also been radically redesigned, sporting a slightly darker look and a more logical layout. The app is separated into four main groups: My Music, an unnamed section, New Releases, and Popular. Clicking on the title for each section lets you drill down into the app for more content.

“Now Playing”

The unnamed group is dedicated to surfacing featured content on the Zune Music Marketplace. Most of the space is taken up by a giant tile representing the music currently being played (if nothing is in the now playing queue, it too will display featured content). The five tiles to the right and bottom of the now playing tile highlight content on the Marketplace, and the tile in the corner displays an ad for Xbox LIVE. Tellingly, the ad says “With Xbox LIVE, it’s more than just a game” and shows silhouettes of a gamepad, a pair of headphones, and a television, representing games, music, and TV/movies.

If the music is paused, clicking on the now playing tile will immediately resume the track and display the running time. Click on it again to go to the now playing screen. This functionality operates very much like the Music + Video Hub on Windows Phone. The now playing screen is visually similar to the one in the Consumer Preview version of the app, but it has a few nice improvements as well. The Music app, like the Zune software client, displays a collection of album art on the now playing screen, switching to artist imagery when applicable. But unlike its predecessor, the Music app pulls the album art from the Marketplace, rather than your collection. Coming from the Zune software client, this takes a bit of getting used to. The now playing screen surfaces all of the options you’d expect from a media player, including a list of all the tracks in the now playing playlist. You cannot, however, re-order or remove songs in now playing. Shuffle and repeat are hidden on the Windows 8 app bar (there’s no way to enable single track repeat), as are the traditional playback controls and an option to manually open a file. Finally, an option in the lower right corner pulls up artist information like their bio and discography.

New Releases

As you might expect, the New Releases section contains seven tiles for promoting new content, as well as a single ad in the bottom right corner. Digging deeper, the list of new album releases defaults to “show featured” and “all genres.” Both of these options can be changed, however, with the alternative to the former being “show all.” Selecting a genre opens up a list of additional sub-genres to choose from. It’s all fairly straightforward.

Selecting an album pulls up additional information, such as the track list and a variety of options: Play, Add to My Music, Buy Album, and Artist Details. Selecting an individual song presents the track-specific controls Play and Add to My Music. Most of these options operate as you’d expect. Play begins streaming the content, Buy Album lets you purchase it with Microsoft Points, and Artist Details pulls up the aforementioned bio and discography. Add to My Music takes the place of “download” in the Zune software, letting you store the music locally without purchasing the album. This content will still appear in your collection if the download fails, so there’s an option to remove it from My Music. A Zune Music Pass is required to take advantage of Add to My Music and–when browsing the Marketplace–Play. Once again, the app bar surfaces additional context-sensitive options. Select an album and pull up the app bar to get two “add to playlist” options (the first seems to add the content to the last-used playlist, while the second lets you choose a playlist). Strangely, there’s also a delete option. How exactly delete is expected to work while browsing the Music Marketplace is a mystery. Selecting a song and pulling up the app bar gives you options to purchase a single track or start playing it on Xbox 360.

Popular

The third and final Marketplace-specific category, the Popular section displays the top 12 songs on the service. Drilling down presents you with a list of songs, which can be sorted by genre or sub-genre. Of course, you can also switch from “show songs” to “show albums” or “show artists.” Popular seems like it would be a useful feature, but at the moment it’s actually disturbingly restrictive. You can select a song and choose Play or Add to My Music, or you can select an album to get the traditional album pop-up (and all of the features that comes with it, like Play on Xbox if you open the app bar), or you can select an artist and get an album-like pop-up with the top songs and options to Play All, Play on Xbox, and get Artist Details. That’s it. There’s no way to add songs, artists, or albums to your current playlist, and you certainly can’t play all of the most popular songs in a row. For a service that relies on you listening to music, it’s very difficult to just stream and go. Unless, of course, you want to micromanage your music experience every step of the way.

My Music

My Music is also somewhat limited. The app presents eight albums and three playlists from your local collection, as well as a handy option to “Play all music.” The entire music collection can be arranged by songs, albums, artists, or playlists, with options to sort by date added, a to z, artist, release year, or genre. The rest of the experience is similar to the Popular section, annoying music management limitations and all. You’ll also find your playlists under My Music, with options to Play and Add to Now Playing. Songs can be reordered or removed from a playlist, but that’s almost a given. A plus sign next to the playlist category allows you to create a new one as well.

The biggest problem with My Music, however, is the inability to edit, well, anything. Content is retrieved from Windows 8′s Music Library, but the import experience doesn’t seem to work the best. In my case, 200-something albums comprised of 3,451 songs were incorrectly grouped into just 18 albums by four different artists. The worst part is, there’s no apparent way to fix this, since the actual metadata is correct. Deleting the content is the only option available, and that certainly wouldn’t fix the problem.

Charms + Other Features

It’s often easy to overlook the Charms in Windows 8, but they are extremely important. There are only four basic options–five, if you count the option to return to the Start screen–but each one is context-sensitive. Search allows you to search the Zune Music Marketplace (or any other app, for that matter). Search results are separated into five categories: All, Artist Marketplace, Album Marketplace, My Songs, and Marketplace Songs. All seems to be the app’s best guess at what you’re looking for. The rest of the categories are self-explanatory.

Share doesn’t do a much in most of the app, but if you’re on the now playing screen, this Charm will allow you to broadcast the album you’re currently listening to. It takes advantage of Windows 8′s Contracts feature, integrating with any apps you might have installed, like Mail and People (for sharing on Facebook and Twitter). Interestingly, the share link takes you to Xbox.com before quickly re-routing you to Zune.net. Similarly, the Devices Charm allows you to send content to other DLNA-capable devices in your network.

Finally, the Settings Charm is the gateway to all of your app options like Account, Preferences, About, Give Feedback, Permission, and Rate and Review. This is where you can manage your Zune Music Pass devices, billing information, and many other important things. It’s important to note that the Music app on Windows 8 will take up one of your Zune Music Pass device slots if you want to download subscription-based content. This part of the app also contains wording about switching users, but the feature doesn’t seem to have been implemented. At least, not yet.

Windows 8′s media controls have also been given a nice makeover. The album art is now visible on the right-hand side of the menu, and the volume indicator can now be adjusted with your finger or a mouse. The media controls automatically appear when you press one of the volume buttons, either on the device itself or on a peripheral like a keyboard. It’s worth noting that you can also snap the app to one side of the screen, provided your resolution is greater than 1366 x 768.

Performance

The original version of the Music app was very sluggish, but the Release Preview incarnation is much faster and smoother. There are still a few performance issues here and there, but most of the bugs seem to have been worked out. The two biggest issues seem to be finicky drop-down menus and the occasional “cannot connect to the Xbox LIVE service” error.

Missing Features

The Music app is a great improvement over the one in the Consumer Preview, but it still has a ways to go. The previously mentioned annoyances need to be fixed, but it would also be good to have the app at least on par with the Zune software client it aims to replace. In order to do that, it’ll need to beef up in the feature department. The Music app is still missing many popular Zune features like the Zune Social (although one has to wonder if it’ll ever make a resurgence), Smart DJ, dynamic playlists, history, pinned items (a must, especially with Windows 8′s tile-based UI), and much more.

The Future

Microsoft is rumored to be making a major music and video-related announcement at E3 on Monday, potentially unveiling the next generation of the Zune service. It’s doubtful that the company would put this much effort into the Music app only to throw it out before the final version of Windows 8 ships, so this new service–whatever it’s called–is almost certain to be just an iteration of the Zune service, not a replacement. Whatever it is, it’ll be interesting to see when Microsoft adds the new capabilities to the Music app.