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In Depth Review on Google Music Beta E-mail
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Written by Dean Neitman   
Sunday, 17 July 2011 16:16
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music beta by GoogleAs the battle of the cloud players ramps up, I have been slowly taking a dip into the pool and testing one of the more popular offerings, Google Music Beta. I have had it for a few weeks now and ready to give my first impression of the new beta service.

First, I am loving that the service is free currently. Considering it is still beta, not sure how long this will last. I am really curious how much they will charge once the service is out of the beta program.

Also love the 20,000 song limit. This allows me to upload my entire 14,000 song collection and have access to it through the net. I currently have over 12,400 songs in the cloud and another 1,600 songs waiting.

With a limited DSL upload rate, this has taken me a few weeks to accomplish. I have been allowing the uploader to push songs during sleeping and working hours when I don't need the bandwidth. During week day evenings and weekend daytime, I terminate the upload so I can use the bandwidth for web browsing and other net functions.

What are the requirements? For operating systems, a Mac user will need at least OS X 10.5 or newer and Windows users will need Windows XP or newer. The music player will need Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer 7 and newer browsers. Javascript must be enabled in the browser except Google Chrome and user will also need the latest version of Adobe Flash Player installed and enabled. To run the mobile app for Android, the user will need to run Android 2.2 and newer with OpenGL2.0.

How does it work? For the most part, everything seems to work great just as it should. There are a few things I believe could be improved upon and a few features that could be added, however. This is to be expected though of a totally new service still in its beta stage.

One of the things that works great is the Music Manager which is responsible for scanning your music collection. You install as an application on your computer. On my iMac, it was installed as a system preference. To access it, the user just needs to navigate to system preferences and select it where they will see several options.

Alternately, you can access the Music Manager by a little headphone icon in Apple's OS X menu bar at the top. Here, it displays amount of songs uploaded and total songs found according where it was told to search upon installation. It is possible to access the Music Manger preferences also found in the system preferences (Mac) quickly by selecting 'Preferences...' here. The drop down menu also has links to take you to the browser based music player page as well as links for 'Run troubleshooter', 'Help' and 'Quit'. Quit totally exits the Music Manager and the headphone icon will disappear. You will need to visit system preferences once again or double click the actual application or alias stored on the computer to activate it again.

You have the option to point it to a folder or directory for scanning or ask it to scan your iTunes library as I did. This worked great. Not only did it add music in my iTunes library, but it also added playlists I had created in iTunes as well. It also carried over artwork for any album that was available and it included my ranking which it converted to a thumb up icon if ranking was high enough. Another piece of metadata it carried over from iTunes was the amount of plays each track has accumulated. This shown next to the rating in the player window.

If you happen to have multiple computers, you can install the Music Manager on both computers and all songs will be merged in the cloud. Nice feature if you find you have different music on your laptop, desktop computer or phone.

Music Beta Screenshot

Navigation is dead simple in the Google Music layout. Once you log in, you will notice the normal Google navigation at the top with links to Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Photos, Reader, Web, and more listed to the left and account links to the right. Rather than the dark bar background, usually seen in other Google services, there is a white background with a diagnal pattern that ties into the other design elements from the Google Music home layout.

The left side of the home page has additional navigation options called 'My Library' much like you would see in iTunes. It starts off with 'New and recent' which is the initial screen you see to the right when you login to the service. These are your most recent additions to the library. Then you will notice links for 'Songs', 'Artists', 'Albums' and 'Genres' listed below that for additional total library navigation.

Below those library links, a section labeled 'AUTO PLAYLISTS' rests with additional nav links 'Thumbs up', 'Recently added' and 'Free Songs'. 'Thumbs up' link will show you all the tracks which were either given a thumb up icon rating within Google Music or tracks with high ratings carried over from iTunes. Nice way to see the good stuff quickly. 'Recently added' is much like the 'New and recent' linked area except more songs are shown in a list by track vs. the album cover layout. 'Free songs' is a nice additional way to discover new music. Here you will find a list of tracks available from various artists which you can play just like they were part of your libary. These songs can also be added to any playlist in your libary as well.

Being a new member to Google+ I noticed that my 'Dean+' link was not at the top like within Gmail sadly. I hope this will be added later. I would actually like to see the Google Music integrated with Google+ more too. Would be nice to have it post new uploads or liked songs to my Google+ post feed. I have my Last.fm favorites set to post to Facebook and Twitter via RSS feed for example.

Below those links is a very interesting section called 'INSTANT MIXES'. I had to do some research to understand the purpose and technology behind this offering. According to Google's Research Blog...

Instant Mix, is a playlist generator developed by Google Research. Instant Mix uses machine hearing to extract attributes from audio which can be used to answer questions such as “Is there a Hammond B-3 organ?” (instrumentation / timbre), “Is it angry?” (mood), “Can I jog to it?” (tempo / meter) and so on. Machine learning algorithms relate these audio features to what we know about music on the web, such as the fact that Jimmy Smith is a jazz organist or that Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade are similar artists. From this we can predict similar tracks for a seed track and, with some additional sequencing logic, generate Instant Mix playlists from songs in a user’s locker.

Very cool. In a nutshell, it is something comparable to Apple's Genious mode but maybe a bit more sophisticated. A nice addition if you are in the mood for hearing a certain style of music but don't have a ready made playlist to play from.

Finally comes the 'PLAYLISTS' section. If you imported your music from iTunes, you should see all of your playlists from iTunes listed here. If not, don't fear because you can easily create new playlists within Google Music too.

Adding songs to existing playlists is a very simple process. You can use the popular drag and drop method just by grabbing a track from a list on the right and dragging it on to your playlist to the left or you can use the hidden menu that flies out just to the right of the track title. To access the menu, simply hover over a track and a little triangle should appear at the end of the track title space. Click this icon once will activate the menu with options to play song, make an instant mix, add song to playlist, edit song info, remove from playlist, and shop this artist. The song count and total time for each playlist selected can be seen in the upper right hand corner just about the track list. Just above that you will also notice the total songs added to the library as a whole.

You will find one of these fly out menus near the bottom right of the album art pic when viewing an album track list as well. It will give you added option to add the current album to a new or defined playlist as well as 'Playback album', 'Edit album info', 'Delete album' or 'Shop this artist'.

The 'Shop this artist' option mentioned previously doesn't take you to Apple's music store nor does it go to Google affiliated music store. It actually does a web search and displays many options to purchase the music from the artist. It lists prices for online and nearby stores. Clicking the online option shows you a list of many retailers selling the desired music along with ratings and prices. A very nice feature if you are looking to get music outside of iTunes.

The music list on the right shows table data of the tracks much like iTunes and other music programs. It shows name, time, artist, album, plays and rating. You are able to sort the music list just by clicking a category much like most of the other programs as well. You are not able to customize which categories are viewed and which are not and you cannot rearrange their placement unfortunately.

Where are the player controls? They are located at the bottom of the screen in a brown bar that spans the entire width of the website in the browser and remains stuck to bottom sliding over the navigation on the left and the track list to the right. You will find the basic controls, a button for previous, play (or pause depending on current state), and next track on the far left side.

On the far right side, you will find buttons with icons for a thumbs up, or thumbs dow for rating tracks. To the right of those icons, 3 additional buttons with icons representing shuffle, repeat and volume are found.

If a track is being played or in a pause state, the track will be displayed in the middle of that bottom bar with an icon for album cover, the song title, and artist name. Included with this info is a timeline bar to show track progress with time played and total track time at the end. Clicking on the timeline marker will allow you to move forward or backward within the track.

Google was nice enough to allow several methods to start playback of music. You can use the controls at the bottom mentioned above to start music playback or a person can just as easily double click a track to start playback. Also, let's not forget the 'Play song' menu option at the end of each track that pops up on click too. You will know that playback has started when a bouncing levels icon appears at the beginning of a track and its name appears on the control bar at the below.

Currently, only the Andriod mobile device has an app available for use with Google Music Beta. I am hoping a version will soon be available for the iPhone. That could be a deciding factor for myself when Google starts asking for money for their service.

Currently, I can playback songs from the website interface from Safari on the iPhone but the process leaves a lot to be desired. To get any playback, I always must start playback and then pause and start playback again before anything will stream. Also, if internet congestion or poor signal are encountered, the playback stops. Sometimes it will start back on it's own but it moves to the next track and doesn't resume the song it chugged on. This becomes really frustrating when you find yourself only getting to hear first minute or so of a series of songs in your playlist.

Another disadvantage to using the website for playback on the iPhone is no mobile designed layout for the website which means everything is really small and you will likely find yourself zooming a lot to make navigation and viewing easier. Some of the buttons will be difficult to activate unless zoomed as well due to their size.

When I learned that Google was limiting storage to amount of songs and not file size, I wondered if this meant high bitrate encoded songs would be smashed to make streaming easier and it seems this is what happens. Some of my better quality mp3's sound a bit thin and probably encoded to 96/kbs or 128/kbs most likely for better streaming.

Is this cloud storage good for backup? Yes and no. It is nice to have music remotely located in case drives fail but you will not be able to retrieve that music back to your home computer without using an app to high jack a stream while plays and record it back to the hard drive. Google has nothing implemented to allow you to download any of the stored music and if they did, you would likely be downloading music that might be lower quality than the songs you uploaded originally.

Another factor to consider is allowed music formats. Google music currently only accepts .mp3, .m4a, .wma, and .flac. Not all .m4a formats are accepted though. Apple's lossless ALAC formatted .m4a are not supported. Currently, I have over 200 songs that the Google Music Manager reported that it would not upload. I am guessing these are purchased songs from iTunes that I didn't convert to .mp3 as I normally do.

If you are an Android user, you have additional formats for songs that the Google Music app on your device will play that are not supported by playback in the web browser on a computer. The Android app supports the .m4a (iTunes application AAC, DRM-free), AMR, MIDI and OGG Vorbis formats.

Any problems with the service? The only problem I have witnessed involved incorrect album art for a few tracks but that is the only issue in my experience. A quick glance through Google's documented known issues lists my problem along with a problem of not retaining changes made on the day of July 14, 2011. It also lists problems with songs repeating in the Android music app as well as the browser based music player.

Overall, I am really enjoying the service. It is nice having my music on the web for instant access for those times when something out of the norm is desired. I do hope they will add more features such as more social media integration and ability to download tracks but it's off to a great start. I am also looking forward to a dedicated app for my iPhone where I will use it most.

Dean Neitman Written on Sunday, 17 July 2011 16:16 by Dean Neitman

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