Music Beta by Google hands-on

Anyone who has used a Google product will know that they like to release software and services to the world long before for the beta tag is removed. Music Beta by Google is no exception and like many Google products, it begins life as an invitation only beta. Although the name is somewhat awkward we’ll stick to calling it Music Beta, but we're guessing it will widely known as Google Music.

Music Beta is currently only available in the US, so for all our UK readers consider this a taste of things to come.

The way we look at it, there are four parts to Google Music: the Music Manager, the Music Player which resides at music.google.com (just like your Docs or Gmail linked to your Google account), and then the Music apps and as we have them on two devices we’re counting them twice. We’ll look at each piece separately.

Music Manager

Starting at the beginning, signing up to Music Beta will enable you to download Music Manager to your PC or Mac, we used the Mac version. This essentially acts as a bridge between your music and the cloud space that Google offer up for your tunes.

Music Manager offers up some basic settings, importantly identifying where your music collection is. First on the list is iTunes player, followed by Music folder and Other folder. Pointing it at iTunes player, it found not only our local iTunes music content, but also the network-stored iTunes music we have.

This content is then copied to the cloud and you can opt to have Music Beta automatically upload, run on a schedule or manually, if you want to preserve bandwidth at particular times of day. It has taken about a week to move 1200 songs online and it has happened in the background with no input from us.

Music Player

Music Manager offers you a link to Music Player. This is actually the web player at music.google.com, so it opens up in a browser window. Notably, this means that keyboard media shortcuts no longer work, but being online you can access it anywhere you can log in to your Google account.

The interface is rather simple, offering up navigation by “New and recent”, song, artist, album and genre. Existing playlists from iTunes will be imported and you can make “instant mixes” which are the equivalent of Genius in iTunes. Auto playlists offer you recent additions, “thumbs up” and “free songs”.

Free songs is interesting. On signing up to Music Beta it asked us what genre of music we liked. A dash over Dance, Pop and Hip-hop then saw a collection of free songs appear in our Music Beta account. The selection runs from the odd to the regrettable and we find ourselves with “All I want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey nestling alongside “Jump” by Kriss Kross, the only gem perhaps being “Shake it” by Metro Station. Currently, we can’t find a way to opt out of “free music”, although you can delete songs.

Across the bottom of the Music Player browser tab are the playback controls, offering the regular shuffle selections and the option to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” a track.

Within the settings area of the Music Player you’ll be able to see the authorised devices on your account and the size of your collection. Currently it’s limited to 20,000 songs and if you want to opt out of the beta, you can do it here.

Music apps

We’ve covered what you get in the Music apps before, both in our Honeycomb coverage and in our Music v3 coverage, so we won’t bore you with all the additional information here and just stick to the additional Music Beta elements in both apps. We tested it on the Motorola Xoom and the HTC Sensation.

In both cases you can choose in the settings what music you see. You can opt to only view offline music, i.e., that which is locally stored, so if you find yourself without a connection you don’t have to look at all the music you can’t get to.

You can opt to download/make offline tracks, so if you want to move tracks to your device over Wi-Fi rather than trying to constantly stream them you are free to do so. Strangely we found you could only opt to “make available offline” at the album level, so you can pick a single song from an album.

  

Essentially the results on Gingerbread and Honeycomb are the same, as the music apps look and behave in a very similar manner, although we found that Honeycomb would let us shop for an artist (a Google search, there is no Google Music Store), which the Gingerbread app didn’t.

Recently played tracks are cached to the device and you can choose whether to restrict streaming and downloads to Wi-Fi only, to save your 3G allowance.

Sounds sweet?

Over Wi-Fi we found no problems with streaming tracks, which started quickly. Thankfully you also get to see the buffered state in the playback bar, so you’ll know if you have a connection problem along the way.

We mentioned earlier that we kept iTunes music on network storage. The reason for this was to lighten to load on local storage. The downside, of course, is that when you leave the house you don’t have access to your music.

Music Beta by Google changes all that. iTunes as a music player is now superfluous, we don’t need it at home and we now have access to music when we are on the move too, because it’s sitting in the cloud. It’s also available to us on Android devices (or will be when it hits the UK), so we don’t need to move the whole lot to a phone or worry about sticking it on a memory card. Of course there is fierce competition from elsewhere, like Spotify or Amazon Cloud Player, but at least there is choice.

There are some elements we’d like to see enhanced. We’ve noticed that Gracenote is mentioned across Music Beta but some albums appeared with cover art (despite having it in iTunes). We’d like to see some management tools too as we’ve seen some split albums, with the odd track sitting on its lonesome.

We’re sure that there will be other problems that crop up - we’re not sure how large changes to collections will be handled, or how it will deal with duplicates (if at all). From what we’ve seen so far, Music Beta by Google could prove to be really popular, if it's not kiboshed by pricing in the future. It might not appeal to audiophiles, but conveniencephiles should be all over it.



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