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Monday, May 23, 2011

First look: Google Music

One of the first services that Google unveiled at this week's Google I/O conference was its new cloud-based music player, Google Music. I've spend the last 12 hours using the beta of Google Music and for someone like me, with multiple PCs, a Mac, a Motorola Xoom and a Motorola Droid X, it's the Holy Grail of music players. Gone are the days of trying to copy and sync music from my main PC to everywhere else. Now, no matter where I am, as long as I've got Internet access, I've got access to my entire music collection.
If you're in the same situation as I am, find any way you can to wrangle aninvitation to the beta. It's simple to install, simple to use and eliminates the hassles inherent in trying to manage a large music collection across multiple devices.

Getting started

The idea behind Google Music is simple -- upload your music collection to a Google server and then access that music collection from the cloud using a PC, Mac or Android device. iPhone and iPad users look to be out of luck, at least for now, because Google hasn't developed an iOS app for Google Music, and the Web-based version requires Flash, which iOS doesn't support.
Google Music
Google Music makes it easy to upload your songs to the cloud.
You upload your collection via a Music Manager application that you download and install for either a Windows PC or a Mac. Google has made the upload process exceedingly simple. After installation, it asks whether you use iTunes or Windows Media Player for your music collection, and then automatically grabs and uploads all your music. If you prefer, you can tell it to grab music from only your music folder or from multiple other folders instead.
Your music uploads in the background; you can start listening immediately, even while the files upload. How long the upload takes will vary according to the size of your collection and your bandwidth. In my case, it took more than 13 hours to upload my nearly 2,200 music files.
Google Music handles MP3, AAC, WMA and FLAC formats, and lets you store up to 20,000 files. How much storage space that translates to will vary according to the average file size of your music. If your average file size per song is 3GB, for example, that would mean about 60GB of space.
This is significantly better than Amazon's recently released Amazon Cloud Player -- Amazon's player doesn't handle WMA and limits your total storage space to 5GB, regardless of the number of files. However, Amazon stores any kind of file, not just music -- and if you buy an MP3 album from Amazon, that limit goes up to 20GB. In addition, MP3 purchases from Amazon don't count against that limit. Apple users are out of luck here as well, because Google Music doesn't support M4P (Apple DRM) or M4A (Apple Lossless) files.

Music on your Android device

To listen to your music on your Android device, you'll need to head to the Android Market and download an update to the built-in music player. When you first run the updated player, you'll have to link it to your Google account. Cloud-based music shows up alongside music you've stored on the device, with no clear visual indication whether the music is on the device itself or available via the cloud. This is slightly disconcerting; it would be nice to be able to see at a glance what's local and what's not, because if you're in a location with a flaky connection, you may have some issues with streaming music. In addition, wireless providers may charge for bandwidth in the future, so you'd like to know whether you'll be streaming music or not.The player looks and works like the normal Android music app -- that is to say, functional with little sense of style. (While, as might be expected, the Music app looks different on a phone compared to a tablet, they are basically the same.)
At first, I ran into an odd anomaly. I had previously copied part of my music collection from my PC to my Motorola Xoom, and I noticed that those files I had copied were showing up twice -- once because they were on the device, and once because they were now also available via the cloud. But that turned out to be true only during the upload process -- after all files were uploaded, duplicate entries were automatically (and thankfully) eliminated.


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