Microsoft has just announced Xbox Music, its "All-in-One Music Service" for Windows PCs, tablets, and Xbox game consoles which combines features from several different online stores and services. Like Pandora, it lets you stream music online; like Spotify, it lets you pick specific songs and artists. It has an iTunes/Amazon style music store, and next year it will add a Google Play Music/Amazon Cloud Drive-style digital locker which lets you upload your own music and listen anywhere. Basically, pick any music app that you have; Microsoft's trying to do it all with its new Xbox Music app. It even has Napster-style music subscriptions.
How does a monthly subscription fee go with a free streaming music service, though? Here's a look at just how much "free" music you'll be getting ... and how much you'll have to pay for it.
"Free" for the first 30 days (on Xbox)
Like so many things on the Xbox game console, the Xbox Music app has limited functionality for free users of Xbox Live. Unless you have an Xbox Live Gold membership (about $60 a year), you won't be able to use what's called the "Xbox Music Pass", which means you won't be able to stream any music. Even if you have Xbox Live Gold, you'll still only be able to listen for a free trial period of 30 days, unless you pay about $10 a month or $100 a year for a separate Xbox Music subscription.
Even if you do pay the subscription fee, some features of Xbox Music don't work on Xbox consoles. Unlike on Windows or Windows Phone 8, you won't be able to download music. And according to Ben Gilbert's review on Engadget, you can't even play games while listening, unlike with the Xbox's previous music player.
Free for the first six months (on Windows 8)
Windows 8's free trial period is a little more generous. Like the antivirus software that comes "free" with new Windows PCs, but only lasts a few months at most, the bundled Xbox Music app will let you stream unlimited songs of your choice for all of six months. After that, you get only 10 hours per month unless you pay the subscription fee. Throughout the whole free trial, you have to listen to ads every 15 minutes.
You can't download songs unless you're a subscriber, and if it works like most other subscription services you won't be able to listen to the songs you download if you stop paying the monthly fee.
An Xbox Music app will be available for iOS and Android "in the coming year," and will have the same free streaming limits as the Windows 8 app. The Windows Phone 8 app, however, won't let you stream music unless you subscribe, like with the Xbox app.
There's no word yet on whether or not Xbox Music will come to Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's current-generation smartphone operating system. But its complete absence from Microsoft's product announcement is telling.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.