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Music in the Cloud: Google Music Review

After a month, I finally received an in invite to Google Music.  I’m not sure if that’s par for the course, or how many people they’re inviting to use the service before it becomes subscription based.  I can say that I use Android, Chrome, and gmail (among other g-products), so while I hesitate to claim they give Google whores a better spot in line, I’m sure it didn’t hurt.  I’ll get into some detail about the nuts and bolts of the thing in a minute, but for those just looking for a quick service grade, I’ll start there (and try to be as unbiased as I can).

So far, I’ve really enjoyed Google Music.  The website streams music with impressive speed, and the operation is intuitive.  The initial upload, while an exceptionally easy process to undertake, takes a long time – a very long time, actually – and that might be a concern to some people.  However, you can begin using the service while the upload is still taking place, and it didn’t have any noticeable impact on Netflix’s streaming service or my wi-fi speed at home.  Once the songs are available from music.google.com, the connection and playback was very, very fast; much faster than I had anticipated.  The Google Music program you must install on your Android is smooth and pretty, but otherwise pretty average with a few annoyances (which I’ll address in the Android section); more than adequate for what it does, but nothing to get excited about.  Playback was only marginally slower than on my laptop when using a wi-fi connection, although very poor with Sprint’s 3G service; the song has to completely download before playing, sometimes taking a minute or longer, and more often than not it wouldn’t play at all.  That being said, the cache and offline features seemed to work very well, so while that obviously limits the service to a great extent, it does provide more than adequate playback capabilities for what’s available off-line.

There are some alternatives to Google’s cloud music service (which I get into at the end of the article), and if you don’t live in a thorough 4G area – or aren’t lucky enough to never seem to be out of wi-fi range – it’s not going to completely replace physical storage for portability.  However, at a storage capacity of 20,000 songs (which doesn’t seem to be dependent upon file size; wonderful for people who prefer minimal compression), it’s a very sexy option if you want to have access to your library anywhere there’s an internet connection.

Now for the fun stuff . . . 

The Setup

Google Music, if you don’t know, works as a streaming music service to provide you with the music you already own.  In the past, there have been services which scan your music folders, then cross-reference them with digital copies of songs on file (which is the premise of Apple’s matching service due out this fall).  That sounds awesome, but it’s not how GM works.  Instead, you have to actually upload all the songs you wish to store on their servers, which can take quite a long time, and then you stream the copies you’ve uploaded to your computer.

The upload process works with Google Music’s PC client, Music Manager (Google is nothing if not clever about naming conventions).  The program installed both very easily and very quickly, and really makes the upload process about as painless as possible.  During the installation process it asks where you want the program to point to – My Music, iTunes, or Windows Media’s library – and will automatically start uploading the first 20,000 songs from that location.  It will also start uploading any new songs as soon as you rip them to your computer.  So if you have less than 20,000 songs all stored in the same place, you’re done.

I do not have less than 20,000 songs and really didn’t care to upload the first 20,000 alphabetically, so I had a perfect excuse to get my hands dirty.   The biggest problem with the program was initially discovering it; though you can find it in Windows Start Menu, the program resides in the Taskbar while running.  It’s actually a nice feature . . . once you find it.

Music Manager in the taskbar gives you quick view of your progress, and allows you to open both the program (via “Options”) and the web client.

Upon opening, Google’s minimalist philosophy makes use very transparent; there are literally two functional screens and no menus.  To start uploading, I moved a “first wave” of priority music into a temporary folder and pointed Music Manager to it.  This was easy enough, but not really necessary; the Music Manager has a very convenient drag-and-drop feature.

The first page of Music Manager, which allows you to point to the path you wish to upload from.

As I said, if you do have a folder you want it to point to continuously, it will upload newly added songs automatically.  However, you can also set it up to upload in pre-specified time intervals (hourly, daily, or weekly) or manually.  So while it can take autonomous control of the uploading process as a matter of convenience, it does allow a high level of user control if that’s your preference.

The second page of Music Manger.

Now, as for upload times:  I started with a “priority list” of a few less than 9000 songs.  Using my home’s wi-fi (approx. 3 Mbps average upload rate), this took about a week to finish off.  This wasn’t a continuous week, mind you, but probably at least a solid 100 hours.  So not too quick.  (Part of that can be attributed to bottlenecking from my wireless router; a positive from this experience is I finally got enough motivation to replace it.  But I digress.)  As I implied earlier, this didn’t bother me . . . too much.  Netflix (Ethernet to PS3) wasn’t affected at all, and browsing the internet on my laptop (which was also handling the uploading responsibilities) via wi-fi didn’t seem to have any noticeable speed degradation.  In fact, I would venture to say using the internet and Netflix had a much greater impact on my uploading speed than vice-versa.  Further, Music Manager seamlessly starts and stops the upload as the computer or network is turned on or off.  So unless you’re the type that just can’t get past the knowledge that your computer is still uploading your music (which isn’t entirely unjustified), I don’t think it’s more than a minor inconvenience.

One final thought on the setup, and I really saved the best for last . . . at the end of the installation it asked if I wanted any free music.  It offered a nice list of genres to check, of which I selected probably about eight thinking I’d get some up-and-coming or indie stuff which was begging for extra exposure.  You know, the type of stuff that comes with your cell phone.  Much to my surprise, Google Music provided me with 140(!) songs, many of which were quite well known with extensive radio play (“Champaign Supernova” and “Chop Suey”, for example).  Awesomesauce.

Accessing Your Music Online Via a Computer

The interface for listening to your Google Music at music.google.com.

Once the music is on Google’s servers, it works extremely well.  I tried accessing music at home and at work, and in both locations the quality of playback was very good and the delays were minimal to non-existent.  I expected there to be some decent gaps between when I selected an album and when I could select a song, and then anther gap before the song would actually play.  Much to my surprise, the response time was actually comparable – maybe even a bit faster – than my computer’s hard drive (which is no slouch).  There often is a slight delay with the first song once booting up the website – we’re talking one or two seconds here – but as soon as it gets going selecting new songs or albums, sorting through the lists, and even searching your library is pretty much instantaneous.

Aside from the quality of playback, the actual client is pretty slick, especially considering what it’s trying to accomplish.  The client conforms to Google’s minimalist tradition, but the layout is intuitive and attractive (though hopefully in the future it allows the option of customizing the color scheme).  It imports playlists automatically, creates some “intelligent” lists, and the search feature is fast and accurate.  It maintains a “New and Recent” list of recently added material; one of my favorite features of Windows Media Player for XP which Microsoft inexplicitly decided to eliminate in its otherwise far superior Win 7 player.  The layout of music is actually quite similar to WMP; artists and albums are shown with the multiple album covers, while your complete collection of individual songs takes a list form.  Definitely not as aesthetically impressive as iTunes, but you’re not surrounded by all the arbitrary mucky-muck, either (can you imagine trying to load iTunes as a webpage?).

In all, I think the online experience is superb; a definite A.  Only two complaints would hold it back from an A+ score:  First, the resolution of the album covers leaves a bit to be desired.  I totally get why you’d want smaller resolution pictures when you’re trying to load a bunch from the internet, so I hate to complain about it, but . . . Secondly, some cleanup was required.  There were a few instances where albums were split up into two or three “separate” albums, even though all the information seemed to be the same.  Fortunately, pulling the album up under the “Artist” tab seems to correct the issue, so playback isn’t affected.  And upon closer inspection using the “Edit album info” menu I was able to locate some small difference which caused the splitting to occur.  Sometimes that happens with WMP, so I’ll chalk that up to meta-data inconsistencies.  However, with WMP you can sync up the albums by manually forcing an automatic update (if you can forgive the oxymoron); since you can’t do this with Google Music you have to go in and manually find and fix the problem.  Further, many albums with the “problems” were read just fine in other music applications, so that’s something that needs to improve going forward.

Your Android and Google Music

Google Music uses a proprietary app on your Android device to access Google Music called . . . wait for it . . . Google Music (though, in theory at least, it should work via your phone’s web browser).  It’s a free download from the Android Market.  I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a bar code on the PC website to scan with your phone to automatically start the download.  You would think someone in the supply chain would’ve thought of it; I guess they’d prefer you actually visit the market.  Not a big thing, really, but it would’ve been nice.

Google Music works very well with Google Music.  The app is actually a full music player for your phone, so it’s available and completely functional without the cloud service.  As I said in the beginning, it works very well if you’re connected to wi-fi.  The service is a touch slower than on a PC; though album information pops up on the screen almost immediately, there is a second or two delay before a song starts to play once it’s selected.  When you skip from song to song you also experience this delay, but once started the songs play all the way through with no interruptions, and move fluidly and delay free song-to-song when listening to an album or playlist.

I, unfortunately, have not had a lot of opportunity to try it with Sprint’s 4G service; based upon the experience I have to this point with browsing, I would expect a slightly longer delay (maybe an additional one to two seconds) before a song starts playing, but would be surprised if there was any interruptions or delays before the next song once it starts going.

However, as I said, with 3G the streaming is poor at best and non-existent at worst.  For all practical purposes it just doesn’t work.  Android does cache songs which have recently been streamed, and you can select albums for off-line availability.  These allow for quick and seamless play when you don’t have wi-fi or 4G available.  In all, however, this service is definitely going to be much more enjoyable on your phone tomorrow than today.

The ability to play the music I’ve uploaded is, in my opinion, far and away the important part of Google Music.  As long as the app isn’t a train wreck I’d be pleased if it simply worked.  That being said, I do have a few words about the application itself.

First, as a basic music player, it’s pretty good.  The backgrounds, pretty much just a collage of similar colors which alternate as you progress through screens, is basic enough to avoid any strains on your phone’s resources but nice enough to make the app look good.  There are some features I like; most noticeably the ability to use a single screen touch to backtrack either to the album, artist, or main menu once you’re in a song.  The phone panel’s native “Back” button is never more than two presses from your Home page, which took some getting used to but is a pretty good idea.  And it has a search function; vitally important when you’re trying to scan through a few thousand songs to listen to, say, “Wasted” by Zebrahead.

Other than the speed on 3G, I do have some complaints about the software.  The app seems to want to repeat songs you select by default.  If I skip ahead to the second song it will start playing the whole album, so at least you don’t have to skip after each song.  But you shouldn’t have to at all.  Also, the problem with multiple album listings for the same album (referred to earlier) is present, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to combine the songs excepting making a playlist; you have to go to the website to fix the issue.  As a person who prefers to listen to an album, in order, beginning to end, this is a grave offense.

A relatively minor inconvenience is it doesn’t allow you to skip or pause songs on the phone’s welcome screen.  You have to unlock the phone to do anything with the program.  Being a program written by Google, this absolutely baffles me.  Since there’s at least two other programs which give you basic controls without unlocking the phone, this should have been a given from a Google app.

One final complaint is the app doesn’t recognize music you have already saved on your memory card; music from your card appears exactly like music from the cloud, and if they are present in both locations they show up in duplicate.  Ideally, if you have the same song on your card and in the cloud, it should only show said song once and play from the card by default.  That may be an unreasonable request at this point, but it would be nice if they threw some sort of symbol up next to music which is accessed from your phone to differentiate.

Comparisons to Other Cloud Services

Google Musics main competitors are iTunes Match and Amazon Cloud.  All three offer different attributes, and will work best for different people depending on their needs.  It’s not really possible to compare price point because Google hasn’t released that information yet.  However, it’s probably a good bet it will be free for a certain amount of storage, and increase to a price comparable to Apple’s iTunes Match at 20,000 songs, which is $24.99 per year.  A lot of the following comparisons might become a moot issue in the near future; I strongly doubt Google has given up on working out licensing deals with the publishers just because they decided they’ve waited long enough to release their cloud service.  But in the meantime you’ve got to go with what they offer, and this is it.

The benefit of Apple’s service is three-fold; since it scans your iTunes folder and then matches the music to its database the amount of uploading required is minimal, the storage is essentially unlimited (more correctly, non-existent), and lesser quality music is automatically “upgraded” to the better AAC format iTunes uses.  If you’re already an Apple person with iTunes and an iPhone and whatnot, this service is probably the way to go.  However, there are a few downsides which may make Google Music a better alternative.  First, obviously, for it works only with Apple portable products; if you have an Android you’re out of luck.  Secondly, though iTunes Match works with “any computer”, it really works with your iTunes account on a computer.  Personally, the fact that you have to use iTunes at all is a big negative.  Aside from my own biases, if you’re on a computer without iTunes you can’t use it – and good luck getting your company’s IT people to allow you to install it at work.  Since Google Music works off a website and not a program, it can be accessed on any device with a browser – including, in theory, an Apple product (I tried it on my boss’s iPad; it logged on but wouldn’t play music, which could be caused by a range from a temporary hiccup to a side effect of Apple’s neutered internet capabilities.  But it did look like Google Music was trying to play, so while a playback problem could certainly be Google’s fault I doubt it was intentionally blocked from their end.).  My overall feeling on iTunes Match is it’s a great service if you already use iTunes a lot, but not necessarily worth starting if you don’t.

In terms of Amazon’s cloud service, there are four positives:  First, it’s free up to 5 GB, 20GB for one year if you buy an album from their .mp3 service.  Second, any .mp3’s you purchase directly from Amazon will automatically be available from your cloud without counting towards your storage limit.  Third, it’s available anywhere you have an internet connection.  Finally, and this is actually the thing that really sets it apart from the other two, the storage is good for any kind of files, which is great if you want to back up your computer or access other types of files remotely.  However, this service does not come cheap; the cost is a rather astonishing $10/GB.  At 20,000 songs, and no other types of files, you’re looking at least $50 per year, which isn’t too expensive in the grand scheme of things but twice the cost of iTunes’ unlimited service (which is probably much closer to Google’s cost than Amazon).  You can store up to a TB, but that comes at an absurd $1000 a year.  For that cost, you can buy ten 1 TB hard drives and just haul one around with you.  Though I really, really like where Amazon is going, what you get for free and what you have to pay after that places their service a distant third.

My biggest issue with iTunes Match and Amazon is if you’re going to pay for online access and for individual downloads, why not just purchase an unlimited subscription-based service like MOG or Rdio?  (I suppose the same argument might be made against Google Music, depending on what their subscription costs end up being.)

Conclusion

Mind you, this is a beta, and many of the issues I pointed out may be fixed by the time the service comes out of beta mode.  (If so, I’ll update the review to reflect that.)  In fact, assuming Google isn’t just resting on this release, Google Music should be a monster service going forward, and a real boon to both the company and cloud computing as a whole.  In the meantime, it’s still a great service if your biggest concern is remote access to your library, especially if you have ready and nearly universal access to high-speed internet.  And despite the shortcomings on an Android device, I do think this is a very decisive and positive step towards making Android a better platform for portable music.  Highly recommended for all but the heaviest iTunes users.

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