Google Music Beta: first impressions

It’s silly to complain about technological inconveniences these days, and I’m not about to. But I have to admit that, despite the amazing capability we have to carry around the stunning performances of brilliant musicians, valuable spoken words of inspiring public figures, or an author’s inimitable reading of their masterpiece tome–centuries worth of valuable contributions to civilization–I don’t really bother to manage my music/audio library across devices. I just don’t have the time. It’s rare enough that I’ll find myself in a situation, outside of lying in bed at night, that I’ll have a moment to just listen to my phone. When I do, talk radio quickly does the trick. When I’m driving, I often have navigation running or am having a conversation. Sadly, I’m no longer a big fan of mobile music. What happened? I wonder how much of this is simply because I don’t go to the negligible trouble of making my library available: choosing which tracks to bring, maintaining a fresh rotation, syncing.

Even if I think that my schedule no longer affords me listening time as I’m running errands or hurrying through the day, I’ve wondered if having my entire collection available to me at all times via virtually any device would affect my listening habits. Though I’m only a day into the experience, I have to say that a Google Music Beta invite, which arrived yesterday, is already proving to chip away at those little justifications for neglecting my once beloved collection of music and other audio. So far, the key has been a simple, one-time setup. I went through a brief installation of the Google Music Manager on my laptop, and grabbed the Music Player from the Android Market for several devices, and 24 hours later, torrents of long forgotten gems are perking up my aural sensibilities, and new, free music is keeping things interesting. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It started with a Google Music Beta invite, which I signed up for a couple of weeks ago (US only at this point). After a quick login, I downloaded the Google Music Manager for my Mac. A few seconds later, I was selecting which directories I wanted included for an initial upload to the cloud, and, at my discretion, to be monitored for future changes.

Wow, over 9,000 songs. Aside from an accidental reference to a Dragon Ball Z meme, for which I feel nothing, I was impressed by the size of my collection. And a bit worried about the time it would take to upload it. But that was just an initial scan that included my DRM-crippled tracks from iTunes. After some thought, Google recalculated the total and came up with a little over 5,000 tracks that were suitable for upload. That translates into several days of constant uploading, but this is intelligently done in the background, causing no interference with daily computing. At least not with my upgraded Comcast connection. Your mileage may vary. And once the upload is complete, apart from some occasional updates when I get new tracks, that’s it: My Google Music library has been set up.

Now to access it.

When using the Google Music Manager status menu or dedicated app, you have direct access to the online player. And considering that the online player displays links for GMail, Calendar, Photos, Reader, etc., in the top left corner of the page (in line with the navigation of all other Google web services), I think it’s very likely that we will be seeing a Music link in our nav shortcuts at Gmail, Calendar, etc. The point here being that Google Music is rapidly accessible from a number of Google environments, and probably will be turning up everywhere you see the company’s logo.

The online player itself is simple and functional. You have standard transport controls with thumbs up and thumbs down buttons for playlist generation. Tracks and albums can be shuffled and looped. Playlists can be generated by users or by Google. Library management is equally simple, and artists, albums and genres can be accessed via album art thumbnails while tracks are displayed in a text list. The interface is lightweight, and feels great in Chrome.

One feature I would like to see in a future release is auto-fetching of missing cover art. You know, for those albums you ripped into your system from old CDs. That’s where they came from, right?

Google’s approach to ensuring adoption includes offering up some free tracks to new members, presenting a list of genres to choose from as a welcome gift. These are instantly available after sign up and give users something to do while waiting for their libraries to be uploaded.

Once you have a good grip of your own tracks on board, you’ll want to test out the cloud-to-mobile service with an Android. The free Google Music app is the same one that’s been available for some months. But after signing up for Google Music Beta, launching the app, and waiting a minute or two, users will now see online content available for instant streaming.

So far, the quality I’ve experienced from the streams is very good. I would compare it to Amazon’s Cloud Player, though fidelity will certainly be a topic of discussion for audiophiles. The debate is the same as it always has been: convenience and economical access versus quality. I don’t expect to settle or even address such concerns here. For the vast majority of consumers, Google Music will satisfy.

In my opinion, Google Music is a big deal. I think it will change the way a lot of us view our collections. Eventually, social aspects will be implemented and Google will be offering a storage and sharing solution that might not compete directly with Apple, but could fill a gap that they have yet to properly address. And for those who avoid iTunes at all costs and choose Android for their mobile OS, Google Music will likely be the option for media management.

Get ready to rediscover your music. It’s coming with you this time–all of it.

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