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Mercora M Streams Desktop Audio To Your Smartphone

Mercora M Streams Desktop Audio To Your Smartphone
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Listening To Your Own Music

Mercora M running on a Samsung SGH i600
Quick Stats
Mercora M: Streaming Audio Software
Supported phones: Motorola Q (tested), Treo 700w, Samsung SGH i600 and wx, others from Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon listed here.

Mercora's latest streaming audio service is called M and has a lot going for it but suffers something of an identity crisis. It sits squarely between narrowcast music, such as might be found on XM or Sirius satellite radio, and competitors from Rhapsody, AOL Radio and Yahoo. The idea is that you subscribe to the service and can listen to whatever music channels you want, along with your own MP3s, wherever you are.

M is actually two pieces of software - one runs on a full blown Windows XP desktop that has a broadband Internet connection, the other runs on a Smartphone running either Windows Mobile 5.0 or Windows Mobile 2003 SE. You'll also need an unlimited broadband data plan with your phone to make use of this service. We tested it on a Motorola Q phone with Verizon's EVDO service.

The EVDO service worked reasonably well as long as I was standing still. In a moving car travelling around Manhattan the phone would drop service and the music died. And the Motorola Q phone quickly got very warm as it played my music, which I found disconcerting to say the least.

The Mercora M main menu on a Motorola Q

The two pieces of software work together and are required if you want access to your entire desktop music library on your phone. The music files remain on your desktop and are "broadcast" or streamed to your phone across the Internet. This means your PC with the music library must remain powered on and connected to the Internet when you roam away from home. It is a clever hack, and a way of getting around the legal problems with copying music, since the actual files remain on your hard drive.

The Mercora M icon after the product is installed
Music From "Radio" Channels

Aside from your own music, there are hundreds of different "radio" channels that you can tune into. The nice thing about these channels is that they don't carry any advertising, something that can't be said about some of the satellite channels. And there is a lot to choose from. Under Blues, you can pick a particular decade (such as 30s Blues or 70s Blues). The following subgenres are listed under the New Age category:

Adult Alternative Ambient Contemporary Instrumental Ethnic Fusion Meditation Nature Neo-Classical Progressive Electronic Relaxation Solo Instrumental Space Spiritual Techno-Tribal

This seems like quite the assortment and somewhat overwhelming and daunting to choose the right music collection. In practice, any New Age channel I listened to ultimately brought me back to Enya, which could be good or bad depending on your own particular tastes. Perhaps there is too much of a good thing here, although I am by no means a New Age music expert.

Mercora M running on Palm's Treo v750

One of the strengths of the M service is that if you don't like any of their channels, you can create your own. You type in the name of a band and it will assemble music around that particular band's genre, and hopefully keep your interest. In practice I found its recommendation engine less than stellar, and certainly nowhere near the quality of similar engines that are part of Amazon's bookstore or Netflix's video library.

While it found even some fairly obscure groups in a wide array of music genres, the music that it collected for that channel left something to be desired. For example, when I created a channel for Mark Knopfler (whose music crosses a lot of different genres), I was listening to several songs by Tina Turner.

Compared To Other Music Players And Services

Mercora M is designed to look a lot like iTunes and it only partly succeeds. There are the sparse menus (see the Main Menu screen shot above) that can take you through its music genres. You can mark channels as your favourites and return to them quickly (see Favourites screen shot below). It will display the album cover art if it can find it and that is a nice touch, although sometimes I saw the wrong album for the songs that were playing.

Part of the problem is the Smartphones themselves: they don't have the storage or the smarts that even the most basic iPod has, or any other dedicated MP3 music player for that matter. You have to use the phone controls for basic volume, but it is missing equalizers and other acoustic enhancements that most MP3 players now have. One good thing is that at least the music is interrupted when you get an incoming call.

One of the features in M is the ability to share your favourites with others via Instant Messenger. This is more fully implemented in the full Windows client, where you have to "recommend" M to at least one of your IM buddies before you can even install the software. I found this somewhat annoying.

Conclusions

So what is the bottom line on M? It is less expensive (if you already have a cellphone broadband data plan) than a satellite radio receiver but less reliable and more finicky too. Both satellite companies now offer a selection of smallish receivers that are similar to the kinds of Smartphones available for M, so the portability gap may be closing there. M has a wide music catalogue but not as deep as Rhapsody (and to some extent, the other music streaming services). It isn't easy as iTunes to incorporate and synchronize music that you have already paid for and ripped onto your hard drive. M held the fascination of my two teenage testers for about five minutes, which is probably not the right market segment for M anyway but a good indication of the uphill battle that anyone will have in this market space.

If you enjoy discovering new music and have the right Smartphone to take advantage of the service, try it out for free for two weeks to see if the initial buzz sticks with you. But I certainly don't recommend buying a new phone and a new broadband data plan just for this service, and would recommend waiting until the next software version - and support for more phones - comes out before signing up for a year's worth of music.

For more on Mercora see www.mercora.com.

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