Thumbplay is set to launch on Thursday the mobile version of its subscription-based music service for BlackBerry devices, with Android and iPhone versions to follow shortly.
Thumbplay is best known for selling ringtones, but as that market dried up, the company shifted strategies and decided to enter the subscription music space, where it will compete against longtime players like Rhapsody, as well as a growing number of new entrants such as MOG and Spotify. So how does it stack up?
The company gave me a 30-day invitation to its beta and loaned me a BlackBerry Bold 9000 to test it on, and after a few days, my impressions are mostly positive, with a few big problems. I'll start with the positives. The starting price is only $9.99 a month, and that includes access from your computer using a desktop application (it's based on Adobe's AIR platform and works on Mac or PC), as well as from any supported mobile device. That's quite a bit cheaper than Rhapsody To Go ($14.99) or Spotify Premium (9.99 pounds in the U.K.), its main competitors for mobile subscription music services.
Sound quality was very good, and I didn't notice any audible differences when testing it over AT&T's 3G service versus my home Wi-Fi network, although there were a few performance lags over 3G when I tried to switch out of a playlist or find a new song. Finding music to play is quite easy--the search engine is adequate as long as you restrict searches to artist names, and you can import songs from a memory card. If you have iTunes on your computer, you can also import playlists from iTunes to Thumbplay, but it won't import auto-generated playlists, such as "recently added," and it will only import 200 songs on any given playlist. Also, if Thumbplay doesn't have certain songs in its service, like nearly all tracks from The Beatles, you won't be able to get them from iTunes to the Thumbplay service. (That's because you're not actually importing physical tracks from iTunes, you're importing metadata.)
But the whole point of a subscription service is to get away from the songs you own and explore other music. That's where the excellent autoplaylist feature comes in--select any currently playing song, and it will create a 15-song playlist based on that song. It's like having Pandora or Slacker mixed in with your personal music collection and on-demand searches. (This feature is provided by Thumbplay partner The Echo Nest.) If you absolutely have to own a song you've been playing, Thumbplay will let you download a permanent MP3 and charge you standard download rates (between $0.79 and $1.29).
I was also impressed with the speed of sync between the desktop and BlackBerry versions of the app. Whenever I created or updated a playlist in one place, it was almost immediately updated in the other. This is one of the greatest benefits of using a cloud-based music service, and it's nice to see it working so well here. There's also a nifty "save offline" feature, which lets you cache playlists on the phone so you can play them when you're away from a wireless connection--great for subway commutes or plane trips.
Unfortunately, there are also a few areas that don't seem finished. The search engine is sketchy--querying "I'm New Here," the name of Gil Scott-Heron's new album, returned no results, even though it's in Thumbplay's catalog and is currently featured among new releases. You can't delete playlists from the BlackBerry app, and if you delete them using the desktop application, they still appear on the BlackBerry app (and reappear in the desktop app the next time you open it). You can't scroll through a currently playing song on the Blackberry app. In the desktop app, there's no shuffle command. Some of these missing features will be added in future releases, the company confirmed.
The catalog also has some holes--all the usual big names are available, but when I tried to create a playlist to prepare me for Coachella 2010, some acts like She and Him and The Temper Trap were missing or very sparse; both had more songs available on Rhapsody. That's not completely surprising, as Thumbplay claims 8 million tracks versus Rhapsody's 9 million. But Rhapsody's been around much longer, and Thumbplay has deals with all the major labels and a lot of indies, so hopefully these gaps will be filled soon.
Finally, I have to mention that as I was writing this post, after testing it for a couple of days, the BlackBerry Thumbplay app froze completely and stopped working. I had to remove and reinsert the phone's battery before I could get Thumbplay to work again. The company blamed this problem on last-minute updates to the service before it emerges from beta.
To sum up, if you've got a BlackBerry and aren't satisfied with your musical options on the device today, Thumbplay is definitely worth trying, but bang on it a lot to make sure you're satisfied before subscribing. The free trial lasts for three days and does not require a credit card to get started.