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Hands on with Google Music Beta

Google Music Beta

Overview

For those who haven’t heard about Google’s Music Beta yet, here’s a quick overview of what the service is aiming for. Essentially, Music Beta is a cloud service for storing and streaming your personal music library from multiple devices. Say you are running your music library on iTunes on your home computer and you have 10,000 songs. Unless you use the same computer for work and home, chances are you can’t access your music library from your work computer or your smartphone. Maybe you’ve taken extra time to transfer those songs to your work computer, which is probably unlikely, or added some of the songs to your smartphone, but at that point you are eating up a lot of valuable storage space, and you won’t be able to transfer your whole library of songs. All of this can make for a time-consuming mess, so Google has come up with at least the beginnings of a solution.

The idea is that, using Music Beta, users can have quick and easy access to their entire entire music library, including playlists, from any computer and multiple other devices. While the future cost of the service is unknown, in Beta testing users can upload a max of 20,000 songs (that’s a pretty hefty library) for free. Because record labels have refused to cooperate, you can’t buy music within the interface, so its purpose, plain and simple, is to serve as a mirror of your personal music library that you can access and stream almost anywhere.

Installation and uploading

Right now, Music Beta is invite-only, but you can try your luck by requesting an invite here. You can use your regular Google account to sign up for Music Beta, and once you are signed in you can begin adding music to your virtual library. The first step is to download the Google Music Manager. Some folks may object to adding another application to their desktops, but if you are planning on uploading gigabytes of music onto the cloud, there’s really no other alternative. The Music Manager is very simple and, after a few pages of agreements and an offer to add an assortment of free songs (no, thanks), will ask you where you would like to upload your music from. You can choose between your iTunes folder or other folders, but after that, you don’t get any control over what gets uploaded. If you choose iTunes like we did, you will also get the option for Music Beta to automatically grab new songs added to your iTunes and upload them to your online library.

Now comes the worst part: waiting. The uploading process is painfully slow, but there’s no way to get around it. If you have a library of over 10,000 songs to upload to Music Beta, expect it to take five days or longer of uploading time. We know, it seems crazy, but luckily you don’t have to do anything other than leave your computer running. If you shut your computer off during this time, it will resume where it left off when you return. This may seem like a giant pain to most people, and in most cases it will be, but once your library is uploaded, you’re set. Just to clarify, however, we’d like to reiterate that you get absolutely no control over what gets uploaded once you’ve chosen to upload from your iTunes folder or from ‘other folders.’ If your iTunes is a big fat mess, your Music Beta library will be, too. For those who want to migrate their complete library onto the cloud, this won’t be a big issue, but users who prefer to have control of the process will likely be frustrated.

Interface and features

One of the best things about Google’s Music Beta is the clean and user-friendly interface. The design doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles, but for its purpose, the simplicity is much appreciated. Like most music applications, Music Beta draws plenty of inspiration from iTunes, although we thought it had some resemblance to the Grooveshark interface as well. As you can see from the screenshot, it’s about what you would expect in terms of a basic music library interface. The left-hand sidebar contains your basic artists, genres, albums, songs choices as well as any personal playlists. Auto playlists and “Instant Mixes” are also available in the sidebar, but we’ll get to those later. The large part of your browser window is dedicated to a visual search of what you’re listening to or looking for, very much like iTunes. Select an artist and all of that artist’s albums will show up one after the other, ready to be streamed. A thin grey bar at the bottom of your window shows what is currently playing, so you can feel free to use the larger part of the window for searching or creating other playlists. Our user experience with the interface was a very pleasant one. The design is simple, but still aesthetically-appealing, and everything you would need to do or use is very intuitive.

As far as features within the browser application go, Music Beta takes after iTunes again, which is just fine with us. Our playlists from our iTunes library seamlessly transferred to Music Beta during the uploading process, which made us feel like our music was instantly right at home. A great thing that Google has appropriated from iTunes is the “Instant Mix,” which is modeled after the “Genius” function in iTunes. If you’d like to craft a playlist around the song you are currently listening to, just click the song and select “Make instant mix” from the dropdown menu. You will now have a playlist of songs from a variety of artists that are similar to your original song. It’s all subjective, but we found that the “Instant Mix” function did a great job sifting through our library to craft enjoyable playlists that fit perfectly with the song we originally chose. The service also offers a ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ rating system for songs, compiling those songs rated ‘thumbs up’ into an automated playlist. Unfortunately for those who are attached to their iTunes ratings (or those from another media player), the star ratings do not seem to transfer into a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ on Music Beta.

Probably the biggest feature to highlight, other than the basic browser application, is the ability to stream your music on multiple devices. Your music library can be accessed from any computer that you log in to, but you can only have eight devices authorized to stream your library at a time. Luckily, if you ever need to stream from a ninth device, you can easily manage which devices are authorized from the browser application, de-authorizing one in favor of another. Regardless, we doubt many people have access to more than eight devices to stream from, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

The next step to fully utilizing Music Beta is installing the corresponding free app on your Android device or devices. We tested out the app on the Droid X, and it’s just as simple and easy to use as the browser interface. The simple design uses multiple screens (which can be switched between by flicking your finger across the screen horizontally) to display the genres, artists, songs, and playlists in your library, so users can simply select an artist or playlist and start listening. A small arrow next to each song brings up a dropdown menu when clicked, which then allows users to play the song, add it to a playlist, or make an Instant Mix based on the song. That’s about as far as the Android app functionality goes, but it worked smoothly on our device, and having access to something like 50GB of music on a device that could only hold a maximum of 24GB of actual MP3s is nothing short of awesome.

Drawbacks

As with any product in the beta testing stage, Music Beta has a host of quirks and problems. The first problem that we noticed was the terribly slow upload speed and the lack of control over which songs get uploaded. We found that the slow uploading process was a small price to pay for the big payout of having your entire library accessible, but in later versions, we’d expect Google to offer a better way to have control over which songs or artists get uploaded.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage with the current Music Beta is the inability to shop for songs or albums within the interface. This is a clear drawback because it makes the user experience much less seamless than some competitors. That being said, considering users will upload their entire library to the cloud to be streamed later, we don’t necessarily see all users wanting to actually purchase music through the application. If they’ve already uploaded the music, there’s no need for them to buy it again through a download. This problem is just another demonstration of the limited functionality of Music Beta, which could be seen by critics as a downfall, or perhaps by some as a positive because of its simplicity.

As far as use on Android tablets and smartphones (or with some home internet providers), the biggest problem that users will run into is bandwidth usage. Uploading your entire music library will take up a huge amount of bandwidth, so users need to be extra careful if they have a low usage cap. The same goes for use on Android devices. Unless you have a truly unlimited data plan, we wouldn’t recommend using the service at all, as it will use tons of data to stream songs from your library.

Just like almost any online music service, legal issues will no doubt come into play with Music Beta. The uses of the application have already been limited by record labels refusing to get onboard, and the service has the risk of raising other legal questions as well. Users are required to check a box during the upload process that says they own all of the music in their library, but there is no real way of tracking whether users are being truthful or not. Because there is no way to share music like a P2P service, we doubt this will become a huge issue, but it’s always possible.

Other than the huge, and we mean huge, pitfall of not being able to control which songs from your library get uploaded, many of the other issues with Music Beta can be looked at as a positive in terms of simplicity. Sure you can’t buy music within the application, but this keeps things simpler and easier to navigate.

Conclusion

While there is no doubt that Music Beta has some kinks to work out, we found that our general user experience of the application was overwhelmingly positive. As people who work on computers all day without access to our personal music libraries, a large number of us here at DT rely on online radio services like Pandora, Slacker, or Grooveshark to keep tunes pumping through our speakers. Having access to your own personal library in this situation is ideal. The same can be said for being able to listen to our own playlists while on the bus or, in the car, or at the gym. What could be better to a music lover than having access to their entire, massive music library wherever they go? As a service for the purpose of mirroring your personal music library so it is accessible anywhere, Google’s Music Beta does a great job. It’s limited in its other aspects, so it will be interesting to see if Google attempts to expand the application’s reach or decides to keep things simple.

The other unknown here is cost. Because Google has resisted charging users high prices (or any price at all) in the past, we are optimistic that Music Beta could stay free when it drops the beta moniker, or at least come in at a reasonable price, but we won’t know until the application comes out of beta testing. If Google can keep the application free or nominally-priced and work out the basic kinks, we can see Music gaining widespread popularity for users who work and play on different computers or use Android devices. As for now, the kinks are still there, but we’d take the current beta version over a measly Pandora playlist any day.