Google Play Music: Brilliant Concept, Flawed Execution

Attention iPhone owners! You know how you can never seem to find a great music streaming service for iOS? Well, Google has released their Google Play Music app on iOS, which features their All Access service with library of 18+ million songs. At long last, I can ditch the gigs of music on my iPhone and tap into this cloud music business I’ve heard so much about.

Okay, so that was probably an unnecessarily snarky opening, but please forgive me if I don’t get excited about yet another streaming music service that’s incredibly late to the party. Especially when the last service to land on iOS ended up being rather lackluster (I’m referring to Xbox Music for those that didn’t wish to click the link). I can only speak for myself, but as a member of the Rdio faithful, Google’s music service has a lot to prove for me to even entertain the notion of jumping ship. Let’s find out if it can do just that.

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The Service

Google Play Music (referred to as “GMP” going forward for the sake of everyone’s sanity), which seems like an unnecessarily long name (imagine Xbox Music being dubbed “Xbox Live Music”), has been around since 2011 and grants users the ability to upload to and stream their music via the cloud. Uploading music is achieved via a desktop application–Music Manager–that scans your iTunes library or other music folders and matches tracks; if a track isn’t matched, Music Manager will upload it instead. Once matched and/or uploaded, you can stream your music for free from the GPM website, and now via the app.

All Access, which was introduced at Google I/0 this past May, is a subscription service baked into GPM that’ll cost you $9.99 a month. Once a subscriber, you can access Google’s full library of music (along with radio features). Since Google has zero interest in splitting the bill with Apple, however, All Access cannot be purchased via the app–requiring a trip to the Google Play website. Google does offer a 30-day trial, allowing you to get a feel for the service, which will automatically roll into a paid account at the end of the trial.

The combination of GPM (storing the music you own) and All Access (music available to stream) is definitely intriguing, especially when you consider that you can purchase music from Google (not available in the app) that’s then automatically stored in your library. Services like Spotify and Rdio offer the ability to scan and match your iTunes library, but songs are never yours to keep. However, if not handled correctly, there are some major drawbacks in marrying the two concepts together (more on this later).

Getting Started

When you fire up GPM for the first time, you’ll need to verify your account, barring that you’re using other Google apps on your iPhone. If not, you’ll need to login with your Google account credentials. If you’ve never used the service before, you’ll have to make a trip to the GPM website to get things started. Otherwise, the app will load your library and you’ll be granted access in a matter of seconds.

Signing up for Google Play Music is quick if you have a Google account.

Signing up for Google Play Music is quick if you have a Google account.

Listen Now, My Library & More

GPM is divided into five views for All Access subscribers (four for non subscribers): Listen Now, My Library, Playlists, Radio and Explore. Each view contributes something different to the user experience, and each are useful in their own way. Listen Now gets top billing by Google, but for me, is one of the least useful. As dubbed by Google, Listen Now “makes it easy to figure out what to play next,” but at first glance it just appeared to be a random assortment of music I either recently added or uploaded to my library. However, it’s meant to get better as you use the app, and I later noted that recently played music would rise to top, which makes it more or less a history feature. Rdio’s History view is an invaluable tool for me, so it’s nice to see something similar implemented into GPM.

Albums are displays in tiles, which lets album art shine.

Albums are displays in tiles, which lets album art shine.

My Library is the most pedestrian view (in a good way), which I found myself browsing the most often. Divided into four subviews–genres, artists, albums and songs–My Library is where you’ll find all of your music, and content is listed in alphabetical order. Instead of just a list of names or titles, however, each artist/album/song features artwork in a similar manner as the default Music.app. While nothing momentous, I’d really like to see artwork in Rdio because I find it to be a visual treat. I’d also be interested in more than just an artist view (point to GPM).

Artwork can make scrolling a longer task if you have a lot of music.

Artwork can make scrolling a longer task if you have a lot of music.

Playlists and Radio are fairly straightforward, with the former being a place to access your created playlists, and the latter being a place to access and create radio stations (based on artists or songs). Unfortunately, GPM doesn’t include a personalized station that’s akin to Rdio’s “You FM” station, and for the most part stations have to be created by you (like iTunes Radio) with some suggested stations based on your listening habits that show up in Listen Now (but not the Radio view). I, like my compatriot Nathan Snelgrove, enjoy Rdio’s personalized station (You FM) quite a bit and would certainly miss it if I made the switch.

Stations also can't be created from its view.

I still don’t understand why some music apps won’t let you create playlists from the Playlists view.

Explore is the most unique view, and is where you may end up discovering most of your music (save for using radio stations). You can browse different genres, which can be narrowed down further into subgenres; check out featured playlists, tops albums and top songs; view recommended albums; and check out new releases. On the surface, Explore is great, but it doesn’t take much digging to discover that it lacks substance.

Depending on your tastes, Featured Playlists may include of few viable options, while the Top Albums and Top Songs consist almost exclusively of artists and tracks you’ll hear on Top 40 stations. Recommendations are supposed to be based on your albums and listening habits, but early on they mostly consisted of different albums from artists already in my library (sometimes including albums currently in my library, for whatever reason). Of the 21 recommendations provided, only 10 were new artists. Compare that to Rdio’s recommendation feature, which only displays artists I’ve never listened to on Rdio, and also notes why the artist is recommended (not so in GPM).

Featured seems to feature mostly very popular content.

Featured seems to feature mostly very popular content.

New Releases, however, is the worst offender of all in my opinion. There are many approaches to discovering new music, but my favorite is browsing new releases in Rdio and randomly selecting albums. Because Rdio’s list of new releases is so vast, each week I find myself checking out at least five new albums. GPM’s New Releases subview features a paltry selection of 25 albums (the website offers 100), and consists mainly of popular artists (a running theme). Take Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album, for example, which was released five weeks prior to writing this review. Some could argue that five weeks is still somewhat “new,” but when compared to Rdio’s set up of displaying new releases by individual weeks (this week, last week, two weeks ago) it’s just sad.

New Releases also feature very popular content, and foregoes displaying independent artists.

New Releases also feature very popular content, and foregoes displaying independent artists.

Music Player

The music player is a critical function of any music app, mainly because it’s what you tend to interact with the most. Like many music apps these days (e.g. Rdio, Spotify, Xbox Music), the player is displayed at the bottom in a miniaturized format, which can be expanded by either flicking it upward or tapping it (my preferred option to avoid accidentally opening Control Center). The mini-player displays the song and artist information, as well was a play/pause button. The progress bar is shown at the very bottom, but can difficult to distinguish.

The music player animates artwork (drifting left and right), which is a nice touch.

The music player animates artwork (drifting left and right), which is a nice touch.

When expanded, the controls are transitioned to the bottom section (along with a more user friendly progress bar with a scrub control) with the top section now displaying the queue and action buttons. The queue is where you’ll find a full list of tracks waiting to be played, and the action button opens an action sheet with various options: starting a radio station, adding a song to a playlist, going to the artist or album page, or editing your queue (i.e. reorganize and/or remove tracks).

You can remove songs from your queue by swiping right and tapping the Remove button.

You can remove songs from your queue by swiping right and tapping the Remove button.

GPM offers thumbs up/down options, which only seems useful when accessing a Thumbs Up autoplaylist via the GPM website (autoplaylists, in general, are nowhere to be found in the app). One feature that’s definitely not missing is the ability to switch songs, which can be accomplished in four different ways: tapping a different song in the queue, tapping the skip controls, swiping on the mini-player (or top bar in the expanded player), and swiping the album art. It may seem like overkill, but it all works pretty well together.

You can reorganize your queue by tapping the action button and choosing "Edit queue".

You can reorganize your queue by tapping the action button and choosing “Edit queue”.

Managing Your Music

One of the most important aspects of any music service, for me, is how it manages my music. I don’t want to think about how it’s organized and structured. I just want to navigate to an album/song and begin playback in as few swipes and taps as possible. The beauty of most music subscription services is that there’s little management required on the user’s end. This is in stark contrast to apps like iTunes, which can be an absolute nightmare to navigate if you’re not diligent about organization (applicable to most individuals I know).

GPM finds itself in a weird middle ground between streaming services and self-management apps because it has married the two concepts together. All Access subscribers find their purchased music mixed together with streaming music (for lack of a better term). It should be noted that all music (purchased or not) is streamed, but can be downloaded for offline playback. The difference is that if you remove All Access, you’re simply left with music you’ve either purchased or uploaded to the service.

The biggest gaffe in GPM, and one that seems like the obvious issue to avoid, is that the app/service has problems with detecting and removing duplicate songs listed under the same album. For that matter, GPM sometimes willingly adds duplicate tracks. I only uploaded one song from Coldplay’s Parachutes, “Yellow,” and wanted to add the remaining tracks via All Access. Instead of adding just the tracks I didn’t have, “Yellow” was added a second time. What’s even more odd is that, on occasion, GPM didn’t detect when I already had an album in my library, and allowed me to add it a second time (combining them together and adding duplicate tracks). Also, much like a bad iTunes music management flashback, I encountered instances of the same album being listed twice.

GPM needs to do a better job of removing duplicate songs or albums.

GPM needs to do a better job of removing duplicate songs or albums.

One of the simplest tools for music management is the ability to remove or delete music from a library. Sadly, I couldn’t find any implementation of this feature, and ended up making frequent trips to the GPM website to remove artists added from my iTunes library I no longer had any interest in (or fixing duplication issues). To make matters worse, the app doesn’t automatically sync with changes made on the website. In a move reminiscent of Xbox Music, you’ll need to activate a Refresh option in the app’s settings, or kill and reopen the app to see changes immediately. While minor, and a bit nitpicky, I also find it a bit wonky that artists/albums/songs beginning with a number are displayed at the bottom in the GPM app, but are displayed at the top on the website.

Tap Refresh in the settings to immediately see changes made on the website.

Tap Refresh in the settings to immediately see changes made on the website.

Design

When you look at GPM for the first time, you could easily sum it up as a flat and minimal design that holds true to the other Google iOS apps. That certainly was my initial reaction, but I began noticing irregular design choices here and there that left me a bit puzzled. While certainly “flat” by most individual’s definition, GPM does utilize drop shadows in a number of peculiar ways. For instance, the progress bar control in the expanded player features a light drop shadow for no apparent reason. While viewing an album, you’ll notice a more stark drop shadow around the album art icon. Sub-navigation bars and search fields feature drop shadows to show depth from the content displayed below (a concept not used in all metaphors). You’ll find a few more similar instances, which all feel unnecessary and out of place when compared to the more subtle and solid outlines used for listed artists, albums and songs.

The use of drop shadows just feels completely unnecessary in GPM.

The use of drop shadows just feels completely unnecessary in GPM.

The color combination of orange and white in GPM offers little candy for the eye, and actually makes me clamor for Music.app, which isn’t exactly easy on the eyes itself. The biggest eyesore is the stark orange header found throughout the app, which is, at times, removed in favor of displaying artist art. However, these transitions are far from smooth. Instead of transitioning the full view, GPM transitions just the content below the header and fades out the orange header to reveal the artist art. This initial transition is fine, but presents a problem when you tap an album. The content transitions again, and the artist art remains as well. But, the orange header performs a quick fade in/out, which is seen as a flash of orange that’s very ill-suited. When you scroll down the orange header will fade in when you can no longer see the art, which presents a translucency issue I’ll explain next.

Why the orange header makes an appearance during this transition is baffling.

Why the orange header makes an appearance during this transition is baffling.

Translucency is all over iOS 7, and many third-party developers are jumping on board the bandwagon. I personally love translucency in design, when it’s used well. GPM, on the other hand, doesn’t quite use it as well as it should. The status bar is translucent, which is why it appears dark orange most of the time. When you scroll in a view with a orange header, the status bar remains the same dark orange because content is being pushed under the header. However, if artist art is displayed at the top in favor of the orange header, the translucent status bar will display the art while scrolling until the header fades in. It’s a minor inconsistency is most instances, but if you’re in a view with a short enough list, you’re left with an awkward translucent status bar and orange header that are unnecessarily blended together.

Good use of translucency versus a not so good use.

A good use of translucency versus a not so good use.

You’ll also find translucent design in the expanded player, which allows you to see the album art beneath the top and bottom sections. But, transition to the mini-player and the album art is nowhere to be seen (unlike Rdio’s player, which remains consistent). Other design issues include inconsistent header capitalization and missing artist and album art, which makes sense in some cases (e.g. uploaded music with no match), but most missing art I encountered in the app was available on the GPM website (or in another view within the app).

Lastly, and possibly most infuriating (for me, at least), is GPM’s use of iOS 6 keyboards and native buttons. Google hasn’t been on the ball about changing to iOS 7 native controls, which is evidenced by the fact that Google Search, Google+ and Google Translate all continue to feature iOS 6 controls (Gmail and Google Maps have made the switch).

Adele's artist art was available in the previous view, but is mysteriously missing now.

Adele’s artist art (t0p) was available in the previous view, but is mysteriously missing now.

The final aspect of design I wish to discuss is a lack of visual cues. I encounter new apps quite often, as it comes with the territory of reviewing apps. As such, I’m typically capable of figuring out how to use most apps, but in the back of my mind I’ll think about several individuals I know that would struggle in the same situation. This is why visual cues are so incredibly important. Many designers say Apple killed many useful visual cues in iOS 7, which I can concur with to some degree, and this change has trickled into some third-party apps.

GPM utilizes a hamburger button in the upper-left to inform users that, when tapped, a sidebar will open. This sidebar can also be open by simply swiping right from the left edge of the screen. When you transition to a secondary view, the hamburger button becomes a back button (indicating there’s a previous page) and the sidebar can still be accessed via the swipe gesture. This is all fine and dandy, but becomes an issue when the user expands the player. When expanded, the player offers no visual cue on how to exit and return to the previous view. You can’t even access the sidebar because swiping in the player changes tracks. Granted, once a user figures it out once, they’ll probably have zero issues in the future, but that’s not a good excuse for poor design choices.

GPM's player gives no indication of how to exit, whereas Rdio's player still displays the hamburger button.

GPM’s player gives no indication of how to exit, whereas Rdio’s player still displays the hamburger button.

While browsing the app, possibly in search of new music, you may encounter albums/songs already in your library. If you do, however, you’ll have zero way of knowing (short of remembering) since GPM doesn’t provide a visual cue to tell you so. Likewise, there’s zero indication if an album or song has been downloaded for offline playback (short of going into the album itself). In contrast, Rdio uses a green checkmark icon to indicate if something’s in my collection and an orange headphones icon indicates music that’s available for offline playback. While in an album view, you can begin playback by tapping the album art icon but there’s no indication of that option being available. For most people, though, it probably won’t matter because they’ll just tap a song to begin playback.

States is in my library on both GPM and Rdio, but only the latter provides any indication of it.

States is in my library on both GPM and Rdio, but only the latter provides any indication of it.

Playback Quality

It may seem a tad absurd that I waited this long to talk about playback quality considering GPM is a music app, but I’m kind of an absurd individual (so… yeah!). GPM is capable of streaming music up to 320 kbps when you’re using a fast Internet connection. While using mobile data, you can switch between three tiers of quality: low, normal and high (pretty self explanatory). Now, it’s difficult for me to detect subtle differences in playback quality. So, when I streamed music on Wi-Fi and cellular data, I couldn’t hear a major difference in quality. Even when set to low, I only noticed minor differences in quality when I switched to the high setting. Long story short, music sounds great to me and probably will for most individuals.

The Bottom Line

Google isn’t known to just release an app and let it stagnate. If you look at the history of Google Search, YouTube, Google+, Google Maps and Gmail, Google loves to iterate on a concept and change it drastically (for better or worse). My hope is that Google Play Music will become part of this heritage and changes in time. It’s not that Google Play Music, in its current state, is a bad app or service–even though there are a number of wrinkles to iron out. It’s just that the service offers little incentive to transition from what I’m already using to listen to music. If you’re currently a Google Play Music All Access subscriber, feel good in knowing that this app is much better than what Xbox Music subscribers are forced to use.

One aspect of Google Play Music that I do love is the fact that I can now access all of the music I own without spending a penny. This essentially makes the service a free version of iTunes Match, but with a bit more hands on management. If that’s all you ever use Google Play Music for, I’m sure Google is fine with it because you may begin purchasing music from Google Play in order to keep your library in one convenient place. But, the beauty of Google Play Music is that you can still purchase music from iTunes and the Music Manager desktop app will automatically add said purchases to your Google Play Music library (once set up properly). It’s quite brilliant in that manner.

For now, though, I’m going to put in my earbuds, fire up Rdio and go about my day.


Summary

Upload your music and stream them from the cloud, and subscribe to All Access and stream from 18+ million available tracks.

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