Google Music Beta walkthrough: what it is and how it works (video)

We made a few predictions about Google's (then-presumed) music service in our streaming roundup last week, and thanks to the inability of an undisclosed amount of labels to take a whiff of whatever El Goog was cooking, it looks as if we've been left with something less robust, but nevertheless intriguing. It's worth taking a glance at our team editorial on Music Beta by Android to get a feel of what could've been, but the reality is this: what was launched today is what we've been dealt, and now it's time to break things down and see how it actually functions in practice.

Care to have a look at a full installation walkthrough, problem reports and two more pennies on how the service stacks up? That, along with tips on fulfilling your hopes and dreams, are tucked away just after the break.

The premise

For those following along during this morning's keynote, it's possible that you may have your noodle wrapped around what exactly Google's first foray into music streaming purports to offer. For everyone else, your noodle's probably just plain baked. Music Beta by Google isn't terrifically complicated -- at its core, it's a vast online music locker that relies heavily on the cloud to deliver happiness. It's eerily similar to what Amazon rolled out earlier this year with Cloud Player, and can be considered a Dropbox or mSpot that's specifically enhanced for music delivery. Very much unlike Amazon's offering, however, Google wasn't able to nail down agreements with major record labels that would allow it to also sell music. In truth, the simplicity here (not to mention the seamless integration with existing Google accounts) is apt to bring a smile to the faces of casual music listeners. It's the power users who may end up demanding more.

Due to the record labels failing to bite, you'll never actually buy a track or album through this new service; should you choose to select "Shop for Artist" within it, you'll simply be taken to a Media portal over at Google's website. Hardly an elegant solution, but it's stark proof that Google's going to do what Google does even if labels aren't willing to play ball. We were told here at I/O that the search giant was in discussions with unnamed labels, presumably in an effort to bundle in a music store, but that none of them were willing to sign up for the terms put forth. Rather than scraping the whole idea, Google's giving users an online hub to stock up to 20,000 tracks at any bitrate, and at least for now, it's free.

What's it cost?

"At least while it's in beta, the service is free." That's the exact line spilled during the opening keynote at this year's I/O, and it's just about as telling as a quote could be. Google's happy to hand you gigabytes upon gigabytes of cloud storage for now, but chances are you'll have to pony up in order to keep things there once the beta label is yanked. The company's keeping a tight lid on prospective pricing plans, but it'll be remarkably interesting to see how things play out given Google's baseline: song quantity. In contrast, Amazon, Dropbox and mSpot rely on capacity limits, and in reality, Google's the first big-shot company in this space to measure things differently. The beta allows for 20,000 tracks at any bitrate to be uploaded; beyond that, we're expecting Google to launch a tiered pricing model for even more songs, but it's unclear if the company's mulling a free option for those with just a handful of songs -- you know, 5,000 or so.

What's supported?

Glad you asked! As for file formats, you can upload MP3, AAC, WMA and FLAC files. Outside of that, you're totally out of luck. That's a pretty big pitfall -- this means that APE lovers won't be making use of this without converting their library to a compressed format, and ex-Apple users will likely be frustrated by the service's inability to understand M4P (Apple DRM) and M4A (Apple Lossless) files. Oh, and did we mention that any FLAC files you upload are transcoded to 320kbps MP3s? Yeah. Granted, that's not totally unexpected given that it's a wee bit difficult to stream a 20MB version of "Joints and Jams," but we can still feel our eardrums tearing up a bit.

It's also worth noting that your cloud library can be accessed from any PC that you're willing to login to, but only eight total devices can be authorized to stream from it. Thankfully, you can easily de-authorize stale devices from the web, and for the vast majority of humans, we're guessing that limit will never be breached.

As you'd probably expect, this is Android-only for now, and we're surmising that's how it'll always be. Your device must be running Android 2.2 or above with Open GL ES 2.0, and in our testing, it ran just fine on both Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). The app itself is available right now in the Android Market for zilch, but of course, cloud functions are useless until you're allowed into the beta. That's an invite-only affair for now, but you can press your luck by applying right here.


So, you've made it into the beta. Time to celebrate with a case of Four Loko. Here's what happens next: you'll need to download yet another application onto your computer, this one dubbed Music Manager. Given our distaste for iTunes, having to install a Google-mandated piece of music software left us feeling downright nauseous. We get it -- there's no feasible way for folks to upload gigabytes of music through a browser, but tossing yet another piece of software onto our machine wasn't what we were hoping for. Thankfully, it's pretty unintrusive -- we'll dive in deeper here in a bit.

After powering through a few pages of agreements, you're given the option to clutter your impending library with a hodgepodge of "free tracks." Thanks, but no thanks. From there, you're given the "option" to download Music Manager. It's not optional. The web interface is good for only a few things: managing what devices are authorized, viewing / searching through the music you've uploaded, and actually playing back what's in the cloud.

Onto Music Manager: you'll be given the option to upload tracks from iTunes, another music folder of your choosing, or "Other folders." Once you select that, you'll have the following question posed: "Do you want to update your Music library automatically with new songs you add to iTunes?" We selected "no," and forged ahead -- we prefer being able to manually manage as many things as possible, but "yes" is there for those who have better things to do than sweat the small stuff. Just over 2,100 songs were scanned and located in under a minute, and from there, we were dumped into the Music Player portion of the software with no further options. Uncool.

Let us explain -- you are given no control whatsoever over what's uploaded after you've selected iTunes or a folder. In other words, if you've got a couple of duplicate albums, or a few B-side records you'd rather not waste bandwidth on, you best relocate those before mashing "Go." That's terribly annoying for power users. Even more annoying is the inability to pause uploading once Music Manager starts its journey; you can quit it entirely or select a throttled upload option. That'll be plenty for most, but again, we're craving control here. It's also worth pointing out that music cannot actually be played within Music Manager; there's a button that launches the web portal if you're looking to actually hear anything, and you'll need Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer 7+ to play things back properly.

The Music app for Android

If you're rocking Froyo or Gingerbread, you've probably got a Music app from Google. Get ready to have it replaced. The new version, which can be downloaded from the Android Market today at no charge, changes up the UI quite significantly, and in more troubling news, makes no clear indication about what music is local and what music is hosted in the cloud. We've no real qualms with the design overhaul, but not being able to easily see what's cloud-based and what's local is a huge oversight. Let's ponder an example: you're cruising down the freeway using your Android smartphone as your in-car jukebox. You hand the phone to your backseat driver to make the next selection, and they just so happen to select a cloud track as you're driving out of service. Obviously, you're in for some confusion -- confusion that could be avoided if cloud tracks were simply colored differently.

Over on the Honeycomb side, things look a wee bit different. We tested the Music app (v3.0.338) on our Galaxy Tab 10.1 Limited Edition -- which required an immediate update -- and found a few more options. You can choose to hide unavailable music, but not hide cloud-stored music. In theory, these are the same things, but music that's technically "available" over Edge does a real-world user little good; we'd prefer an option to simply hide, or more easily discern, cloud-based content. You can also choose to stream and download music via WiFi only, saving those with 3G tablets from exceeding their data allotments on something as silly as uploading a cadre of FLAC-encoded Dr. Dre records. We can definitely get down with those options, but we found ourselves longing for even more.

Beyond that, it's a pretty vanilla music app. It's easy to sort by artist, genre, album, song, playlist and "New and Recent," and the search function worked shockingly well -- even while parsing cloud tracks. It's decently easy to select albums or songs for offline storage; just hit the arrow dropdown beside either and select the Pin beside "Available offline." Choosing the "Shop for artist" option, as we mentioned before, simply redirects you to, tossing you out of the Music app entirely and leaving a pretty puzzled look on your face while your browser loads.

Now's as good a time as any to point out the obvious: there's a glaring lack of multitouch support in this app. You can't swipe left / right to go track-to-track, and we'd love a two- or three-finger swipe to take you back to the album or artist. These seem like fairly simple things to include, and we're desperately hoping to see 'em added in future builds. As it stands, you'll spend an inordinate amount of time moving your finger to the "Back" button, all while longing to use familiar gestures to move to and fro.

For what it's worth, Google has managed to nail the notifications. It's easy to shift out of the Music app while keeping a song playing in the background, and even Pinned items are given a dedicated taskbar icon where you can check the download status.

User experience

We've given you hints as to what we'd tweak if given the design keys to the newfangled Music Beta service, but here's the low-down: Google's first effort in this universe is a valiant one, but there's still a ton to improve on. In truth, this feels like something that was thrown together in the past few months, with the final touches tossed in just weeks ago after heated discussions with labels fell through. We're speculating, of course, but you can trust that the prominent Beta marker here is well deserved. We never experienced a full-on app crash, and to be honest, performance was snappy on both the Tab 10.1 and our (aged) Nexus One. But that's not to say we didn't have our fair share of issues.

Even for a barebones app with far too few options, we stumbled upon quite a few head-scratching moments while interacting with it. Upon loading it up on our media-less Tab 10.1, we were greeted with a dialog screen stating the following:

"Your music library is empty. Connect your device to your computer with a USB cable to copy music files to your device. If you have a Macintosh, download the free Android File Transfer application to your computer first."

We're guessing this is there due to the fact that not everyone will be taking advantage of Music Beta (read: some folks will only want to load up tunes locally), but an adjustment here to let first-time users know that they need to initiate a music upload on their computer before having access to cloud-stored tracks wouldn't hurt. As it stands, it's easy to assume that tunes must first be loaded onto a device, where they'd be launched into the cloud from there.

After around five minutes of uploading, our tablet finally recognized that we had a Music Beta account that could be connected. Two clicks later, and we were in. From there, early tracks began to appear in near real-time, allowing us to start streaming right away. We definitely noticed a slight delay when beginning to stream music, even over WiFi, but after the initial hiccup our tunes began caching quite quickly, and once tracks were finished loading we could hop from one point to another or replay previous songs just as if they were stored locally. What's more, we found Google Music would begin caching the next track in an album or playlist as soon as it finished loading the last, and by the time we were done listening to the first song we had three completely downloaded.

We also had a strange issue when trying to sync up our tablet and smartphone at the same time. So far as we can tell, only one device can be synced at a time. While our tablet was on and streaming, our smartphone refused to recognize our online library. Of course, this could've been a glitch that only occurs when trying to setup two devices for the first time -- after rebooting both units, cloud-based songs began to quietly populate both libraries without issue.

Sound quality

Here's a big one -- is there any noticeable sound degradation when listening to streamed music? During the initial I/O keynote, it was briefly mentioned that the app could slash the bitrate based on network congestion and available bandwidth -- basically, it'll automatically degrade sound quality for the sake of keeping the stream alive if necessary. We're happy to report that our test tracks sounded as good as ever, even while streaming over a Verizon Wireless 3G hotspot in an already saturated corner of San Francisco.

Frankly, we were shocked at just how great everything sounded; to the untrained ear, you'll never be able to tell streamed tracks apart from MP3s -- unless, of course, you fall to Edge or hit a WiFi network that's already being hammered. You could obviously download an album or track locally in order to prevent stuttering or quality loss, but if you're already dealing with a slow connection, attempting to suck entire records down will only heighten your frustration.

The bandwidth problem

And this, folks, is the elephant in the room, and it's the same one seen in Amazon's closet. A near-limitless cloud of music sounds stellar -- particularly while it's still priced at $0.00 -- but the toll it'll take on your broadband limits cannot be ignored. 20,000 songs is a ton of information, even if every last one is encoded at a measly 128kbps. Let's say each of your tunes is 3MB -- that's most likely a conservative figure, but we'll use it for the sake of this example. 20,000 of those lands you at around 60GB. For the average broadband user, it'll take days -- if not a full week or so -- to upload that much material, and if you're using a vanilla Time Warner Cable connection, it'll paralyze your web surfing all the while. Granted, you can manually throttle your Music uploads within Music Manager, but doing so will greatly increase the time it takes to get your library in the cloud.

For the growing number of consumers faced with monthly bandwidth caps from the likes of Comcast, 60GB represents a sizable chunk of the usual 250GB allotment. Plan your uploads carefully if we're speaking to you. If you're even thinking about starting this over 3G, we'd urge you to strongly reconsider. Even those so-called "unlimited plans" aren't designed to handle this kind of load, and we'd be shocked if you didn't get a stern call from your carrier should you attempt to upload even a portion of your library through WWAN.

But that's not even the primary issue; the issue comes after those tracks are safely up in the air. Google's giving you a way to listen to your entire library on the go, but at the same time, seems to be glossing over the fact that it'll require a significant amount of data to do so. If you're on a tiered data plan with a minute amount of data, and you start using this service heavily, you can go ahead and toss your historical usage data in the garbage. We'd evaluate your usage closely, and make any necessary plan changes before you blow past your allotment.

We're also wondering just how viable this solution is long-term. For those camped out in major metropolitan areas, you know all too well how difficult it is just to send a tweet when the towers are overloaded; how well is a music streaming service going to operate under those same dreadful conditions? One of the biggest problems we see with a cloud-based music locker is the ginormous YMMV label that simply has to be applied here -- you cannot promise customers any level of uptime, nor can you assure them that their experiences won't vary from hour to hour. We'll just put it out there -- you're putting an awful lot of faith on 3G networks should you decide to ditch local song storage and rely on cloud-based Music Beta for your everyday listening.

In our mind, this here service is best viewed as a complement to having your most listened-to tracks onboard your device, not an outright replacement. If you don't put yourself in a position where you rely on a wireless network for musical enjoyment, you're less likely to find yourself foiled.

The ideal situation that wasn't to be

After the novelty of the announcement wore off, we soon realized just how close Google was to creating our ideal streaming solution. Imagine if Music Beta could scan your iTunes library for tracks that you already own, and then ping a record label's servers to stream a song rather than forcing you to upload things first. What a lovely setup that'd be. Trouble is, labels won't ever allow it, as there's no feasible way to see if every track in your iTunes library was indeed procured via legal means. Was this type of dream scenario what Google had in mind just weeks ago? That's a question we may never truly know the answer to, but we have to hold out hope that the company will keep pushing for such an arrangement.


So, where does this leave us? In a better spot than we were yesterday, that's for sure, but still a country mile from having an end-all answer to our music streaming desires. Music Beta by Google is a slick, if not understated solution to hosting your own music in the cloud and then accessing it from wherever you have a decent internet connection. It's downright delightful for casual listeners who need a no-fuss option for hoisting their music into the cloud for access on-the-go, and they're able to use a device they're abundantly familiar with. But it's still a complementary app. There's just no real replacement to having your favorite tracks stored locally on your device, and we're eons from being in a universe where we'd trust cellular networks to deliver satisfactory streaming performance day in and day out.

The software itself has a ways to go, at least for demanding software users. A handful of advanced options are sorely needed, and users need more control over what's uploaded from the start. The whole thing reminds of us Android's early insistence on dumping your Google Contacts in with your manually added contacts -- it makes life simple for casual users, but really cramps the style of power users who'd prefer to have absolute control over integration.

Then, there's the looming issue of cost. Based on just how inexpensive it is to buy an extra 20GB of storage for use with Google Docs, Gmail and Picasa ($5 per year as of this writing), we're cautiously optimistic that Music won't cost two arms and three-quarters of a leg whenever the beta label is dropped. That said, Google has to know that stored

music will create a more serious uptick in bandwidth than, say, a stored Excel file. We're still unconvinced that Music -- in its current form -- will be worth more than a few bucks a month, and we're guessing that the company will more or less follow Amazon's Cloud Player pricing model. We'd also be remiss of our duties if we failed to point out that this is a US-only service for now. During a press Q&A, Andy Rubin confirmed that there aren't any far-flung licensing issues to blame; according to him, it's simply "hard" to nail a global launch, and it's better to throw something out into familiar territory before evaluating the needs of international markets.

If Google delivers a shockingly low price, it'll probably be worth ponying up just to keep a backup of your music that's easily accessible for streaming; otherwise, just pump up your Mozy volume and invest in a 32GB microSD card.