I Tried Google Play Music, but Apple Music Still has my Heart
It seems I am rather unique in my love for Apple Music. While I am surrounded by people in my same world who have abandoned the service for competitors like Spotify and Google Play Music, I am having a blast over here in the Apple Music camp. But why am I happy when so many other people seem happier elsewhere? Is it Stockholm syndrome or am I just looking for something different in a music app?
I was a Spotify user for many years before Apple Music launched, so I know what that service is all about and it was never something I loved. It was the best streaming service at the time, but I always felt it was trying to make me listen to music differently than I wanted. I want to build a collection of music, but Spotify is much more geared towards building playlists (which I don’t do often) and listening to radio stations (again, something I don’t really do). Additionally, I have a lot of MP3s that I want to get into my streaming collection, and Spotify doesn’t allow this1.
Google Play Music seemed much more in line with what I want from a streaming music service. It allows me to build a collection and upload the music files on my hard drive into my collection. Since this is Google, the entire service runs in a web app on the desktop, and it’s a pretty great one. I sometimes listen to music at work and the ability to have all my music accessible without installing the Windows version of iTunes is a nice perk. Google seemed to be the better fit, so I went all in for a couple weeks and wanted to share my thoughts.
Is Google Play Music going to steal me away from the sweet embrace of Apple Music? No, but let me explain.
First the good
The apps are great on all platforms and things “just work”
When I hear people say “iTunes isn’t great because it’s an impossible task to combine a traditional MP3 music library with an online streaming service”, I just know they haven’t looked at Google Play Music. Play Music syncs over all the music from my Mac and integrates it seamlessly into my streaming library. Just like Apple Music, my music files are synced to Play Music when they’re added to iTunes on my desktop. It works quite well2, despite the agonizingly long time it takes my internet provided to upload 25,000+ songs.
Once you get into using the apps, you’ll find well-made, beautiful interfaces awaiting you. The iPhone app looks stellar and is the best combination I’ve seen of Google’s Material Design combined with iOS’s native input methods. Yes, the app looks very Android-y, but it behaves like an iOS app.
There is no desktop app, but the web app is more than capable of fulfilling all my needs. It takes a few seconds to load when you first go the page, but after that it’s blazing fast. There is one issue I have with the web player though:
That’s right, you need to install Flash to be able to play music on the site. If Chrome is your web browser or if you have Flash installed from many years ago, then this isn’t an issue. But if you’re proudly running a Flash-free computer, you are going to have to give that purity up if you want to use the web app.
If Apple Music shut down tomorrow, I would absolutely switch to Google Play Music. However, Apple is not shutting it down tomorrow, sooooo…that shouldn't be an issue.
Having my music collection on any computer with a browser
I listen to the vast majority of my music on my iPhone or Mac, so there typically isn't a problem getting access to it. However, I don't have iTunes on my computer at work so I can't listen to Apple Music there. If I'm at a friend or family member's computer I can't play a song for them either because I'm not going to sign into iTunes and delete their whole setup so I can listen to one thing.
Being able to got to https://play.google.com/music on any computer with a web browser is liberating! I think Apple has a better mobile experience, but Google definitely takes the lead when it comes to the desktop experience.
YouTube Red is a nice add on
I watch a good amount of YouTube and getting an ad-free YouTube experience as a free add on to my subscription is wonderful. I'd almost pay $10/month for the ad-free YouTube and just have Google Play Music as a fallback music library if something went wrong with Apple Music.
It's a little weird that Google is bundling these two services together, but I like it.
And now the reasons I’m sticking with Apple Music
Fewer great suggestions
I get more "oh yeah, that album!" and "I really should listen to these guys more" moments than I do with any other music service. Apple Music prompts me with 3 human-curated playlists that I usually find interesting and 6 albums that are similar to what music I've been favoring lately. These picks aren't always perfect, but they are a great jumping off point more often than not.
Google Play Music has a similar first-launch experience where it shows some suggested radio stations and things I've been listening to recently. They also have an "I'm Feeling Lucky Radio" which is actually a pretty decent way to throw caution to the wind and just have Google pick some tracks you may like.
Both of these apps do a pretty good job of guiding me towards something if I don't know what I want to listen to. They're certainly both better than Spotify's, which is basically a dump of thousands of songs that maybe, hopefully you'll like. Google does a good job at getting me to things I might find interesting, but it has not introduced me to as much new music as Apple Music.
Worse algorithms and too much radio
Google may be closer to how my brain thinks about music, but it’s still more focused on radio stations and algorithmic guesses at what I would like to listen to.
When you launch the app on all platforms, you are greeted with a few different radio stations that you might be interested in. These collections are usually decent, but they’re pretty generic and don’t seem geared towards me. They all seem to be time based (workout and getting energized music in the morning, nightlife and chill music at night, etc.), and do have the right idea but they’re never as good as I’d hope.
And since these are all radio stations, there’s no way to choose the couple songs from a playlist I want to hear and skip the rest; I have to skip around until I find a track I want, then skip ahead until I find another good song. I would personally prefer to see a playlist and create a custom queue of songs that I know are going to play in that order. Maybe I’m more particular about my music than other people, but this is one things that Apple Music lets me do and Google Play simply doesn’t do as well.
A more sparse interface
I love the way Google app looks, but its data density is incredibly low. This is most apparent on the artists page where Google displays each artist in a massive bubble that occupies 1/4 of the entire viewable space.
Google displays 4 artists at a time on my screen, and Apple displays 8. I'm not saying more is always better, but I find it way harder to browse through artists on Play Music than it is on Apple Music.
This holds up through the rest of the interface, with Google typically showing you less on screen at once than Apple. Again, that's not always a good thing, but in this case it seems like Google is being wildly inefficient with interface elements.
My time with Google Play Music has not been a total loss, and unlike Spotify I am keeping it installed on my iPhone. I'll likely stop paying got the service at the end of the month, but I think it's a very good alternative to Apple Music for people who are looking for similar things as me.
I don't think Google gets enough credit for coming out of the gate with a pretty great music streaming service that syncs well with your current MP3 collection. They have achieved some things people on the Apple side will tell you are impossible, and they've done it in a way that works well on a Mac, Windows PC, iOS, or Android device. Apple Music is a better fit for me, but if Apple Music has burned you in the past, try Google Play Music out and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
- It used to have a weird Wifi sync you could do between your Mac and phone, but it never worked well and it was too big of a pain in the ass to ever use seriously. ↩
- I’m prepared for emails telling me all the terrible things Google Play Music has screwed up on their side, but that simply has not been my experience. ↩