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Can Google’s All Access challenge the house that Spotify built? We go hands on

Google All Access Hands-On

After plenty of rumors and more than enough waiting, it’s finally here. Google has launched its Spotify challenger, a new streaming service that piggybacks on Google Music called All Access. With a slew of new music rights holders added to the catalog and a slick look, will the new platform be able to contend with the socially-friendly Spotify? 

Setup

If you’re anything like us, then your Google Music account has laid dormant for a while now, waiting to give you a reason to come back. That reason is All Access. After logging in to Google Music, a prompt should surface offering you a free month to the new streaming service.

all access free trialYou will be asked to supply your credit card information, but rest assured you’re not going to be charged (just be sure to cancel your subscription after 30 days – my gut says that you’ll be asked in a month’s time if you want to continue using, and start paying for, All Access). For reference, the service is $8.99 a month after the trial. 

Then, you’ll be thrown into All Access.

Interface

At first, you might not even realize you’re using the new service – it looks and more or less functions exactly like Google Music. You’ll see the same multi-column interface with the option to view your player in the middle. To be clear, the player is entirely in-browser, unlike Spotify which is a downloaded client (although there are rumors that a Web version is in the works Correction: It’s available now). So in one sense, All Access is more like Pandora than Spotify – however the cleaner, ad-less (for now), screen-to-screen look is nicely uncluttered and minimalist.

The left-hand sidebar has the familiar navigation icons. From here you can access the streaming component (sitting at top). You can dive into Google’s catalog, the radio stations you’ve created or recently listened to, or go to your own pre-loaded library.

Clicking out of All Access and trying to get back is mildly annoying. Some of us have gotten incredibly used to Spotify’s back button – and really, at this point, we have been so familiarized with the back button that it should be an omnipresent tool. Instead, if you want to bring back the All Access playlist you’re on, you need to press an icon that sits in the lower right-hand corner. You can also hit the “queue” designation on the left-hand sidebar, but … man do we want that back button.

Like other streaming services, you can search by artist, album, or song, and each category surfaces its own dedicated page. These pages feature big images and plenty of whitespace, so nothing is confusing or cluttered.

all access search results

Features and use

Without a doubt, the best part of All Access is the sheer amount of new tracks that were very recently added to Google’s catalog. Without this, All Access would be an attractive, relatively fun to use, empty application. You’re still going to have trouble finding some up-and-comers (my first search for The Oh Hellos yielded no results … however local independent band Typhoon was there, so it’s still something of a grab bag), but the library has been seriously padded with new content.

all access no results

While you can listen to a larger variety of music in general now, All Access also comes with a radio feature, like Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, and the rest. It’s a little different, however, in that it shows you the entire playlist curated from your album, artist, or song pick right up front. There’s no mystery in what song is going to be next, and no illusion that your thumbs upping and downing is determining the next track – because it’s not. However, it will help create the playlist further down. Basically, a certain amount of tracks appear to be setup up front, and from there your preferences are taken into consideration as the station continues to play.

radio fades all access

all access new playlistsIn addition to streaming artists, albums, or creating radio stations, you can also make playlists. This option sits on the left-hand sidebar and quickly allows you to toggle between making said playlist public or private. You can drag and drop tracks here or hover over a song, which will bring up a toggle to add to a playlist, among a handful of other options.

Problems

While our own Spotify privacy toggle is perma-switched to ON, we know that plenty of users appreciate the social element to the player – and while there is a share option with All Access, it’s restricted to Google+. This isn’t surprising, but it might not satisfy a hefty amount of users out there.

all access sharing

A desktop-based option would also make All Access a more attractive option … just like a Web-based version would make Spotify better. Having choice over the medium by which we get to our music is a great feature, and something we wish all music and content-streaming services in general would adopt. Of course there are structural issues with this and we understand there are reasons for deciding on one over the other, but purely from a user’s point of view, we’d like both options. One less browser tab for us to keep open, as so many of us are drowning in them as is.

The biggest issue for so many of us out there is the fact that you can’t use All Access on the iPhone. Obviously given that it’s browser-based (there’s that reason for not limiting itself to a downloadable client), All Access can be used on a Mac desktop or laptop. But those of us rocking iOS can’t access these playlists and radio stations we’ve created on the go … which is a huge caveat that hurts All Access in its competition with other players, namely Spotify. An agnostic music service is an important thing to the ecosystem unfaithful among us.

Highlights

Yes, iPhone unavailability is a big hit, but there are still plenty of things that make All Access a challenger to current streaming players. For starters, the previously mentioned catalog additions go a long, long way. Before, Google Music felt more like a cloud-based storage locker for tunes you’d already acquired. Not exactly a product the Internet was clamoring for. Now, we’re finding more results to our searches than blank spaces; definitely a commendable effort on Google’s part.

Secondly, the radio feature is – at least in our opinion – blowing Spotify’s out of the water. Using Spotify for music discovery has been a bit of a trial and error experiment. We’ll try out something from the “New Music” section of a discovery app, and maybe a handful of tracks will make it into a playlist or get starred. The experience using All Access’ predictive feature was far superior. We discovered many more tracks we liked that we thumbs-upped and added to playlists. It is a little disconcerting to choose a radio station and see the tracks already laid out in advance – like none of your input is affecting the playlist – but the effect is still better than what we’re getting over at Spotify. It’s closer to the top-notch system Pandora has been nearly perfecting for years.

all access share youtube videoA neat, if small, feature All Access offers that deserves mention is the ability to immediately share a song’s YouTube video without being bumped out from the player.

Verdict

The fact that All Access isn’t available across multiple devices and ecosystems is a big hit against it. Most of us want those playlists at the gym, blasting from our speaker docks, in the car … what’s the point of creating these perfect stations and playlists if we can only enjoy them from our desktop? Of course this isn’t the case for Android users, but there are a lot of us iPhone users – and enough of us Windows Phone users – out there that it’s an issue.

For that matter, the Google+-only attitude that Google applies to All Access music is unfortunate. We want to share to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or via email. But Google+ is the singular option.

But after all of that complaining, we know what we’ll be listening to at our desk for the rest of the day: All Access. The uncluttered interface, bold, well layed-out artist and music pages, and superior radio feature are already making for a more pleasant at-desk experience. It’s just everything beyond that we’re a little worried about. 

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