Unless you count Microsoft's Zune, Amazon has been the one to take the lead in the recent spate of cloud-based streaming music services among the tech giants. But while most of the anticipation in this space surrounds Apple, the digital music kingpin, Google has beat Apple to the punch, at least with a beta.
Google Music Beta promises to make your songs available wherever you are and on whatever device you choose. The music is linked to your Google account, so wherever you log in, you'll have access to your personal soundtrack. If you're offline, no problem, the service stores your most recently played songs on the device you played them on, and you can designate albums or even performers for offline availability. Google Music also lets you create playlists and will even automatically generate themed playlists for you.
That's the pitch, now let's see how well it works in practice.
Since Google Music is in limited beta, you'll have to request an invitation at music.google.com and sign in with a Google account before the service is activated. Once you're invited, the site will welcome you, saying: "Welcome to Music Beta. Music Beta is a new service from Google that gives you instant access to your personal music collection without the hassle of wires or syncing. Add your music collection and listen on the web or any compatible Android device."
Next comes a very Amazon Cloud Player-like step: you're asked to download an app, the Music Manager, which finds all the music on the computer and adds it to your Google Music account. Yes, this includes iTunes libraries. You can skip this step if you prefer, but it's a small install file at 17MB. The program adds a system tray icon to Windows or Mac menu bar. As with everything Google, you sign into the app with your Gmail account. Music Manager then asks where you keep your music—in iTunes, the Music folder, or another folder. The next decision is whether you want any newly added music to be automatically sent up to Google Music.
I only wish you could specify more than one source—I sometimes buy music from Amazon, sometimes from iTunes, and sometimes rip a CD. Even worse, the only way to add music was through this app—Amazon Cloud Player lets you simply add MP3s or AACs from a file browse dialog. For my none-too-large music collection of one album, the Music Manager scan took about five minutes—quite long—but I was on a slow hotel connection.
You can start listening before the entire upload finishes, and that's a good thing, since upload speeds are generally much slower than downloads, and music libraries can easily grow to near-terabyte levels. The service accepts MP3, AAC, WMA, and FLAC file formats, which is more than Amazon's support for only the first two. File size and storage limitations aren't specifically stated, but the Settings page shows that beta testers are allowed up to 20,000 songs.
One area where Google Music is way behind Amazon is in the ability to actually purchase music. Free music is being offered, but usually just one track from an album, and the selection can't touch the vast library available for purchase from Amazon. You can choose "Shop this Artist" from a song's drop-down menu, but that takes you to online sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and is often about buying CDs rather than downloading music. It's a far cry from the seamless approach of Amazon Cloud Player or iTunes.
Once you've got some songs uploaded to your music cloud, you can start playing them from the Web-based player, which nicely shows album cover art by default, as well as "New and recent" music. You can also sort by song, artist, album and genre.
As expected in a service from Google, a prominent search bar at the top lets you find songs by title, artist, or genre. When I went to play my first song, a shortcoming of the service revealed itself—the music stopped and started most annoyingly. Clearly Google Music isn't using a sufficient buffer, even though the music took an inordinate amount of time to start playing. On the same Internet connection, high-bandwidth Internet radio played smoothly; but to be fair, Amazon Cloud Player also staggered under my slow hotel connection. Amazon, however, did a better job at visual cues in general, showing that the music is loading, for example.
After giving Google time to download a song, the sound quality was excellent. Forget about advanced stuff like equalizers, though, you won't find these in streaming cloud-based players yet. While listening to a song in Google Music, I could give it a thumbs up or down, add it to a playlist, or make an instant mix based on its characteristics. The standard pause, skip forward or back, and scrubber let me move around in the song. I could also choose to repeat a song or playlist over and over, for my own top hit station.
Playing with Playlists
In addition to creating your own playlists and adding any songs you like, Google music has a few ways to automatically generate playlists. The simplest is to select the songs for which you've given a thumbs up. You can also right-click a song to create an instant mix based on its characteristics. Unfortunately, in every case, my library wasn't large enough for this feature to find similar songs. More on this topic when we give Google Music the full review treatment.
Google Music is not only a Web service, but it's also apps for Android phones and tablets running Android 2.2 or higher. I tried it on a Samsung Galaxy Tab, and when I first ran the app, signed in to the same account as my Mac Google Music, I kept getting the message that I had no music, and would I please transfer some MP3s via USB. After an update, the app showed my album art and added a flashy 3D carousel scrolling view. The Android interface, while adapted to the smaller device, still felt familiar after using the computer version. A key option for these devices is the Available Offline choice and its push-pin icon. You can also choose to download any music you stream from your account, so if you've been listening to Fleet Foxes a lot, it will be on your device whether you chose to pin it or not.
The online music library is not a new trick, with early examples from Amazon to Zune. But Google has put its own imprint on the concept, and it's far less cumbersome than plugging an iPhone or iPod into a computer. The Android app is also attractive and consistent with the computer version.
Of course, it's likely that Apple will have a similar service not to far in the future, and it will no doubt be highly polished. I do wish you could add music to your account from a computer from the browser, without having to install software, as you can in Amazon Cloud Player. The lack of an integrated way to purchase music also hampers the beta for now, but Google is likely to address that with content deals. It's all free for now, though, so there's no reason not to head to music.google.com and get on the waiting list to check it out for yourself, particularly if you're an Android fan.
For more, see the slideshow above.
This hands-on is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.