Google Play Music review

Google now offers tons of popular music you can buy and a well-designed Web interface, but a few glitches and limitations hold it from superstardom.
Photo of Google Play Music
9.99

With its All Access subcription service, the updated Google Play Music has come of age. The inclusion of this subscription service trumps Apple’s iTunes, and Google delivers an excellent, well-designed system, with a large catalog of any music most people are likely to crave, and a beautiful, full-function interface similar to Rdio’s. Equalling iTunes Match is Google Play’s scan and match feature, which saves you from having to upload all your music files to your Google digital locker. Unless you’re tied to your iPhone or iPad, Google Play Music, and in particular, its new All Access option, at $9.99 a month, is worth a very close look. But Play Music still falls slightly short of the best streaming services in some ways, and if you use Apple’s mobile devices, you’re out of luck.

Google Play Music All Access
We’ve complained about Apple’s not offering and all-you-can-eat music subscription in the iTunes Music Store for years, so maybe Google’s move here will finally force Apple to reconsider its policy on music subscription. Facebook users already have easy access to Spotify app, which over 10 million users have used. Another strong contender and Editors’ Choice is Slacker Radio ($9.99 a month), which offers fine-tuning of your custom internet radio stream. Google’s All Access costs the same $9.99 a month as Spotify, but only $7.99 if you sign up before June 30. Google, however, surprisingly doesn’t offer a free ad-supported account type. If you want an excellent free music player, you’re well served by Songza, our Editors’ Choice for free streaming music services. The also excellent Rdio also costs $9.99 a month for full access.

As mentioned, Apple has no equivalent to All Access, but you do get some pretty great stuff with the iTunes ecosystem that you don’t get with Google Play Music—AirPlay, podcast playing, access to public internet radio stations, and the ability to play easily to a home theater system through Apple TV. This last is important to me, since when I’m serious about listening to something, I want to be able to do so on my hi-fi system. Microsoft offers subscription with its Xbox Music Pass, also $9.99 a month, but it only works Windows 8, Windows Phones, and Xboxes. The Xbox part, however, solves the problem of getting your music to you home theater sound system, to which Google Play Music has no simple answer.

Setting up Google Play Music All Access couldn’t be easier. It’s far less of a process than you have to go through to get up and running with Spotify, which you can’t even use unless you specify some contacts whose music choices you want to follow. This brings up the point of social integration: if you really need the input of your friends’ music ideas, you’re better off with Spotify or Rdio, but if you just want to discover on your own All Access serves you well. All Access does of course require your entering a payment method, and if you have a Google Wallet account, you’ll simply have to okay the transaction.

The service worked fine in all browsers—even Internet Explorer 10! Remember, competitor iTunes doesn’t run in a web browser at all, but it does have the advantage of an unobtrusive mini player window.

Sound quality was excellent. The service detects your internet connection speed and serves up an appropriate bitrate. Fast connections get a very fine 320Kbps bitrate. While listening, you can click the full-screen icon to show the album art moving around the browser window.

Creating a Station
Once you’re in your Google Play Music All Access account, you just search for a musician, and a grid of tiles with artist images shows up. Click on one, and you’ve got a playlist of related tunage. Google only claims “millions” of songs in its catalog, where competitors like Spotify boast 15 million, so you may not find what you want. I didn’t have much problem with the selection.

I first tested with Ulrich Schnauss, an otherworldly German electronica artist, and then with a lesser known artist, Leggo Beast, and neither tripped up the service. Switching musical gears drastically, the service did find Stile Antico, a top-notch vocal early music ensemble, but the group’s latest album wasn’t available—but it wasn’t on Spotify, either, but Rdio did! It did find an impressive 88 albums sung by Kings College Choir.

I like how the All Access radio’s music affinity engine finds not just a very limited genre of nearly identical songs with the same “musical DNA,” the way Pandora does. Instead, it pushes the edges of the style of the musicians you select. This lets you create playlists including everything you like, not just a narrow band of musical style. I also found Google Play Music’s interface easier on the eyes than the busy iTunes-like Spotify, though Rdio’s slick web interface is its equal.

But there was one major problem with Google Play Music All Access’s radio stations: After an hour, its browser window told me, “The queue is currently empty.” This would never happen in Pandora or any other of its ilk. It could be a sign that Google doesn’t have as large a music library or that its algorithm still needs tuning.

Another downside was that there was a sometimes a significant pause before the next song in the playlist started playing. I couldn’t find any setting to omit this gap. Another problem is one shared with most digital music is that you don’t get all the performance information you would on a CD booklet—soloists for choral performances and other credits.

You can thumbs up or down any tune in the playlist at any time, and switch to any song to play immediately. In the browser, no matter what you’ve got going on in the main window area—settings, library, whatever—you’ll see the play controls with the album thumbnail, repeat, skip back, pause, skip ahead, and shuffle. The volume slider, thumbs up and down, and playlist buttons are to the right of these. A nice touch is that the song you’re playing becomes the browser tab title—this means, that in Windows 7, you can hover the mouse cursor over the browser’s taskbar button to see the track name. The same goes for when you’re working in another browser tab and you hover the cursor over the Google Play tab.

At any time while you’re playing the radio stream, you can add the current song to your library, create a new playlist, or share the song. The sharing option at first looks like it’s limited to acquaintances with Google accounts, but you can also type an email address in the To box. Unlike a lot of streaming radio services, you can see several songs ahead, and nix those you don’t want to hear or play those you do immediately.

Mobile Access
The music service lets you listen on any computer and up to 10 devices. Of course, users of devices running Google’s Android mobile operating system get full-featured support for All Access. You’ll have to upgrade the Play Music app. They’ll need a phone or tablet running Android 2.2 and above with OpenGL2.0. Any devices signed in with the same account you used for All Access are automatically added. In my case, I recently bought a Nook HD, and I had to do nothing to get All Access working on it.

I also tested the service on a Samsung Galaxy SIII. On this phone, the new Play Music app showed my complete library including music I’d added through my All Access account. And when I entered B52s into the search bar, a new radio signal icon let me play a constructed playlist based on that group’s genre. The thumbs up and down icons were there, but oddly, I couldn’t simply add albums to my library—the app offered purchasing instead.

My iPhone was a stickier question: Could Google Music play all access on it? There’s no official Google Music app for the iPhone. Web—but what about offline listening? Google’s help page on the topic says this:

“On your iPhone or iPad – You can use your mobile web browser to access the Google Play web player (http://play.google.com/music). This experience has been optimized for mobile playback.”

And indeed, when I navigated to this URL in my iPhone’s Safari browser, a message box asked if I wanted to increase the database size for the site up to 25MB—a good omen, signifying that I’d be able to listen to music offline. Unfortunately, the mobile site didn’t let me play the custom radio, and music I’d added with my All Access account didn’t show up on the iPhone.

I could understand the lack of radio, but I would have though adding to your library through All Access would show up on the iPhone. And forget about running the full Google Music site on an iOS device, since it requires Adobe Flash. With Google’s push for using only web standards this is likely to change, though. By contrast, Spotify and Rdio offer full-featured iPhone applications.

A couple of capabilities in Settings are worth mention: A checkbox lets you block explicit songs, and you can delete all your music from the service if you want to opt out completely.

Signing Up from Scratch
Before you can enjoy All Access, you’ll need a Google Play Music account. Getting started is simple matter of directing your browser to music.google.com. You’ll need a Google account, whether Gmail, YouTube, or Apps. And before you can download anything—even free tracks—you’ll need to enter your credit card information. The license agreement asserts that you must have the rights to any music you upload, and that Google will terminate your account if you’re a repeat infringer.

Adding Your Own Music
The first thing you see on the Google Music website’s muted orange borders is instructions on the two ways to get music into your account: downloading, installing, and running the service’s accompanying Music Manager software; and shopping in the music section of the Android Market. Music Manager starts with a quick half-megabyte download (18.5 for Mac), and on my hardly screaming system, it installed in but a few seconds.

A headphones icon appears in the Windows system tray, where you can call up the Manager’s window with a double click. The app offers good choice over what you want uploaded to the service—you can add or remove specified folders or even iTunes and Windows Media Player playlists. You still can’t designate individual songs, but the playlist and folder controls should be enough for anyone. Still, if you choose the Music folder, all subfolders get uploaded, too. You can’t remove folders at a lower level, so you may have to move things around.

The Advanced choices let you set a bandwidth rate in case you have other heavy uses for your Internet connection. You can throttle the Manager down to 128Kbps, or just let it run as fast as possible. You can also choose whether to start the software when you start your computer, and whether to send Google crash data. Clicking this link will wipe out previous settings and kick off a wizard dialog that lets you choose whether to keep your Google Music in iTunes, Windows Media Player, the Music folder, or another folder you specify. First-time users get this wizard the first time they run the Music Manager.

At the bottom of the wizard dialog, you can see how many songs you have and how much space is left. The next page tells you how many songs Google Music found.  I had 7,846 songs and remaining space for 11,948—the service accommodates up to 20,000 in total. But it turned out that only 1,777 of my songs were valid, while 6,009 were rejected as invalid! Most of these files weren’t actual songs, but just WAV and OGG files that I wouldn’t want on Google Music anyway. The service can handle MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, and OGG—more than iTunes Match, which doesn’t support lossless FLAC (Google Music downgrades it to 320Kbps). Amazon only supports MP3 and AAC files up to 100MB.

Next, you tell the Manager whether it should automatically upload any new songs found in the chosen folder. After a page explaining the tray icon, you’ll be told that your music is uploading.

Using the Web Interface
The Google Music interface is pleasant and easy to use. Album covers are displayed in good-size thumbnails in a grid, and a gray bar including Play/Pause, volume, shuffle, and repeat options remain at the bottom of the page no matter what else you do. Hovering the mouse over album art reveals a Play arrow, which starts streaming and playing the selected album. Left menu choices let you switch between views for Songs, Artists, Albums, and Genres.

All but Songs show thumbnails that let you play everything from the Album, Artist, or Genre. Song shows a list view of everything, which you can sort by name, time, artist, album, number of plays, or rating. You get good access to seeing what’s upcoming in your playlist, as in iTunes, but you don’t get iTunes’ Composer view, nor an equivalent to the Apple product’s beautiful ablum dropdown panels.

While playing an Album in Google Music, you’ll see the track list and a drop down arrow that lets you add it to the playlist, edit the album info, delete it, or shop for more by the same artist. Hovering the mouse over any track displays thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons, which helps for sorting later. I was happy to see that in the Song list view, I could select multiple tracks to delete, since I had a bunch of sound effect files that I didn’t want to count toward my song quota. But I found that deleted music remained, even when I opened Google Music in another browser.

The first time I tried the Instant Mix feature, I got a message saying I didn’t have enough similar music to create the feature’s 25-song auto playlist. Subscribing to the new All Access service remedies this. I didn’t have any problems with music stuttering, as I had with the original beta. After a short buffering period, Roxy Music’s Flesh+Blood, which I’d uploaded, played clearly and smoothly. I should note, though, you don’t get an equalizer, as you do with iTunes.

The Android Music Store
It seems a little odd that Web-only users must use the Android Market to buy music, even if they never touch an Android device. Google is a great re-user; seeing as it already has one online market in place, why build another? This point also indicates the importance of the music store for Android mobile device users, since computer users have long had multiple ways to buy and download music—iTunes, Amazon, and many more, not to mention less aboveboard methods.

On both web and Android, Google Music shows an exhaustive collection of genre-grouped music for sale, and even recommends music that suits your taste based on your listening history. You’ll also see top albums, top songs, deals of the week, and new releases.

To get a decent collection of popular music that appeals to a broad audience, Google signed deals with Universal, EMI, Sony Music, as well as many independent studios. It finally added Warner in March, so all the biggies are covered. Google also has a program where struggling new artists can pay $25 to get listed in the store, and Google just takes a 30 percent cut of their sales. Interested musicians can head to http://music.google.com/artists/ to get started.

The store offers plenty of free music, and as in the iTunes Store, you can sample a minute and a half of any track. In fact, Google’s built a whole Magnifier site, complete with videos, to showcase free tunes on Google Music. Most of non-free tracks cost 99 cents or $1.29, and albums range from $5.99 to $9.49. But even to download free music, you’ll need to enter a credit card. To buy a song, you click on the price or the Free button, and often have to sign into your Google account again, for Google Checkout. A few times when I got to this point in a Google Apps account (for which everything else worked) I was greeted by a perpetual wait icon.

You can still only download songs and albums you’ve purchased individual—not those you’ve added through All Access. This pops up your OS’s standard file download dialog, and when complete, the song opens in your default MP3 playing software. Simple and straightforward.

Should You Play with Google?
Google has done a lot right with this service. The interface is lucid. And playback is smooth. Slacker, Spotify, and Rdio offer free, ad-supported options and support more devices, and yes, I’m mostly talking about those hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads in the wild. For the ultimate media player, though, stick with our Editors’ choice iTunes, with its massive media library and recently well-renovated program. And streaming fans on both iOS and Android platforms will best be served by our streaming Editors’ Choice, Spotify, given Google Play Music All Access’s limitations in the custom radio station department.

Specifications
Tech Support Email.
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS, Windows 7
Type Personal
Free Yes

Verdict
Google Play Music is now a truly full-feature service, with scan-and-match to save you from uploading, a music store, and best of all, an unlimited streaming option.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc