Sometimes the Tech Gods smile upon me and give me an early look at new things. In this case, I was able to experience the Google Music Beta while reviewing the Motorola Xoom. Starting with my existing Google account, signing in like other Google services, you can select some free tracks to add to your library. This is a nice touch that allows you to experience the service right away without having to wait for your own tracks to upload.
Next, you download the appropriate “Music Manager” client for your desktop machine. While installing on the desktop was simple, the experience on the desktop isn’t wonderful. After the software installs, it allows you to select the source, automatically locating your iTunes library. (You can specify your music folder if you don’t use iTunes.) Then Google Music Beta grabs the whole iTunes library including your podcasts. What if I only wanted certain playlists or genres? I should be able to have some level of control and customization.
Then starts the upload process, which it does in the background. You can adjust the amount of bandwidth used in the application settings, which is a good thing. I was able to set it to maximum when I left for the day so it could upload like crazy overnight. Thankfully, I only connected it to my laptop, which is a small subset of my real iTunes library.
As your music uploads, it appears online in the browser, ready for streaming. Playing tracks is relatively simple, but it requires an open browser on the desktop – there isn’t a desktop client. From the Motorola Xoom, I was able to stream smoothly, and then some of the tracks were available offline. With ISPs looking at bandwidth limits, a stream-only service will push users over those limits, which should be a concern if you find yourself wanting music outside of your WiFi networks.
Sound quality is good, not great. Audiophiles will be able to tell that there is some compression in the audio stream, but it appears to use your actual files as the source. Thicker more complex sound textures can get very distorted and metallic sounding, so this probably isn’t for the classical music aficionado.
Working with the library, you get decent controls, including the “thumbs up/down,” similar to using Pandora. Scrubbing to different positions in the song is practically instant, which is quite impressive. In addition to your own playlists, Google Music Beta allows you to create an instant mix by simply picking a song to start from. Given that it only had a subset of my music (2000 songs), it’s choices were pretty good, similar to what the iTunes Genius Mix would have picked.
You should be aware that you don’t get music, other than the few freebies, from Google; you have to acquire your tracks from somewhere online (legally please) or by digitizing your own collection, before you upload to the service. Potentially Google is making business deals to become a music purchasing service, but that isn’t part of the experience yet. Once a track is uploaded to Google Music Beta, you are able to remove the track from your library by deleting it from Google Music. (I was able to remove the podcasts from my library, leaving only the music left.)
Not unlike the song Hotel California, you upload the songs (check in) but you cannot redownload your own music. Excuse me? This is my music. You made me upload everything, but I cannot download my own files again. Seriously, you have got to be kidding. Perhaps I was hoping for a “digital locker” similar to Amazon’s Cloud Player where you treat Amazon’s storage as a hard drive in the cloud.
What is good about Google Music Beta is that you can have a library of up to 20,000 songs available anywhere you have Internet access, with all of your music available on Android devices. There is no sync. Typically, I will purchase a mobile device (iPod, iPhone, etc.) with extra storage so I can have a large subset of my music library on that device. Google Music Beta would allow me to purchase devices without as much local storage while giving me access to my full library anywhere and from any (Android) device.
So, if Google Music Beta had the ability to download your own tracks, perhaps even as a “I want my data back” bulk process, the service would be completely awesome. Then again, it is beta and it is free. How much should I really expect?