Public libraries are access points to a remarkable amount of free-to-you content. Your taxes are paying for it, so it’s not entirely free. And it’s also not free in that you often can’t keep the digital content. Freegal is one service that libraries subscribe to where you can keep the audio files – up to 5 a week – for free. I’m a heavy user but its web site was poor and its app was almost unuseable for someone who listens to music the way I do. It has recently had a face lift – the app appears to be powered by the web site – and it’s a huge, positive change.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I have any screenshots of the old site. Or app. It wasn’t mobile friendly, and it wasn’t even terribly good on a desktop. One of the fundamental problems Freegal had (probably still has) is that its search wasn’t terribly strong and its metadata was frequently poor or incorrect. If you are only watching music that is churned up through an algorithm – top songs, top albums at your library, new releases – this wouldn’t matter. But if you were looking for a particular composer or group, or, worse, browsing by genre, it was often hit or miss.
The new look, however, makes browsing easier. The desktop site has loads more white space, which carries over to the mobile / app interface with large touch points. On the desktop, it has a very iTunes Store feel (see below, with the new Freegal on the left). In a way, the old navigation was better – browse, search, genres, etc. at the top – as the new navigation splits functions across the top and sides.
But the tile approach, and the ability to download or add to a wishlist directly on the screen, rather than through a small pop up menu, is a nice improvement. It took me a while to find out what I needed – Genres are not something I use but I found them once I selected Browse – but once I was oriented, it was easy to navigate. Unfortunately, where you could navigate a genre by artist name (alpha order), you can now only see those artists – or albums, or songs – that are designated top. I think this is going to mean more reliance on the search, for better or worse, and perhaps less serendipity than I experienced before.
App is Huge Improvement
I would occasionally use Freegal on my tablet, where it would prompt me to download the old app. I had used the app and it was definitely a one-star option to access Freegal. The new app feels (and probably is) like a mobile web site. Where before the touch points were designed for a mouse, not a finger, now I can just click the download icon on the screen and the file downloads; no menu popup. Even better, the download arrow turns blue, so I know what I have and haven’t downloaded. The stream button used to be hidden on the album cover, but it’s clearly marked (and large for a finger to tap).
It took me a second to see the navigation at the bottom – that may be because I’m on a tablet and not a phone – but it’s logical once you see it. It makes more sense there than it does on the left on the desktop site. I found that there was a latency moving from Browse to Search, for example, or from My Music to Browse. I’m not sure why the switches were slow, except that the overhead for each mobile page may not be cached.
The feature I was most curious about was the search. It’s how I find most of the music on the site. A search for jeremy soule, a game and film composer, brought up a piece accurately. The results quickly moved on to other “soule” entries. This continues to be a weak point for Freegal, because there are other, better matches, and whatever approach they’re using, the algorithm goes on to close-enough results too quickly. Using quotation marks to enclose a phrase don’t seem to work any better than just typing the words.
It’s not all bad, though. The image below is a screenshot of the composers tab, which I’ve never seen before. So it looks like Freegal’s going to tap into more of its metadata – perhaps this was on the old app too – to bring music to the surface.
The app has flaked out a couple of times. I have the feeling that, if it loses internet connectivity, it tends to mull its lack of connection and then die. One screen looked like this as I tried to load the Reggae/Ska genre – which appears in the app, but does not appear on the web site – with all of the tiles making a loading motion. Then the app croaked.
But it’s still a better experience than before. I think it will be easier for libraries to get users into, because it resembles most other music apps in one way or another.