Hands-On With Google Music Beta
While many of us Google I/O attendees were unsurprised by yesterday's announcement that Google was launching its own cloud-based music service, we were excited to learn that every one of us would be getting a priority invite to the service. As a big music nerd, I was excited to give it a test spin. Can Google do music? Read on to find out.
What It's All About
Music Beta lets you upload your personal music collection to the cloud for streaming to your computer and other Android devices. Sound kind of familiar? You might recall that Amazon also rolled out a music player this year, Cloud Player. But unlike Amazon's service, Google's Music Beta does not sell music. So what's the appeal? It's simple and if you do everything through your Google account anyway, you might as well add music management to the mix. Furthermore, Android has always had a miserable music organization system so Music Beta is definitely a welcome addition to the platform.
Your music and playlists are automatically kept in sync. So, if you create a new playlist on your phone, it's instantly available on your computer or tablet. The music files that exist on your phone or tablet will be mixed in with your cloud-based files. The idea is that you don't really have to think where their music is stored because it is all in one place. The service also lets you access your songs offline so when you're on an airplane or your Internet is down, you can still rock out.
What You Should Know Before You Get Started
According to Google, Music is a free service-at least while it is in Beta. Take advantage of all that cloud storage while you can, I guess. The company gave no further details on pricing models or capacity limits. Right now, the beta allows for 20,000 tracks at any bitrate to be uploaded. Google could move to a tiered pricing model at various capacities and perhaps offer a free version that only allows for a handful of songs.
Music Beta supports MP3, WMA, AAC and FLAC files. If you bought a bunch of DRM-protected music from iTunes, you're totally out of luck. Music Beta does not support M4P (Apple DRM) or M4A (Apple Lossless). You can access your library from any PC, but you can only stream from eight Android devices. Unless you have a ridiculous number of phones and tablets, that's a pretty generous limit.
Quick and Easy Set-Up
Setting up Music Beta is ridiculously simple. First, you'll need to request an invitation at music.google.com and sign in with your Google account. When that special day finally comes, you'll get an e-mail with a link to the service. After a gentle reminder that Music Beta should only be used for legally acquired music, you can get started.
After a few user agreement menus, you'll have the "option" to download the music manager. Hm, isn't this a cloud player? Doesn't that mean I don't have to install additional software? Well, you do, or how else will you be able to upload your music? Luckily, Music Manager is fairly lightweight and definitely not as needy as iTunes. Still, it is a bit annoying to have to go through this step.
Next, you'll sign in with your Google Account. Music Manager will then ask where you keep your music: iTunes, Windows Media Player, the Music folder, or somewhere else. You can opt in to add music automatically to Music Manager when you add them to iTunes as well.
If you have a huge library, it will take quite a while to add all of your music. The nice thing is that you can listen to your music as it adds to the player.
One important thing to note that if you're adding from a folder, it is all or nothing. You can't pick and choose which songs or albums from iTunes or wherever you want added to the cloud. If you have duplicates of albums or something you never listen to and don't want it taking up space, remove them from your library before you upload.
Google also throws in a nice surprise by allowing you to download a couple of free songs as you set up your Music Beta account. You don't really have a choice over what songs you get, but you can choose from a couple of genres. I went with Metal. I found out later that "Metal," by Google's definition, is fairly broad so I ended up with a random mix of 80s hairband Warrant and doom metal band High On Fire. Okay, on second thought, you might want to pass on this.
Streaming Your Music On the PC
The Music Beta player will then launch in your browser. For whatever reason, after I was done setting up my account, the player opened in three different windows in Firefox. Annoying.
The user interface is very straightforward. Your music is organized by "New and Recent" (which continuously refreshes as your library is added to the cloud), Songs, Artists, Albums, and Genres. Album art is displayed when it is available, but aesthetically, the user interface is nowhere near as pretty as iTunes or the even better looking Zune player. I did not like that the player doesn't display full-sized album art when you're in song playing mode.
There's a section called Auto Playlists which is broken into "Thumbs Up," "Recently Added," and "Free Songs." My library was still pretty barren (seriously folks, it takes a long time to add your library), but I found it interesting that, under "Thumbs Up," it listed a certain Milemarker song I had played 18 times on iTunes. I guess "Thumbs Up" automatically loads all the songs you listen to way too much. You can then add more songs to it by giving songs thumbs up (or down if you hate it!) in the Rating column when you're viewing your library by song.
Instant Mix is Google's version of the iTunes Genius Playlist. It automatically creates a playlist of songs that go well together. Again, I didn't have enough music to create any real playlists so I'll have to revisit this feature once my whole library is uploaded.
Sound quality was pretty good, but when I tried to stream music using an open Wi-Fi connection at a local cafe, the weakness of a cloud-based player shined through: My songs stuttered frequently or wouldn't play when I wanted them to. My experience on my faster home connection was much more pleasant.
Streaming Music on Your Android Phone
To use Music Beta on your Android device, you'll have to download a new version of the Music app from the Android App Store. When you launch the app, you're taken to a welcome screen. It will have your Google Account listed at the bottom asking you if you want to link your Google account to Music player. Of course you do. Hit "done" and within seconds, your library is now on your phone! The user interface for the app is almost identical to that of the Web-based player. Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists and Genres are listed at the top of the app. You simply swipe your finger to the left or right to select how you want to browse your library.
The Android app is also much prettier than the web-based app. When you're in Now Playing, you get full-sized album art rather than just a measly thumbnail.
Next to each song, you'll see a downward facing arrow. Hit that and a menu will pop up asking if you want to play the song, make an instant mix from it, add it to a playlist, shop for the artist (which takes you to a Google Shopping page), more by artist (shows you other songs in your collection) and Search.
Search is kind of an interesting-yet-pointless feature. You can search for more about that particular artist via the Internet, within the original Music player (the one that you currently have on your phone), within the new music player (the one I'm currently writing about) or YouTube. Search is incredibly sensitive to how your music is tagged and labeled. If you have track numbers in your song titles, Search will include that track number when it looks for a YouTube video or Shopping listing. I found it pretty annoying to use and it rarely gave me the search results I wanted.
Unfortunately, I was unable to test the app on a Honeycomb-based tablet as my Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was having issues logging into my Google account. I'll update this review once I solve my tablet issues.
If you don't absolutely need a music store to go along with your music player, Google Music Beta is an excellent supplement to whatever other music programs you might be using. It is simple, lightweight and incredibly easy to use. The cloud-based player isn't the prettiest, but it is clean and a snap to navigate. Of course, Music Beta lacks an edge in the competition because it has no built-in store, but I predict Google will be making some content deals very shortly. The Music Manager software you have to download is lightweight so if you decide you don't like Music Beta, it won't be a burden to uninstall. If you're looking for an iTunes alternative or just curious about what Google brings to the table, I highly suggest you checking Music Beta out. So far, I've been really enjoying it. And right now, it is completely free so take advantage of that while you can.