Every week I keep seeing articles about Apple’s upcoming iTunes streaming service. Amazon’s Cloud Player looked like a potential option for a cloud music service, but once I used Google’s new Music Beta I gave in. That said, after several days of use, several glaring bugs on the Android side of Google Music have left a bitter taste in my mouth. Google’s beta products are not always the best (which allows them to hide behind the beta label for exhaustively long periods from time to time), and at this point Google Music is unfortunately another great idea with a poor implementation due to bugs. Read on for my full review of Google Music Beta.
The Competition: Amazon MP3
We haven’t had any official announcement from Apple about their rumored music streaming system, which leaves Amazon as the only real competitor to Google. Amazon’s Cloud Player was officially released at the end of March, making it the first major player in the music space to come out with a service to upload and stream your own music. Amazon offers 5GB of free storage in the Amazon Cloud Drive for music, documents, pictures, and videos, which can be expanded to 20GB for one year with the purchase of any one album on the Amazon MP3 Store. Aside from the Cloud Player, Amazon Cloud Drive is essentially Amazon’s simplified version of Dropbox and other similar services that allow you to sync your data between devices.
In general, Amazon has a great selection of music that is in parity with Apple’s iTunes and often has bonus tracks that iTunes does not offer (and vice versa). Amazon has developed apps that are available (or pre-loaded) for Android, Blackberry, andwebOS devices that allow users to purchase songs on their devices. Amazon’s Cloud Player automatically adds any songs purchased through the Amazon MP3 Store to the Cloud Player, from whence the new songs can be downloaded.
Only the Android app includes the Amazon Cloud Player, allowing Android users to stream or download music directly from the Cloud Player to their phone. In addition to songs purchased on the Amazon MP3 store, you can upload all of your songs to Amazon’s Cloud Drive (provided you have enough GB). Amazon’s MP3 Uploader allows you to push all of your DRM-free music to Amazon’s Cloud Player so you have all of your music available with you as long as you have access to a browser or an Android device.
The Amazon MP3 Player is a fairly standard music app that provides basic, no frills options. You have options for playlists or to play music based on album, artist, songs, etc. You also have the option to play music that is on your phone, regardless of its origin (provided there are no DRM restrictions). In general, it works well despite a lack of advanced features and boring UI.
Along with Amazon’s App Store, the Amazon MP3 app demonstrates Amazon’s intentions to compete using Android in the future. It is not clear how Google perceives Amazon’s Android offerings, but it seems fairly clear that Amazon is trying to compete directly with Google and others in apps, music, and books.
The question, then, is whether or not Amazon MP3 is the best option for Android users? If for some reason you haven’t purchased a digital album yet (maybe you’ve been waiting for the market to take off?), Amazon allows you to have any music you purchase instantly available in the Cloud Player for you to stream or download. If you’ve already imported most of your music onto your computer and into iTunes or Windows Media Player (does anyone still use Winamp?), then it may be worth it to wait and see which streaming option will make the most sense for you before you take the time to upload everything.
Google Music in the Browser
As I stated in the beginning of this post, I was pleasantly surprised by the implementation of Google Music. Google’s products tend to be hit and miss in my experience. Sometimes the UI and UX of Google products are great (Google Maps), and other times they are extremely poor (Google Listen). As such, I was fearful that Google’s latest effort at music would be on the poor side. I had downloaded an early leaked version of the Music app for my phone and liked the look and feel of it. It certainly wasn’t the best music app I’d seen, but it organized things much, much better than the previous music app had.
With the final release, Google Music for Android is a great option for playing music, but it’s the cloud services that really make the app shine. Right now Google Music is in beta and requires an invitation to unlock the cloud services, but invitations are being sent out daily (I received my invitation about 2 weeks after it was officially released). Like Amazon MP3, Google Music uploads your music from iTunes, Windows Media Player, or a specific folder to the cloud. Once uploaded, your music can be played in any browser or from the Music app for Android on any device running Froyo, Gingerbread, or Honeycomb.
Google was unable to secure deals with record companies, so there is no integrated purchasing option, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. More competition is good, but unless Google is going to offer something substantially different from Amazon and Apple, any future music store may become like Google eBooks (a good idea, but not a major player). At this stage in the game the issue isn’t how one purchases music, but how one is able to access and play the music they have purchased.
Playing music from the browser is a similar experience to playing it from iTunes or Windows Media Player, but more simplified. Music opens at the New and Recent page, showing albums and songs that have been recently added or recently played, allowing you to jump back into a new album or a favorite that you’ve been hooked on. Below the New and Recent page are the usual categories to find the music you want: Songs, Artists, Albums, and Genres. Once you select the song you want to start with, the player controls appear on the bottom of your window for you to play, pause, skip, reverse, thumbs up/down, repeat, shuffle, and adjust volume. Another feature is the option to create Instant Mixes, which will attempt to create a playlist of 20 songs based around the song you’re currently playing. My testing of the feature didn’t impress me, but that may have been a result of the limited selection of music that had been updated (only around 1,500 songs at the time). If Google is able to categorize songs well then it may have a good alternative to iTunes’ Genius playlist creator.
There is nothing revolutionary in Google Music on the web, but the UI is nice and clean. In fact, the UI is almost identical to the recently launched web version of the Android Market, perhaps pointing to future (and needed) changes in the UI of Google’s suite of products from Gmail to Calendar. Using your browser to listen to your music obviously requires a decent Internet connection, but it removes the need to have a local music player like iTunes (which is now over 70MB to download) to play your music. Your entire collection can be at your fingertips as long as you have access to a browser. While this isn’t a novel idea, it’s really nice to have once everything is set up.
While Google Music definitely has the basics down, there are some improvements that should be implemented. First, it would be nice to have the option to have music controls on all tabs. It’s a little thing, but when I’m in the middle of something (say, writing a review of Google Music) and I want to quickly skip a song, I have to stop what I’m doing, change the tab, and then click the skip button. If the controls were on all tabs, I could quickly hit skip (or whatever) and keep going.
Another missing feature is the option to download and organize podcasts. If Google updated Google Listen and incorporated it into Google Music it would have a full competitor to iTunes. Imagine you’re listening to a podcast (like This Is My Next) on your computer and you realize you’re late for a lunch meeting. You hit pause and close your laptop. You get into your car and plug your phone into the sound system. After you put on your seat belt you turn on your car and open the Music app on your phone. At the bottom of the app you see the podcast in Now Playing and hit play. It picks up exactly where you left off on your laptop and you travel to your meeting. This may seem a little excessive, but staying connected on multiple devices is becoming more and more common. As more and more people become connected to online services through laptops, tablets, and smartphones having interconnectedness between devices beyond dismissing the same notifications could be a game changer.
Finally, Google needs to add the option for me to download my music from Google Music in the web. I can do it on my phone, why not on my computer? It’s my music. Amazon already has this option and it works great. This is another example of Google almost getting it, but not quite. It’s great that my music is in the cloud, but if my hard drive crashes it’s still stuck in the cloud. If Google is going to make me upload all of my music to the cloud, then Google needs to let me download it again.
Aesthetically, the Android Google Music app shows you everything that every other music app gives you as you can see to the image on the left. Pressing on the album art reveals repeat and shuffle options. The app gets its background from whatever album you are now playing (as you can see on the image to the left, the background is black and white like the Barton Hollow album cover). If you just want to play your local music there are better apps out there that have more options and that, in my opinion, look better.
Once I received my invitation for Google Music Beta I began uploading music. Eventually I was able to get into the settings of the Music app and sync my uploaded music with my Gmail account. From there, I was able to select which music I wanted to sync locally (called pinning) and which I just wanted to stream. There are options to show only offline music or all music as well.
In general, streaming music works fine except for a major bug: Google Music repeats the first song and then plays nothing indefinitely. This doesn’t happen with locally stored music, but it makes streaming music n your Android device a pain. Despite the recent update, this bug is still ever present.
Another bug that has been present since the update is an issue with keeping pinned music pinned. Since I installed the update, Google Music has needed to re-download my pinned music daily. For some reason it looses the music and has to re-download it, killing my battery in the process. That is a major bug that absolutely needs to be fixed.
In my attempts to resolve the issue I decided to try uninstalling and reinstalling the app. Once I reinstalled the app none of my music appeared. I tried getting into the settings, but hitting menu only showed me search and shuffle. I got into the accounts settings on my device and checked my Google account; everything was syncing except for music, which did not appear at all. At this point I decided to return to the leaked version of Google Music that I had downloaded before the official release by Google. Once it finished installing, it immediately prompted me to sync my music.
The latest version you can download in the Android Market is Google Music 3.0.1, while the leaked version I have is 3.0.336. Presumably the leaked version is more recent, and it appears to be based solely on the face that it immediately asked me to sync my music. It is beyond belief that Google’s official release does not prompt me and gives me no options whatsoever to initiate a sync of my music. Am I supposed to wait for a notification? Is there anything I can do? Google provides no answers.
The Problem with Beta
The only way for me to re-sync my music with my phone was to use a leaked version of the app. That is a despicable sentence to have to write. Google Music is yet another example of Google not thinking ahead and hiding behind the beta label to avoid criticism. Any criticism lobbed at a product in beta is always met with the same refrain: “It’s in beta. Give them a chance to work out the bugs.” The problem with that line of logic is that it presumes that beta is the only way to do things. It presumes that it is okay to release a product in beta.
Don’t get me wrong: I love testing out products before they’re ready for release, but that is not what Google does. Google has a history of releasing products with the beta label as an excuse for lazy development. Gmail remained in beta for five years and the interface still looks like it was designed in 1995. There is no cohesive UI between Google products that enables the user to believe that any of the various product teams are ever communicating.
If Google wants to stay on top, then they need to deliver when they release a product. If it isn’t ready, don’t release it. Delays are better than a bad product. When something is delayed and people are upset, that means that people want your product. That’s a good sign. When you push a product out before it is ready and people have problems, that makes them want to move to something else. You’d think after so many hit and miss products Google would have this equation down now, but apparently not.
Is Google Music Beta Right for You?
Despite my disdain for Google’s failures with the Android app, Google Music has a ton of potential for people who are already in or are going to be in the Android ecosystem. If you’re using any other mobile OS (iOS, webOS, WP7) then obviously the app isn’t available, but using the web service might still be appealing if you already just sync whatever music you have to your phone. Most users don’t want to stream music on their phone because of battery drain (I myself am in that camp), so having the option to stream your own music on your computer wherever you are may still be an appealing product. The Android implementation needs some work, but I really like the web version.
Once these bugs get worked out I think Google Music will be a superior implementation than Amazon’s. In fact, my original intent when I started writing this blog was to give a positive review and talk about how it was better than Amazon MP3. If Google can quickly iron out these bugs then I think they’ll have a superior product to Amazon. Hopefully whatever deals they are working out with the record labels will make the product even greater.
Google, Do Better
If Google wants to succeed, they’re going to need to do better than this. iPod sales have continued to decline as more and more people are putting their music on their phones. People don’t want to carry two devices if they don’t have to. Google can easily win with Google Music Beta. When they showed it off at Google IO 2010 it had a lot of promise, but somehow a lot of the features that were demonstrated never made it (probably since record deals fell through). Having all of my music in the cloud available for me to stream or download is great, but I’d still like to be able to buy an album just by doing a Google Search. That kind of integration between products is what will make Google a great company, not just a good one.
Google has a choice. So far, they’ve taken a path very similar to Microsoft’s path. They have dominance in the smartphone world, but that doesn’t mean they’ve won. They don’t win until their users have the best products available. They don’t win until the alternatives don’t look so appealing. They don’t win until they stop making products beta for an eternity to cover over gross errors. Music is a major battle that Google still has time to win. If they can get everything working the way it should and get deals with the labels, they may just have a shot at making Android phones legitimate media devices.
As usual, if you have questions or comments, feel free to leave me in the comments section or tweet me.