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Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 8.4 + Apple Music
By Jesse Hollington | 07.02.15

Apple’s iOS 8 development cycle has taken a more interesting direction from past releases, with more significant and rapid minor releases and fewer bug fix patch releases. For the first time, Apple had three versions in simultaneous development, released the first-ever public beta of iOS, and even released new versions while the beta cycle for the next version was already underway. iOS 8.2 brought with it support for the Apple Watch, while iOS 8.3 brought iCloud Photo Library out of beta to accompany the new OS X Photos app.

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This week’s release of iOS 8.4 marks another feature milestone, debuting with a completely redesigned Music app for the debut of Apple Music, some significant changes to the iBooks app, as well as the usual collection of other fixes and improvements. As with previous releases, iOS 8.4 comes out while the iOS 9 beta cycle is already well underway, and it’s also anecdotally worth mentioning that this is the first “.4” iOS version to be released — an indication of how much has been added since iOS 8.0 first debuted last fall.

Downloading and Installing

As usual, iOS 8.4 is a free update for all supported iOS device models. To download and install iOS 8.4, users can select the “Check for Updates” option found on the Device Summary page in iTunes, which should locate, download, and install the update automatically. In some cases, iTunes may have already discovered the update by itself, in which case you will see an “Update” button rather than a “Check for Updates” button. For an over-the-air (OTA) update, you can simply go into your device’s Settings app and choose General, Software Update to check for and install the update. Note that to receive OTA updates your device will need to be connected to a Wi-Fi network and should be plugged into a power source or have at least 50% remaining battery life for the update to successfully install.

Note that even if you’ve decided to skip prior iOS versions, you can still update directly to iOS 8.4 in the same manner — there’s no need to install iOS 8.3 first, for example, or even iOS 8.0.

The usual caveats and warnings apply here as with any iOS update: the installation may or may not preserve all of your existing data. It may result in the wiping of your device’s data under certain conditions, and it is therefore a good idea to make a full backup of your device before beginning. Be sure that all of your media content and apps are in your iTunes library, as these do not form part of the backups made by iTunes — Apple reasonably expects that you should be able to re-sync this information from your iTunes library following a full restore. You can check the status of your backup before beginning by visiting the “Devices” section in your iTunes Preferences.

Apple Music

The most significant new feature in iOS 8.4 is the introduction of Apple Music, Apple’s new on-demand streaming music and radio service, which is accompanied by a completely redesigned iOS Music application that makes some interesting UI improvements and adds some much-needed features even aside from the Apple Music service itself.

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“Apple Music” is actually more of an umbrella term for a collection of new services, although Apple uses it somewhat interchangeably both to refer to its single Spotify-like on-demand streaming service as well as the entire suite of new services that include iCloud Music Library, Beats 1 Radio, and Connect. Regardless, the entire collection of Apple Music services is baked into the new Music app, which sports a new white icon and sidelines most of the old standalone music functionality into a single “My Music” tab in the bottom right corner. The other four buttons lead to Apple’s new online services: “For You” provides custom, curated playlists built around your specified preferences, “Radio” provides access to the new Beats 1 Radio and other streaming radio stations — essentially a new and improved “iTunes Radio” available in 100 countries rather than just the U.S. — and “Connect” brings you to Apple’s new music social network for interacting with artists.

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Apple Music remains an optional paid service, although with a free three-month trial, it’s likely most users will at least want to check it out. The first time you visit the new Music app after upgrading to iOS 8.4, you’ll be asked if you want to subscribe to Apple Music, which begins the three-month trial and will automatically start billing you on September 30, 2015. If you’re sure you only want to take advantage of the free trial and not get any surprises at the end of September, you can disable the auto renewal feature for Apple Music in much the same way as any other app-based subscription, by viewing your account via either iTunes or your iOS device and disabling it from the “Manage Subscriptions” screen; there are several different paths to get to this screen, however the easiest in iOS 8.4 is to open the Music app, tap on the person icon in the top left corner of the screen, select View Apple ID and then scroll down and tap Manage under the “Subscriptions” heading. You should find Apple Music listed with any other in-app subscriptions associated with your account, where you can select it and simply toggle off the “Auto Renewal” option.

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When you first setup Apple Music, you’ll be taken through a couple of screens asking you to identify your favorite genres and artists so that Apple can provide you with curated playlists in line with your musical tastes. The UI here is kind of fun, presenting genres and artists as a series of red balloons that you tap on one or twice to indicate how much you like them, or tap-and-hold on to remove entirely. If you’ve already setup Apple Music from another iOS device or iTunes on your computer, these screens will be bypassed by default and you can just log straight in and be ready to go. You can, however, access them again by tapping on the person icon in the top left corner of the Music app to bring up your account settings, and selecting the “Choose Artists for You” option, which will show you your previous preferences and allow you to tweak them further. From the account settings screen you can also choose which artists you are following for the Connect feature of Apple Music, and whether to automatically follow new artists as their music is added to your library; you’ll probably find you’re already following a few here by default based on your existing library content, but you can remove any you don’t want to follow simply by tapping the “Remove” button. You can also customize your Connect nickname and add a photo to your profile if you wish.

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If you decide to forgo setting up Apple Music, even for the free trial, the landscape of the Music app will change somewhat, with “My Music” at the left hand side of the button bar and “Playlists” broken out into a separate tab. “Radio” and “Connect” remain, however — as free services these don’t require an Apple Music subscription, so they’ve been made available to anybody who wants them. Other than these two new sections and the general redesign of the Music app, however, everything works pretty much the same in principle as it did before — you’ll still be able to sync music from iTunes directly to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, can access previous purchases in iTunes in the Cloud, and get access to your entire personal library via the cloud if you subscribe to iTunes Match, which remains in place as a separate service.

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So even users who want nothing to do with Apple’s new streaming service still get to take advantage of some arguably long-overdue improvements to the core Music app. For example, the “Up Next” feature, introduced in iTunes 11 two and a half years ago finally comes to iOS, providing for a much more manageable play queue arrangement. This works just like it does in iTunes — when you start playing an album or playlist, it’s added to the Up Next queue, and from there you can pull up the queue from the Now Playing screen to remove or reorder tracks. Additional songs, albums, or playlists can be added while browsing through your library by tapping on the ellipsis menu button to the right of the track name and choosing either “Play Next” or “Add to Up Next.”

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The new Music app also adds a MiniPlayer which is a conceptual companion to the equivalent feature from iTunes. Whenever a track is playing, a bar appears at the bottom of the screen with the current track information, a play/pause button, and a menu button. Tapping on the song title will bring up the “Now Playing” screen, or you can drag that bar up from the bottom and back down again if all you want is a quick peek at the album cover.

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A “Like” button also appears on the “Now Playing” screen in the form of a heart that can be tapped on to flag your favorite tracks. This is a handy simplified rating system for those who found dealing with star ratings too cumbersome, but for Apple Music subscribers it also serves to define your musical tastes to deliver customized playlists. The Lock Screen and Control Center playing controls have also been updated to include the new “Like” button to the left of the volume slider, as well as a sharing button on the right-hand side for quickly sharing a link to the currently playing track.

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Browsing through your library has changed as well, with a new “Recently Added” section that appears at the top of the “My Music” and “Playlists” screens providing quick access to recent content. The bottom part of the “My Music” screen shows an alphabetical list of artists by default, but tapping on the header allows you to switch to browsing by other categories. A “Music Available Offline” toggle is also conveniently tucked away here, allowing you to quickly filter out cloud-based tracks without requiring a trip into the Settings app. When browsing “Playlists” you can filter between your own Playlists and Apple Music playlists in the same manner, assuming of course that you’ve subscribed to the Apple Music service.

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Another small but great quality-of-life improvement in the Music app is the ability to finally add a track directly to a playlist — a feature that the original iPod had with its “On the Go” playlist that took eight years to come to the iPhone. For reasons known only to Apple, the iOS Music app always took the opposite approach to the iPod, somewhat counterintuitively requiring you to first select and edit a playlist and then find tracks to add, rather than taking the track you may already be looking at in your library and selecting a playlist to add it to. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s been a huge pet peeve of ours since the original iPhone debuted. Now, with iOS 8.4, it’s simply a matter of pulling up the menu for any given song, album, or artist, choosing the “Add to Playlist” option, and then selecting the playlist you would like those tracks to be added to. Of course, playlist editing still works from the other direction as well, and you can select and edit a playlist to add and remove tracks as before.

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In the Music section of the iOS Settings app, you can choose to toggle Apple Music on or off entirely, so even if you’ve already subscribed you can still disable it if you prefer to focus on your own music library. Varying toggles for either iCloud Music Library or iTunes Match also appear on this screen, depending on what you’ve subscribed to, as well as an option to enable “Genius” if you’re not using either of Apple’s cloud-based library storage services.

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A couple of other small features have also been tweaked in the Music app. Sharing controls can now be found on the Now Playing screen and in every menu, allowing you to share iTunes links to whatever song, album, or artist you like. Searching is now accessed from a spotlight button in the top right corner, and will allow you to search either your music library or radio stations if you’re not using Apple Music, or your own library or the Apple Music library if you’re an Apple Music subscriber. Also, in what will likely be a welcome change to many users, Cover Flow has also been removed completely, so you can now turn your iPhone or iPod touch sideways with impunity. 

Home Sharing

One of the more unexpected changes that came in iOS 8.4 was the removal of Home Sharing from the “Music” section, a feature that previously allows iOS users to stream music from their iTunes library located on a Mac or a PC on the same Wi-Fi network. Many users with lower-capacity devices found the feature to be a useful way of keeping their entire library available for on-device listening while at home, and although Apple Music, iCloud Music Library, and iTunes Match all arguably provide the same capabilities, these are all paid services with their own limitations, so it’s understandable that some users will miss this previously zero-cost way of approaching the problem. Even more unusual, Home Sharing is still available in the Videos app, allowing users to stream their movies and TV shows to their iOS screen.

Apple’s Remote app still provides the ability to control a connected iTunes library on your home network, but doesn’t provide any means to stream that audio directly to your iOS device, making it only practical for those who want to listen to music directly from their computer’s speakers or via an AirPlay device.

iBooks and Audiobooks

While Apple Music stole the spotlight with the release of iOS 8.4, this update also took the final step in a journey that’s been four years in the making — to create a separate Music app that would be a place for music only. Until iOS 5 came out in 2011, users had an “iPod” app which had been originally designed with the goal of incorporating most of the media functionality of Apple’s classic standalone players. The iPod app included not only music, but podcasts, audiobooks, and more all under the same roof. Apple renamed the app to “Music” in iOS 5, and then over the course of the next couple of years began breaking out functionality into standalone apps, first iTunes U and later Podcasts. Now, iOS 8.4 takes the last non-music component out of the Music app, moving audiobooks into the iBooks app, an arguably more logical place for them, but also thereby adding new audio playback capabilities to the reading app.

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Audiobooks are now mixed in with text-based books within the iBooks app, although the drop-down menu at the top adds an “Audiobooks” category that you can use to filter the view to only show audiobooks. iBooks also gains a “Now Playing” screen to control audiobook playback, including the variable speed controls that were previously available during audiobook playback in the Music app. One nice new touch as well is the ability to skip ahead or back 15 seconds by swiping left or right on the audiobook cover shown on the “Now Playing” screen.

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Audiobooks have also been moved into the iBookstore, accessed via iBooks. The “Featured” and “Top Charts” screens allow you to select either Books or Audiobooks from a menu at the top, and search results will display both books and audiobooks broken down into separate sections in the same way the iTunes Store app works. Audiobooks can be downloaded directly from the iBookstore — although we didn’t have luck finding any of our previous purchases — or synced via iTunes in the same manner as before. We had a bit more trouble getting Audible audiobooks to sync over, but considering Audible provides its own iOS app, it’s probably fair to say that Audible audiobooks have been relegated to legacy support.

Apple’s release notes indicate a few other iBooks improvements as well: most notable is iPhone support for “Made for iBooks” titles created with Apple’s iBooks Author tool. A new default Chinese font has also been added, along with accessibility improvements, a setting to turn off the auto-night theme, and the ability to pre-order a series of books.

Other Improvements and Fixes

iOS 8.4 fixes an iMessage bug that allowed certain obscure text strings to crash users’ iPhones, as well as problems with external GPS accessories, and deleted Apple Watch apps reinstalling.

Summary and Conclusions

As with most of the iOS 8.x releases, iOS 8.4 is focused primarily on adding a significant new feature — Apple Music — while providing other relatively minor bug fixes. Whether it’s worth jumping onto this upgrade will depend on what type of music user you are and whether you’re happy with Apple’s existing Music app. In our opinion, even without Apple Music, the improvements to the Music app are definitely worth the update, but the redesign and new features may come as a jarring transition for some — this is arguably the most significant new update the iOS Music app has ever received, superseding even the complete redesign that came with iOS 7 two years ago.

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