Tested: The New Google Music and Android Music Market

By Ryan Whitwam

We take Google's new Google Music service for a spin and see what's what. Is this the place to get your tunes?

When Google Music was first launched back in May, there was one huge, glaring omission from the feature set. Of course we're referring to music purchases, which Google first demoed back at Google I/O 2010. Well, at long last Google has rolled music buying for the Android Market ecosystem, giving all Android users a place to buy tracks that are fully integrated with Google Music.

After spending some time with the service, we might even say that it’s a little too reliant on the Google cloud. There are some unique features in the new Google Music, though. Let’s dive in and see how this service works in practice.

The New Android Market

With the deployment of Market version 3.1.11, Google had the code behind the scenes to activate Google Music in the Market app. Immediately after the announcement last week, users began getting access. The main market page is much the same, but there is now a link for Music along with Books, Apps, and Movies.

Tapping on the Music tab will open a UI similar to what we see in the other sections of the Market. There are large promo images of artists and album covers which link to the content. Right up at the top is the first thing users will notice about Google Music: the “free exclusive”. Google plans to frequently update this position with new content, which could be a few tracks from a popular album.

The other element of phone Market is the recommended section. On the main page you get a few suggestions, and if you tap through there is a more extensive list. Google is getting these recommendations from the music you have uploaded into Google Music. This provides a real incentive to get your music into Google’s cloud. We’ve found the quality of the recommendations to be all over the map. Some are dead on and really useful, but some make no sense at all. Yeah, music is a strange beast like that.

Over on the desktop side, the Market landing page is much more diverse. It’s no longer dominated by apps, but rather shows an assortment of content including music. To get to the main music section, there is a big orange button just like in the Android app. The UI is familiar, just like other areas of the Market, in fact. There is a carousel up top with featured albums, including the exclusive and free items. The rest of the page is filled with staff picks, tops tracks, and your recommendations.

Overall, we like the way Google is presenting music in the Android Market. There is also a ton of free stuff to be had. Several of the featured artists are also listing full albums for bargain-basement prices.

Buying and Listening

So you’ve found something you might like to groove to, or whatever vernacular kids use these days. Everything in the Android Market is supposed to come with a minimum 90-second preview, but we’ve noticed this is not strictly true. Tracks under 3 minutes will only allow a 30 second preview. You can listen to the previews on the mobile Market, or the desktop by hitting the play button beside each track.

Individual songs sell for $0.69-1.29, and most albums are around $10. On a mobile device, T-Mobile customers have the option of doing carrier billing for music purchases, but other carriers are expected to get that feature next year. Everyone else will pay through the credit card attached to their Google Wallet (formerly Google Checkout) account. The payment process works just like it does with apps.

Where things start to get a little off the rails is after you’ve payed up. On the confirmation pop up, you will be informed that the songs have been dropped into your Google Music library. There is no option to download the MP3 files directly. If you hit the Listen link, the Market will boot you over to Google Music. If you have an Android device attached to your account, you will get a notification that the content has been added to your library.

You can listen to your tracks in the cloud with the web interface, or your Android device with Google Music installed. If you want to keep the songs offline, there are three options, none of them terribly good. In the Android app, you can pick an album or artist and choose “Make available offline,” and the app will cache the songs on the device. It works well enough, but you can’t move those files around very easily.

Option two is a little galling for us. In the Google Music web player there is a tiny arrow next to each track that opens the options. For purchased content, there is a “Save to computer” link. If you click it, Google Music pops up a notice that your song is downloading, but that you can only download it twice to a PC from the web client. Yikes. There is no download option for the full album at all.

Route number three for getting your hands on your MP3 files is to use the Google Music Manager on the desktop. This method bypasses the irksome restrictions from the web client, but it comes with its own issues. You’ll need the updated Music Manager software, which now has a Download tab. Pick a folder, and click “Download purchased music.” The software will sync your purchased music so you’ve got a copy locally.

Songs you uploaded are still stuck in the cloud, and there is no way to just grab just one purchased track or album with Music Manager. It’s an all or nothing approach, just like the uploads. The files are high bitrate, and the download rate is a bit slow. We will say that the 320Kbps MP3 files you get from Google Music are really excellent quality. However, the fact that users have to go through this rigmarole to download their purchased music is annoying.

One last thing that is totally unacceptable about the Google Music Manager, is that downloaded songs from an album are sometimes split up based on tags. If a track has tags with different performers (i.e. Artist A, featuring artist B), they end up in different folders. We can only hope that Google makes this easier.

If you don’t mind living primarily in the cloud, buying from Google isn’t bad. The web player is good, and we like the Android integration. Feeling a little skeptical? Well, there’s one more killer feature to be had.

Sharing

This is another example of Google getting social in everything. Anything you buy from the new Google music store can be shared via Google+ or email. On the desktop, simply find the song you’d like to share, and hit the drop down arrow and pick Share. The pop up will look familiar to Google+ users, and it makes it easy to get that shared preview on your G+ stream. However, you can also add email contacts and the preview will be sent to them via email.

On the phone, sharing is done through the music app. On any track, there is the same drop down menu with sharing built in. This will send you right into the Google+ app, but don’t be discouraged if you want to share via email. The same trick is possible here. Anyone that gets a song shared through email gets a link that sends them to a Google+ page to listen. They don’t have to be G+ members, though.

The previews are good for one full listen per user. That means that anyone you’ve shared with can listen to the track once, even if you share it publicly. Although it appears that users have to logged into Google accounts to get the full preview. The sharing feature is cool, but it’s not likely to draw in more users. It’s more of a bonus for those that are deeply into Google’s social scene.

The Upshot

Google’s new music service is very good for a first non-beta release. There is a reasonable selection, and if you like the cloud-based music game, this is a real win. if you’re the type that likes to have local backups, Google Music is going to be a bit frustrating. Sharing helps, and can be a ton of fun if you use Google+. For other users, we expect sharing won’t see much use.

Google Music isn’t really a play to pull in more users; it’s an effort to fill in the gaps for current ones. Google has been relying on third-party solutions like Amazon to deliver tunes to Android users for years, but now it can be a full Google experience. Android users should definitely take note, because it is so tightly integrated. Songs appear magically in your Google cloud, and syncing them to your device isn’t hard, you just lose a little control. Getting songs saved on a computer is often more hassle than it’s worth, though. Have you bought any music through Google yet? How’s it working out for you?