One of the first services that Google unveiled at this week's Google I/O conference was its new cloud-based music player, Google Music. I've spend the last 12 hours using the beta of Google Music and for someone like me, with multiple PCs, a Mac, a Motorola Xoom and a Motorola Droid X, it's the Holy Grail of music players. Gone are the days of trying to copy and sync music from my main PC to everywhere else. Now, no matter where I am, as long as I've got Internet access, I've got access to my entire music collection.
If you're in the same situation as I am, find any way you can to wrangle an invitation to the beta. It's simple to install, simple to use and eliminates the hassles inherent in trying to manage a large music collection across multiple devices.
The idea behind Google Music is simple -- upload your music collection to a Google server and then access that music collection from the cloud using a PC, Mac or Android device. iPhone and iPad users look to be out of luck, at least for now, because Google hasn't developed an iOS app for Google Music, and the Web-based version requires Flash, which iOS doesn't support.
You upload your collection via a Music Manager application that you download and install for either a Windows PC or a Mac. Google has made the upload process exceedingly simple. After installation, it asks whether you use iTunes or Windows Media Player for your music collection, and then automatically grabs and uploads all your music. If you prefer, you can tell it to grab music from only your music folder or from multiple other folders instead.
Your music uploads in the background; you can start listening immediately, even while the files upload. How long the upload takes will vary according to the size of your collection and your bandwidth. In my case, it took more than 13 hours to upload my nearly 2,200 music files.
Google Music handles MP3, AAC, WMA and FLAC formats, and lets you store up to 20,000 files. How much storage space that translates to will vary according to the average file size of your music. If your average file size per song is 3GB, for example, that would mean about 60GB of space.
This is significantly better than Amazon's recently released Amazon Cloud Player -- Amazon's player doesn't handle WMA and limits your total storage space to 5GB, regardless of the number of files. However, Amazon stores any kind of file, not just music -- and if you buy an MP3 album from Amazon, that limit goes up to 20GB. In addition, MP3 purchases from Amazon don't count against that limit. Apple users are out of luck here as well, because Google Music doesn't support M4P (Apple DRM) or M4A (Apple Lossless) files.
Music on your Android device
To listen to your music on your Android device, you'll need to head to the Android Market and download an update to the built-in music player. When you first run the updated player, you'll have to link it to your Google account.
The player looks and works like the normal Android music app -- that is to say, functional with little sense of style. (While, as might be expected, the Music app looks different on a phone compared to a tablet, they are basically the same.)
Cloud-based music shows up alongside music you've stored on the device, with no clear visual indication whether the music is on the device itself or available via the cloud. This is slightly disconcerting; it would be nice to be able to see at a glance what's local and what's not, because if you're in a location with a flaky connection, you may have some issues with streaming music. In addition, wireless providers may charge for bandwidth in the future, so you'd like to know whether you'll be streaming music or not.
At first, I ran into an odd anomaly. I had previously copied part of my music collection from my PC to my Motorola Xoom, and I noticed that those files I had copied were showing up twice -- once because they were on the device, and once because they were now also available via the cloud. But that turned out to be true only during the upload process -- after all files were uploaded, duplicate entries were automatically (and thankfully) eliminated.
That wasn't the only foible I found. I installed Google Music on both my Droid X and my Motorola Xoom, and noticed that with the Droid X, if I tapped options for an album or song that was stored in the cloud, I could choose to make it available offline -- in other words, the song would download to the device itself and I could then play it even when I wasn't connected to the Internet. But when I tapped the same album or song on the Xoom, most of the time I didn't have the same option to make it available offline.
It took me a while to solve the conundrum. The problem was that the Google Music player for Android doesn't directly handle WMA files. While the music player built into the Xoom is the standard Android player, the player in the Droid X was tweaked by Motorola to give it the capability of playing WMA files. So even though Google Music can stream WMA files, and the Music player can play that stream, the normal Music app can't play WMA files when they're locally stored. So the Droid X can play them; the Xoom can't.
Google would do well to fix this by giving the normal Android Music app the ability to play local WMA files, because otherwise it's quite confusing.
All in all, despite these issues, I found that playing music on my Android devices was simple and straightforward. Basically, you manage and play cloud-based music in the same way you do local music -- you can even include both in the same playlist. One nice touch is that you can choose to display only music that is offline (that is, stored on your local device), or your entire collection, including cloud-based music as well as local music.
There's also a nice addition to the Music player called Instant Mix. It's a Pandora-like feature that examines the song you're currently playing, then looks through your music collection and creates a playlist composed of music similar to the music you're playing. I've tried it and it worked as advertised. You can also rate your songs with thumbs up or thumbs down, and then use those ratings to later help decide what music to play.
At this point in the beta, you can't buy music and include it directly in your collection. Tap a song and choose "Shop for artist" from the menu, and you get sent to a Web page that lets you buy the music from multiple sources. However, the music won't download directly into Google Music. In other words, you have to download a song to your device and then upload it to the cloud to be able to listen to it via Google Music.
If you want to listen to your music on a Windows PC or Mac (or a smartphone that supports Flash), you can head to the Web-based music player at music.google.com . The interface is clear and straightforward. As with the Android app, you can view your collection by albums, artists, genres, and songs; create playlists and instant mixes; and give songs thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
I've tried the Web-based player on both a Windows PC and a Mac, and it works and looks the same on both and worked without a hitch.
The bottom line
If you have a music collection and want to share it among multiple devices, and would like Web-based access as well, then you want Google Music. It's simple to set up and use, integrates well into Android and is easy to use on the Web. It's superior to Amazon's rival service because it lets you have a larger collection and because it handles WMA files.
For now, Google Music is free because it's in beta, and it's one of the best deals you'll find. It's not clear what the pricing will be in the future or if it will remain free. But after my initial look, even if Google started charging for it, I'd most likley be a customer, depending (of course) on the price.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).