August 24, 2011

Google Music: Music in the Cloud


Back in early June of this year, most likely scrambling to steal some of the thunder from Apple’s musical cloud offering announcement, Google had announced their own cloud-centric approach to music, which they simply called Google Music.
At the time, considering that there was no Linux client, an only barely-functional interface and muddy limitations on the framework they’d hastily set up, it was clear that this was premature. Appropriately, given the look of it, I had dismissed Google Music out of hand as a non-item.
However, in the intervening weeks, something happened. It got better.

Overview: What is this?

In the end of July, Google announced the release of their “Music Manager” client for Linux, which surprised me — I wasn’t honestly expecting them to pay any attention to the Linux users out there for a long time to come, if ever — so I thought I’d give Google Music a second look, and since it was now available for Linux, I thought I’d do a writeup here about it.
I downloaded the 32-bit .deb file from the Google Music site and installed it.
It’s a pretty basic application, as its only real purpose is to watch folders on your local computer for music and upload them to your Google Music account.

That’s pretty much it. You log in on it with the Google account associated with Google Music (the one to which the invite was sent) and it just quietly cranks away in background, uploading everything it identifies in the folders you tell it to watch.
Once your music is uploaded, you can listen to it from any Internet-connected computer via the music player webapp (simply by navigating in your favorite browser to, or you can stream it directly to your phone via the free Android app.
This, quite simply, is all Google Music is about. The ability to enjoy your own music from wherever you happen to be, as long as you’re connected.

Cool things

I’ve been using Google Music — which is still in beta — for approximately three weeks now. Overall, I’m extremely impressed. I’m glad I came back to this to give it another try, because at this point it’s something that I can see myself continuing to use going forward.
It took me a few days to get my current electronic music library uploaded. I have a lot of CDs, but I don’t have them all ripped, so currently I’m using Google Music with 4,977 tracks. The upload process is tedious and time consuming, but once they’re up there, you’re good to go.

The 20,000 track limit

Which brings me to one of the coolest things about Google Music: the 20,000 track limit.
That’s right. Twenty thousand tracks. I was initially a bit confused by this when I started looking at Google Music, as I was unable to discern what the limitations were. I saw the “20,000 tracks” limit, but I couldn’t find the space limitation anywhere. Surely they were slapping a total storage limit no bigger than 7 or 8 GB, right?
Nope. It’s 20,000 tracks. Well, and no tracks can be larger than 250 MB. But that’s it. That’s the limit.
And did I mention that this is free, as in gratis?
My nearly 5,000 tracks with which I am testing Google Music take up roughly 30 GB on my hard drive. But this isn’t a problem, since I’m under the 20,000 track limit. So I was able to upload all of my digital tracks to Google Music and I have a 15,000+ track buffer before I’m even close to reaching the limit of Google Music’s storage for a free account.

Instant mixes

One of the other cool things is the “Instant Mixes”. In the music player webapp, you can pick a track, any track, and select “Make instant mix” from the menu dropdown at the corner… and it makes a playlist of 25 tracks from your music library of things it thinks go well together.

And I have to say, I’ve been playing around with this, and it does a good job. If I’m in the mood for listening to some blues, rather than just hit the “Blues” genre, I actually find I get a slightly better playlist by picking a song I’m in the mood for and making an Instant Mix from it.
It’s a nice feature, and I’m finding myself using it a lot.

Streaming sound quality

To give this a good test, I’ve been playing music via streaming from the Google Music webapp from my laptop over wifi.
I’m picky about my sound quality, and to be honest, I can’t tell the difference between my locally stored tracks and the ones I have been streaming from Google. They sound absolutely the same to me, and I’ve had no problems buffering or stopping or lagging at all. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that I’ve been playing music stored on my hard drive, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you otherwise if you gave me a blindfold test.

The Android app

I have an HTC Evo 4G phone running Android 2.3 (“Gingerbread”). Since I was testing out Google Music, I figured I’d try out the free Android app for it and see how it played on my phone.
It downloaded and installed easily, and, since my phone was already associated with the same Google account with which I was testing Google Music, it automagically found my entire music library.
As a mobile music player the interface is simple, elegant, and pretty intuitive. It’s aesthetically a lot nicer looking than the default Android music player app that came with my phone, and I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks now to give it a good test drive. It even shows album cover art nicely for whatever track happens to be playing.
One nice thing I noticed immediately is that if you make a playlist in Google Music on your computer, it instantly appears in the Android app on your phone as well, so if you’re planning ahead, you can use your computer and build playlists ahead of time rather than use your phone’s touchscreen, which, let’s face it, can still be a bit cumbersome these days if you’re creating a large playlist.
And like playlists, anything you add to your Google Music library becomes instantly available on your phone as well, which is nice.
To me, having my entire digital music library instantly available from my phone, wherever I am (as long as I have signal) is a huge part of Google Music’s appeal.
Plus, like streaming over the web to my laptop, streaming over 3G to my phone is superb with respect to sound quality. I can’t tell the difference between tracks stored locally on my phone itself and tracks that it is streaming from my Google Music cloud library, and even in areas where my signal is sketchy, it has yet to stop and make me wait while it buffers, or break up, or demonstrate any issues whatsoever.
I should also point out that streaming music in this way doesn’t seem to impact the battery life on my phone any worse than playing locally stored (microSD card) music does, something which surprised me. I can stream music to my phone from Google Music for 6+ hours and still have enough battery life left on my phone to last me the rest of the day in normal use.
I’ve been very surprised by the sheer lack of problems with this, which, for a “beta”, is pretty polished and well-implemented.

Needs and gripes

I don’t have many criticisms of Google Music so far, which is saying something. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it hasn’t yet. As an overall, this has been an extremely positive experience, so I’m reduced to nitpicking to find things to include in this section.

More (any) uploading options

So I mentioned that I uploaded 4,977 tracks in my test of Google Music. All that was involved in this was pointing the Google Music Manager to the folder in which I keep my digital music, and then waiting while it uploaded stuff automatically.
Well, the issue I have is that that total track number should in fact be 4,980, not 4,977. Inexplicably, it skipped three tracks from one album (Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting”), and nothing I did could convince it to upload them to my Google Music Library.
It didn’t tell me what problem it had with the tracks — they weren’t any different from the other 4,977 tracks it uploaded successfully — and it didn’t offer me any way to manually upload them.
And that’s the problem. The Google Music Manager works great most of the time, but if it for whatever mysterious reason decides it doesn’t want to do something, there is NO way in heaven or on earth to convince it to do it anyway.
So the Music Manager needs a way to override this nonsense so I can upload the three tracks it skipped. The three tracks in particular play just fine on my phone (I manually copied them to the device’s microSD card), they play fine on my computer, they have played fine on any other device on which I have tried them, and they were ripped by the same program, at the same time I ripped the other 7 songs on that album. But Google Music Manager will NOT upload them, no matter what.
It’s pretty frustrating, and by doing a little casual searching around the web, it sounds like this is a common problem.
I know this is still in beta, but hopefully they fix this. It can be totally resolved by adding a simple manual uploader where you can browse local files and manually select them for upload. Done and over with.

Metrics on the Android app

While the actual Google Music webapp player has rudimentary metrics (number of plays on each track), it’d be cool if that would be incremented by plays on the Android app as well. I think it would also be interesting to have other metrics and statistics available so that I could, for example, make a playlist on the fly of “never listened to” tracks, or “favorite tracks” based on number of plays or likes, or even just a “random 100 tracks” function if I just want to listen to some music from my library but I’m not picky about what it is.
This could all be accomplished pretty easily I think, since they’re tracking this stuff anyway; they just need to include it in the user interface.

Tighter Android interface integration

Because I’ve been using the Android app on my phone mostly in my car, I’d like to see tighter integration between the Google Music Android app and the actual Android interface on my phone, especially with respect to lock screen controls.
For example, if I’m using the default Android music player app on my phone (playing locally stored tracks from my microSD card), if my phone’s screen is locked, the music player still displays the cover art from whatever is playing, and there is a pause button and skip controls, right there on the lock screen.
This is nice especially while driving, since if I want to pause playback or skip to the next song, I don’t have to unlock the phone and navigate any screens on my phone (which is dangerous while driving).
However, with the Google Music Android app, while the phone screen is locked, that’s it. You have no controls without unlocking the phone, and that’s cumbersome at best while walking around, and downright hazardous while driving.

Better playlist/queue options

This applies to both the webapp and the Android app. I’ve gotten used to he ability to play a mix of songs/artists/albums instantly without having to create a playlist (an “instant queue”, so to speak).
I don’t always want to create a named, saved playlist… sometimes I just want to pick three albums and play them all together, shuffled. Can’t do that the way this is set up, and I find it odd that such a simple piece of functionality is lacking in Google Music.

A stop button on the interface

This one I had to include. For some reason, over the past several years, there has been this trend to remove the stop button from music players, both web, application and portable.
I don’t always want to pause. Sometimes I just want to stop playback. This actually complicates the interface, because if I want to get the same behavior, I need to first pause a track, and then I have to manually back it up to the beginning before playing again.
Why add extra steps when just keeping the “stop” button around accomplishes this? I don’t understand that. It’s a small complaint, but it’s everywhere these days (except in a handful of good music players like Clementine). It’s one of those UI design trends I wish would just die a swift death so we can move on.


As I’ve already said, I’m pretty happy with Google Music so far. Even taking into account that this is still marked “beta” everywhere, this is a good enough, and polished enough experience that I’d openly admit that I would pay for a service like this.
While it has a few little shortcomings, they’re pretty minor in the grand scheme of things; the important stuff — the streaming quality, the storage allocated for users, the accessibility — this all works flawlessly so far in my experience, and because of that, the minor quibbles I have with the Android app, the interface, and the uploader don’t bother me nearly as much as they would if the overall experience was not so overwhelmingly positive.
I have often lamented the horrible state of MP3 players over the past few years, and ultimately, if this is how Google Music is going to do things, that lack of a decent replacement for my old MP3 player is going to matter less and less.
If anything, this is better… it means I’m carrying one less device, and the amount of local storage on that device (in this case, my Android phone) doesn’t matter much either, since Google Music can apparently stream music flawlessly over the air.
I think that unless data caps begin to severely curtail the usefulness of cloud applications for mobile devices, this kind of service can spell the death of separate portable music devices. Why carry around a 60 GB MP3 player if you can carry around your phone and just stream your entire music library at will?
It definitely presents some possibilities that just weren’t options up til now, and that makes me pretty optimistic about the future of Google Music. Give it a try, if you can get an invite. It’s worth checking out, and as I mentioned, it works great on Linux.
– Trent


One of my more regular readers has pointed out to me that Google Music isn’t currently available outside of the United States, something about which I had been unaware.
Since this is still in heavy beta, I think that’s probably going to change down the road (since Google often limits the beta testing of their projects geographically), but with some of the rather ridiculous legal wrangling that seems to be going on, I have to wonder about the future of Google Music in general, much less internationally.
I guess only time will tell!

Additional screenshots