Until recently, Google’s Play Music streaming feature was one of the company’s few markets where it didn’t face strong, direct competition from Apple. But just like everything the Cupertino-company does, it has taken its own sweet time to finally launch a product we always knew was coming. And as always, the company claims it has done things differently, with a more human element.
Let’s get one thing straight before the comparison begins: Apple Music is a beefed-up version of Beats Music. It has taken what was great about the Beats service, expanded its feature set and brought it to the mass market. It was Beats that had this human element nailed down before Tim Cook & Company ponied up the $3 billion to buy the entire Beats company, including its headphones and speakers. Google Play Music was more of a response to the market in offering a streaming service to go alongside its digital music store.
Looking on the surface, like most music streaming subscriptions, you get to make playlists, stream “radio” stations based on genre and browse or search for artists. Where I think Apple Music wins is in its selection of suggested artists, albums, and curated playlists. So far, I’ve listened to Apple Music almost solidly for 2-3 days. Each day I’m served up a fresh selection of music to try out in my “For You” tab, which bases suggestions on stuff you like, and stuff you REALLY like. What’s been particularly great is that I’ve found more previously unheard songs, albums and artists in those three days than I had in a year of Spotify previously.
Apple also offers up introductions to artists it thinks you’ll like by suggesting custom playlists, or entire albums. It basically takes all the work out of finding new music.
With Google Music, it learns your music habits over time. The sad and frustrating part for me was that because I happened to listened to a specific genre radio station, its suggestions for me then centered around that one single genre. While Apple Music asks you for what you like right at the beginning and is immediately useful, Google Music takes a lot of listening before its algorithm-based suggestions are worth using. But that’s not to say they aren’t useful.
The one thing Apple’s Music has which most other streaming services don’t is an actual radio station. Beats 1 serves up DJ’d music, interviews, and more 24/7. It’s always on, always churning out music. I’m not a radio listener by tradition. In fact, I avoid it when I can. But Apple’s Beats 1 is very different to the usual commercial radio I’ve listened to in the past. It’s not just the popular tracks being played on repeat constantly. Instead, it feels much more considered and curated. Which I guess is what you get using renowned DJs like Zane Lowe. The only problem is one I have with all radio: I don’t choose what I listen to. I like being able to skip past tracks I don’t like, or putting the ones I love on repeat constantly.
As for the video side, Apple and Google have their own approach to music videos. Play Music has YouTube plugged in giving you access to all the official music videos uploaded to the VEVO channel. What’s more, if you’re paying for your account, you get them all ad-free.
To have an all-reaching music service there are some key criteria. First is that you need to reach as many platforms as possible. Second is that you have to reach as many people, in as many geographical locations as possible. Right now, Google’s music offering may just have the upper hand in this regard.
I can access Google Play Music and play it through the browser on my Mac or PC. The music app is installed on every Android phone, and is available on the iOS App Store. Google’s music subscription services are available in over 60 countries too. Much of Europe is included, as is North America, Central and South America as well as Australia and New Zealand. Chances are, if you have a computing device of any kind, you can access Google Music as long as you have a Google account.
As for Apple Music, at time of writing, it’s a little more limited. It’s only accessible through a native app. On your PC or Mac desktop, that’s iTunes. On your iOS device, that’s the new Music app, but if you have an Android phone or tablet, you can’t use it yet. Apple says the app is coming later this fall, but it’s not here yet. Apple has a huge list of countries where Apple Music will be available. Right now that list includes 100+ countries.
Both services have the clear stamp of their makers on design. Google’s Music is all Material-flavored with layers, cards, shadows and flat, contrasting icons and text. Some of it looks like someone got a little excited about being allowed to color in orange. Apple has a very different approach to the way it’s organized.
As general looks and interface go, I actually prefer the way Google Music looks and is organized on mobile. With Google Music on mobile, switching modes means going to the ever-faithful hamburger menu on the side. It’s not exactly hard to do, but it’s not as obvious and intuitive as Apple’s method. That said, when looking at new albums and releases, it helps having the sidebar. There’s nothing distracting you from the album art onscreen, laid out in neat little Material-style cards. Things tend to get a little messy in the browser, however, as the responsive design fights to stay looking pretty when you adjust the browser window size.
On mobile and desktop, Apple’s looks pretty in places. You’d expect no less from a company that places such high value on art and design. “For You” suggestions are laid out in screen-wide rows with background colors that match the album art. Switching between radio, playlist suggestions, library music and the social platform, Connect, is as easy as pressing the icon on the bottom of your iPhone’s UI (or top bar on desktop iTunes). Go to radio, however, and you get a screen that has far too much white space alongside weird, non-aligned formatting. It’s almost as if the designers couldn’t figure out which parts should be justified to the left and in the center, then decided to go with both. It looks weird to me. Just like the Notes and Reminders iOS apps, it’s almost as if Apple decided to not to focus any energy or attention on perfecting it.
Neither service has the perfect selection of music. Beatles fans will be disappointed that neither offers a full selection of the Fab Four’s tracks to stream. There’s the odd song here and there, but nothing approaching the full catalogue. Apple Music has Taylor Swift’s 1989 which is the streaming industry’s Holy Grail of 2015. Saying that, both libraries boast around 30 million songs. Complaining about their size then seems very first world problem-y.
Switching to music quality, and specifically bitrate, Google Play Music adjusts the streaming quality based on your internet connection, as will most streaming services. If you have a great connection, you’ll be able to hit a bitrate of 320kbps. Apple’s maxes out at 256kbps (according to unconfirmed reports). Chances are, you probably won’t notice the difference between them when listening through your in-ear headphones, or regular speaker system. I know I certainly struggle to pick one as a clear winner when listening.
There was an interesting interview with Tim Cook last year, after the company had bought Beats. Obviously, the question centered around why Apple paid $3 billion for that firm. His response mostly centered around the Beats Music streaming service and the team that worked on it. Paraphrased (from memory) he said something like “it feels different, it’s hard to explain, but they’ve got something here.” And that’s how I’m left feeling after listening to Apple Music.
Curated playlists feel like they have a natural wave, a narrative. Almost like an album with a beginning, middle and end.
With Google’s offering, it just feels like another streaming service. It doesn’t “feel” any different than anything else out there. Yes it’s full-featured, has tons of songs and is playable on just about any connected device out there, but the listening experience, and the emotion attached don’t keep me hooked.
Both Google and Apple offer free trials to their service. Google’s lasts 30 days, while Apple is offering 3 whole months. After that, it’s the standard $10 per month fee for individuals. There is a free tier on both, but you’re limited to listening to radio only.
Where Apple wins here is that it has a $15 per month family tier too. You can have up to 6 shared Apple ID accounts linked to yours and everyone can enjoy everything Apple Music has to offer. As a family man, this is a huge win for me.
The long and short of this is that Google Music – as of right now – is probably the most far-reaching and useful music streaming service of the two. Almost anyone with a smartphone or computer can use it, regardless of whether they’re on iOS or Android. It has the same amount of music to listen to, and easy access to the best of the best music videos.
That said, with Apple’s attention to the art and emotion of music, it has the potential to wipe the floor with every service out there. But it needs to expand and be more diverse. I’d love to see a web player launched alongside an Android App. Then it’d be practically unstoppable.
Ask around most of the 9to5 team and we’ll generally say the same thing. Apple’s Music is great when it comes to curation of lists. Google is great because it’s available on more devices.
As an Android/Google fan, I don’t mind appreciating what Apple has done here. I just really, really need it to land on my Nexus 6 like, yesterday.