capsule review

Shazam for iPad

Like many apps that have made the leap from the iPhone end of the App Store into the roomier expanse of the iPad, Shazam for iPad benefits from the extra screen space offered by Apple’s latest mobile device. This is clearly the best incarnation of the music identification and tagging app from Shazam Entertainment, though it still suffers from some of the shortcomings of its iPhone counterparts.

In case you’re not familiar with Shazam, the app captures a 15-second clip of whatever song you hear playing—on the radio, in a coffee shop, or anywhere else you might stumble across interesting-sounding background music—and then sends that information to Shazam’s database. Within a few seconds, Shazam will spit out the name of the song, the artist, and the album where you’ll find the track. (That last part can be hit or miss—compilations, soundtracks, and live albums can flummox Shazam.) Unlike other music identification apps—most notably SoundHound—Shazam won’t recognize songs you hum or sing and it can’t ID whatever live song that cover band is massacring at your favorite water hole. But for finding out what song is blaring over Starbucks’ loudspeakers while you wait for your venti frappuccino, Shazam gets the job done.

Spread Out: While extra features could be hard to find on the iPhone versions of Shazam, the iPad’s larger screen puts them at your fingertips with Shazam for iPad.

And the iPad version, in particular, gets the job done in a much more pleasing manner than either the free Shazam or $5 Shazam Encore offerings for the iPhone. Like those versions, Shazam for iPad retrieves much more than just the song title and artist—you also get a list of similar tracks, other releases by the artist, a link to download the song on iTunes, the ability to share your new discoveries via Twitter or Facebook, and, in some cases, lyrics. (The newer the song, the more likely Shazam will be able to dig up lyrics.) Some Shazam tags will even include 30-second snippets of the song for later playback.

So if all these features appear in the iPhone versions of Shazam, what’s the big deal about having an iPad-specific version of the app? Because the iPad allows Shazam to divvy up its features across multiple panels, making its musical goodies that much easier to find and use. Tag a song in Shazam Encore on the iPhone, for example, and you’ve got to tap that entry to summon up that song’s screen, followed by more taps on a series of icons to access things like related songs, lyrics, and sharing links. With Shazam for iPad, all those features are laid out in front of you, particularly if you use the app in landscape view. I rarely used the iPhone version of Shazam for anything other than identifying music, just because the other features were not always easy to access. (For a time, I was unaware that the iPhone app even offered lyrics on some of its songs.) But with Shazam for iPad, all that info is readily available, so I’m more likely to make use of it.

Which is not to say that everything about the iPad version is perfect. Indeed, many criticisms of the other versions of Shazam still hold true in the iPad edition. The app has its greatest success identifying newer songs from mainstream artists. If your tastes run to the obscure or out of favor, Shazam’s results will be more hit-and-miss. When I tested Shazam with my own music library, it correctly ID’d more popular acts, but swung and missed on more singular selections like The Bobs (an a cappella group). Jazz and instrumentals also posed the occasional challenge for Shazam. It recognized some Louis Armstrong recordings from the Hot Fives era, but it misidentified a Thelonious Monk track.

The Similar Tracks feature could also use some fine-tuning. A tagged John Coltrane song included a Chris Brown number among its suggestions. Shazam also thinks that Frank Sinatra’s recording of “London by Night” is similar to Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” If the app means similar in the fact that both songs are performed by carbon-based lifeforms, it’s correct. But musically, they’re not exactly comparable.

Ask Me Later: If your iPad isn’t connected to a Wi-Fi or cellular network, Shazam will store any music you’ve tagged to identify when you’re back online. That isn’t always clear from the Connection Issue alert message, though.

During my tests of Shazam for iPad, I used a Wi-Fi-only model, which presents a challenge I hadn’t experienced when using the iPhone version and its access to AT&T’s cellular network—what happens when I want to tag a song, but I’m not connected to the Internet? It proved to not be an issue—Shazam will store any songs you’ve tagged for later uploading when Wi-Fi is available. That’s convenient, but the app could do a better job of letting you know that it will take care of things later. The message the app sends when you try to tag a song without a Wi-Fi connection—“Sorry, your device couldn’t connect.”—might give the impression that your attempt to identify a song or artist will prove forever fruitless. The addition of a “We’ll try again later” notation would increase Shazam’s usability.

There’s another reason to make a beeline to the App Store to download Shazam for iPad—the app’s non-existent price tag coupled with its current ability to tag an unlimited number of songs. On the iPhone, the free version of Shazam limits you to five tags a month if you downloaded the app after November 9, 2009; you have to pay $5 for unlimited tagging with Shazam Encore. As of this writing, there’s no limitation on song tagging with the iPad version, but the description of Shazam for iPad at the App Store suggests that’s likely to change. Best to grab the app for free now, and enjoy its more spacious take on music.

[Macworld.com executive editor Philip Michaels is immune to the rockin’ pneumonia but he’s currently got a bad case of the boogie-woogie blues.]

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