Recently, Google’s Play Music app hit the App Store. With this release, Google has brought its iTunes Match competitor to iOS. I’ve been using Google Play Music for a few days now on my iPhone. In this post, I’ll review the app and my experience with it and compare and contrast it with iTunes Match.
What is Google Play Music? – Google Play Music is a cloud storage solution for your music library. Google Play Music differs from services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes Radio which allow you to “rent” tracks via a subscription or for free with ads. Similar to iTunes Match, Google Play Music allows you to upload your music library to the cloud and access it on all of your devices rather than just locally on your personal computer.
How is it different from iTunes Match? – The biggest difference between Google Play Music and iTunes Match is that it can be used for free under a “Standard” option. Users can upload up to 20,000 tracks of their own music to Google’s servers free of charge. In contrast, iTunes Match requires a subscription of $25 per year. Google Play users can also opt to pay $9.99 a month to gain access to Google Music Play’s “All Access” option. This allows users to listen to millions of songs (much like Spotify), create customized radio stations with unlimited skips (much like Pandora), and more. Oddly, it appears that under the “All Access” option, Google Play Music maintains its 20,000 song cap. It seems to me that Google Play Music, by default, is the better free option since iTunes Match is subscription-only. iTunes Match, on the other hand, seems to be the better value if you’re willing to pay for access. It’s cheaper than Google Play Music’s monthly subscription and can store more music. iTunes Match also has the option of being integrated with iOS’ ecosystem. Google apps on iOS always feel like they’re on a bit of an island since they aren’t as integrated into the environment. Since I’m using Google Play Music via the free “Standard” option, there was no reason not to give it a try.
How does it work? – Google Play Music, like all of Google’s software products, first requires you to sign in using your Google account. Then it uses program called Music Manager on your Mac or PC to scan your music library. From there, it matches the music to cloud-copies on Google Play’s servers. For tracks that aren’t available on Google Play, it uploads your tracks to the cloud so that all your music is available online. Once your music is loaded, you can stream it via a web-browser on your computer or on your Android or iOS device via the Google Play Music app. The app also allows you to download tracks to your mobile device’s internal storage for offline play.
Uploading Your Library with Music Manager – As mentioned above, Google Play Music uses a program on your Mac or PC called Music Manager to upload your library to the cloud. I don’t own a ton of music; my library is around 5,000 tracks. I used Music Manager to upload my library over my home Wi-Fi network which has actual download speeds of around 20 Mbps and actual upload speeds of around 6 Mbps. With these speeds and that many tracks, the whole upload process took around 4 hours to complete. Music Manager also has an option to automatically detect and upload new albums or tracks to the cloud when you put them on your computer.
The App – Google’s iOS apps, though they feel somewhat sandboxed on iOS, are generally high quality. The Google Play Music app is no exception. With its orange and white theme, the app definitely doesn’t feel like a native iOS app. That said, the app is beautiful and fairly intuitive.
Upon opening the app, you’re greeted with a “Listen Now” page that shows music you’ve listened to recently This can be really helpful for easy access to commonly played albums and tracks. Aside from quick launching music from this page, the user can search for music by tapping the magnifying glass icon or access the Google Play menu bar by tapping the list icon. The menu bar allows the user to access their Library, Playlists, and Instant Mixes, and the app’s settings.
“My Library” displays all the music that the user has stored on Google Play’s servers, sortable in alphabetical order by categories of genres, artists, albums, and songs. The “My Library” view has a search box and an alphabetical scrubber for finding music easily. Jumping between the different categories is easy via a tap or a swipe to the left or right. Music is very easy to find. Google has included nice artist portraits in the “Artists” category and album art in the “Albums” and songs category. These help the user orient themselves to their library and provide a visual way to browse through music. Tapping on an artist in the “Artists” category displays albums in your library by that artist.
Tapping on an album displays the tracks on that album as well as a small white button with an orange arrow that allows the user to download the album to their device for offline listening. Tapping on a track begins playing the track. An animated sound bar icon pops up next to the title indicating which track is playing and a white progress bar with the track name appears on the bottom of the screen. This progress bar also contains a pause/play button.
Swiping up on the progress bar reveals the music player view with several options including a button to show the list of upcoming tracks, an action button with mix, playlist, and navigation options, thumbs up and down buttons, an airplay button, and standard audio controls including pause/play, skip, shuffle, and repeat. The music player view also shows an animated “Ken Burns” style view of the album artwork that pans back and forth behind the controls. This is visually appealing at first, but after watching the album art sway back and forth for a few minutes I found myself wishing Google had made it static and unmoving like in the stock iOS music app.
Selecting “Playlists” in the menu bar displays a list of available playlists. Music Manager allows you to select your iTunes library when importing your music. If you did this, all your iTunes playlists will also be imported into Google Play Music.
“Instant Mixes” allows you to create new mixes based on your favorite artists or songs, much like in Spotify radio or Pandora. The major difference with Google Play Music is that unless you have a paid subscription to All Access, these mixes will be limited to your own music collection.
Tapping on the “Settings” gear in the menu bar gives the user access to account settings streaming and downloading controls, including the option to remove all downloaded music that you’ve stored locally on your device. It also contains an “About” section with info on Google Play Music.
Audio Quality & Network Performance – Audio quality on Google Play Music seems excellent. That said, after using Google Play Music for a couple of days, I’ve noticed that it definitely works best when connected to a Wi-Fi network. My iPhone runs on Sprint’s cellular network, and LTE coverage is still spotty where I live. I attempted to play an album over a 3G connection and the music cut in and out until it eventually stalled out and stopped playing entirely. I would suspect that the app would work pretty well at LTE network speeds, but I haven’t had a chance to test that out yet. Yesterday I used the app for several hours on a public Wi-Fi network in a coffee shop and encountered no issues. It was great to reconnect with some of my music that I don’t have stored locally on my iPhone.
The Verdict – The huge benefit to Google Play Music, like iTunes Match, is being able to play your library of music without having to store it locally on your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. It’s great to have access to your entire library of songs (assuming your library contains less than 20,000 tracks) remotely. That said, because of some of the performance issues related to spotty streaming music from the cloud over cellular networks, I doubt that having Google Play Music will stop me entirely from storing music on my iPhone. It might cause me to reduce the number of tracks I store on my phone, though, which could free up some extra disk space. So, Google Play Music will be a welcome and, likely, lasting free addition to my app arsenal but I doubt that it will fundamentally change the way I store and manage music on iOS. With its free “Standard” option, Google Play Music is an attractive choice over iTunes Match’s $25 per year subscription price. However, paying $9.99 a month for a subscription to Google’s “All Access” features doesn’t make sense for Apple users because of iTunes Match’s features and integration into the Apple ecosystem.
If you’re looking for a free solution for storing and playing your music library in the cloud, Google Play Music is a great app which will allow you to do just that. It is available for free on the iOS App Store, but requires signing up and setting up your library using a Mac or PC.