Google Beta invites have been sent to users the world over and, at long last, to yours truly. This article takes a look at the fledgling service.
What It Looks Like
Right now, the Google Music Manager is uploading a few new songs, bringing my total to about 7,000 songs in all. Yeah, I guess you could say I’m something of a music hound. So, when I found out about the Google Music I applied for the program weeks ago and finally got my beta invite – likely as a latecomer to the second wave of beta invites sent earlier this month. The Google Music service is comprised of at least three major components:
The Google Music (Beta) Site
Once you log in, you’ll be taken to this interface. It may start as empty, but online purchases and uploads into the cloud change that fast enough. You can sort through your content in many of the ways you’d expect from any offline player: by artist, by genre, by album, by recently added, etc. You also get to play your content directly from the site.
You’ve got a lot of basic controls (the obvious: pause, play, skip, etc.; and the not-as-obvious: loop, shuffle, thumbs-up, and thumbs-down). You’ve also got some decent functionality outside of the norm. You can create playlists that are synced from platform to platform, you can tap into playlists Google automatically creates playlists for you (such as creating a “thumbs up” and “free music” playlist), and you can even create an “instant mix” to create a playlist based off of a single song (Google finds similar songs in your library and adds them automatically).
And, of course, you can access other Google Music (Beta) tools, your Google account settings, and so on. The interface is all well and good, but it will remain nothing but a tabula rasa (with a couple exceptions that I’ll mention later) unless you upload music into the cloud. For that, you’ll need …
The Music Manager
Yes, you’re literally uploading your music – even if it’s a 9,000-song library – to a Google cloud. And that’s where the music is being played from. To to get the files from Point A to Point B, you’ll need the Music Manager software.
The software is fairly simple and only takes a few minutes to load. Once you’ve logged into your Google account here, you can tell the Music Manager what to sync, when to sync, how often to sync, and dictate other basic settings. Google then funnels all your songs into the cloud whenever your computer is on and Music Manager is running. (Music Manager can, of course, run in the background.)
Google lets you take your music collection from your existing service, such as iTunes or Windows Media Player, or any other folder you have lying around. Getting your music on the cloud so you can access it from any computer that can access the web is phenomenal, but many of us are excited for Google Music’s applications on …
Your Android Device
You can download the Google Music app (just called “Music” on your device) on any system operating with Android 2.2 or higher. In addition to compiling all the music currently on your phone, the app taps into your cloud library. Your songs and playlists are all available from any device you sync up.
You can also add songs, make changes to playlists, or otherwise edit your settings on your Android device, and the changes will synchronize with your desktop access to Google Music. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the fact that Google automatically downloads recently played songs – or any other songs you want – onto your device, giving some strong offline capabilities.
It’s fairly simple to see how the service works, and how advantageous it can be. The description of the “how,” above, is all most will need to start salivating over the product. But there are some special extras to make note of as well:
- I have yet to run into any bandwidth or storage limits which, considering the several gigabytes of music I’ve now uploaded. It seems that the current limit is “20,000 songs.”
- You can upload music to your Google library from multiple systems, so long as you’re logged into your Google account. Further, the only files you can’t upload are copy-protected items in your library. Intended or not, it looks like a giant birthday present for pirates.
- You can synchronize on as many devices as you feel like.
- Yes, I checked, audiobooks and other non-standard audio files upload and play just fine.
- All of this is totally free, and it looks like it will stay that way.
- The UI of the app is very intuitive.
- When you register, you’ll have the option to add free music from a variety of genres to your library.
Google Music looks good so far, but it’s also a very young service with bugs to work out, issues to resolve, and so forth. Here are some of the drawbacks I found:
- You will need an Android 2.2+ device.
- There’s some latency in loading songs. I run at roughly 6.5mbps down, and I still had a two to three second pause before a selected song started playing. On my Evo’s non-4G connection, the pause is more like thirty seconds, and songs sometimes won’t stream at all. In the service’s defense, it seems to pre-buffer for upcoming songs, so you really only have that pause once – and the connection in my area is fairly slow.
- Once you have music uploaded, you’ll need to manage it in Google Music. Changes made in iTunes or Windows Media Player will usually just make Google think the modified song is an entirely new song, and will result in a duplicate upload.
- I’ve noted a diminished playback quality on most songs. It’s about what you’d expect from, say, your standard version of Pandora – but it’s not up to high bitrate offline playback.
- No, it doesn’t seem that Google is “recognizing” the song and playing from a single stored version of the file. It’s actually playing you your own file. Exactly how Google’s managing this in server storage and bandwidth is unclear; even this invitation-only beta has massive server requirements.
The Hurdles Yet to Come
Google music will endure its trial by fire in the coming months thanks to a number of major problems not covered here. Most notably, Google must face down the Apple cloud-based music service (iCloud) and deal with a mountain of licensing issues. Both of these areas give Apple a major advantage.
Apple is established as the media player of choice, even for many PC users. iTunes is trusted and its connection with iCloud – including the ability to upload songs purchased through iTunes itself – will be appealing to many. Further, while the iOS systems may not be as popular in overall market share as Android, the number of up-to-date iOS systems beats the number of up-to-date Android systems.
The point is that Apple’s iCloud, in offering a similar service, has a better footing out of the gate. Apple has also been able to secure licensing in a way that apparently eludes Google. Additionally, the Amazon Cloud Player already has its position established within Android. Google will have to fight up hill.
The hardest up-hill battle is likely to be for licensing, however. Google is highly experienced in fighting against the music labels thanks to the many disputes on YouTube. The scope of this project is likely to be similar, however, and it’s less apparent how Google will effectively monetize the service.
It will be interesting to see how Google fares in this market, but it’s certainly not a “surefire bet.” It is, however, an impressive service. Interested in trying Google Music for yourself? It’s easy enough to request a beta invite at the Google Music site. Just be aware that it may take several weeks for the content to come through. Good luck, and happy listening!