Readers of a certain age might remember things called cassettes — little plastic cartidges with magnetic tape inside, onto which you could record carefully-constructed mixes from the radio, other tapes, and eventually, CDs. The past few years have seen several services try to port that sort of mixtape-style sharing to the web, beginning with Muxtape, which was eventually shut down due to licensing concerns. Other services, such as 8tracks and Playlist.com, survived, in part by tweaking their rules to qualify for lower licensing rates.
Now, 8tracks is available for free on the iPhone, so you can listen to your playlists and those of your friends without being seated in front of your computer. Suddenly, 8tracks playlists (which must consist of at least eight songs, thus the name, and must play by a few other simple rules too) are a far more viable listening option — especially now that spring is upon us in the northern hemisphere.
TechCrunch has a decent rundown of the 8tracks app‘s main features: “liking” songs and mixes to return them later and possibly buy thm; listening to the newest, “hottest,” or featured mixes (including some from major publications); playing in the background as you surf the web etc.; mashing up a station that mixes your friends’ combined musical taste; searching for mixes by artist; browsing by genre or mood; sharing via email, Facebook or Twitter; and outputting via AirPlay to AppleTV or Airport Express — a crucial feature for any listening app these days.
If you’ve already used 8tracks, the mixes and friends you made earlier will be available within the app, which is a nice touch, and our testing generally backed up TechCrunch’s assertion that “the app is solid and a natural extension of [8tracks'] site” even though there’s no way to create new mixes by uploading MP3s from your phone, the way you can with a computer.
For starters, we’d add that 8tracks also lets you “follow” your favorite fellow users, as one would with Twitter or Rdio, so that you can keep tabs on their latest mixes, delve into their archive, or combine all your friends into a single radio station with a single click — neat.
However, one more important feature is missing from this 8tracks iPhone app: the ability to store mixes in local memory.
If you’re going to make 8tracks part of your daily listening experience, you’d better A) stick to Wi-Fi, or B) have an unlimited cellular data plan — either by having been grandfathered in as an early iPhone user on AT&T, or by purchasing an unlimited data plan from Verizon before it phases those out this summer. Otherwise, you’ll risk spending your monthly data allowance well before the end of the month. Even if you’re not going to hit the limit, who wants to fret about the possibility that it could happe?
Other music apps (Slacker, Spotify, and another unreleased one we’ve been testing) include the ability to download playlists to your phone’s memory while it’s connected to WiFi for offline playback. This helps your phone act like a camel, storing up musical water until you reach the next Wi-Fi oasis, so to speak. Caching music for offline playback also lets you listen on the subway, train, or airplane, where data connections are limited or unavailable.
8tracks is quite compelling even without this feature, especially if you’re data plan is unlimited or you spend lots of time around Wi-Fi. I mean hey, it’s free (and supported by display ads).
But any music listening app that wants to become a part of you daily routine, rather than one of those apps you use sporadically if at all, must address wireless carriers’ limitations on how we use our data connections. Offine playback, missing in this iteration of 8tracks, is a great way to address that.