Music check: Google versus Apple – Is that all? You can do better, Google!

Ok, I have been an iPhone user since I moved to Japan and got my first smart-phone ever. First a 3s, then a 4s, then a 5s that I dropped into the toilet, so I switched the SIM back into the 4s to have a working phone. Furthermore, I am a heavy music listener and used iTunes Radio for 3 months. Since I am planning to change phones to an Android phone (being fed up with Apple’s super-closed environment), I tried out Google Music Plus for about 3 months, too. Here is my verict – Google Music is a big pain, far from iTunes in comfort and user friendliness.

music-check-google-vs-apple

My move to Android is not very much in danger.

General description of the service

In principle, iTunes Radio and Google Music Subscription do the same things:

  • allow you to have your own music in the cloud
  • stream any music from the respective market place to your device
  • provide radio stations, pre-curated or based on artist/genre/etc

There are slight differences, that often create confusion, especially with Apple’s services: If you are only signed in, you can listen to music stations and can skip some music (limited), but you cannot listen to arbitrary songs from the whole Apple Music library. Then there is another service from Apple, called iTunes Match, that only allows you to upload your music library to the cloud, but other than that again only listening to normal radio stations.

Google Music is much simpler, there are only two options: By default it is free to have your music (up to 25000 songs) in the cloud, but if you want to listen to radio stations or any other music in the Google music store, you need a subscription.

Prizes and features overview:

Apple Google
No subscription iTunes Match iTunes Radio No subscription With subscription
Prize 0 25$/year 10$/month 0 10$/month
(early access 8$)
Cloud space 0 100000 25000
Extra service Radio stations Radio stations Radio/all music Nothing Radio/all music

Music on the go – the application

Let us first consider the applications provided to listen to music on your smart phone:

Apple Music can of course only be used on Apple devices, and uses the built-in Music application. Start up time is about a few seconds after a cold boot (all on my 4s), and music streaming starts with hardly any delay. Responsiveness is good, and the user interface is clear and easy.

Google’s application is available on iOS and Android. I have tested the latest version on iOS, but it is a pain in the butt:

  • Starting the application, even after cold boot, is successful at a rate of 1/10. Most of the time the application crashes right away. This might be a problem due to my low end device (iPhone 4s with 64Gb), but not due to space problems (half empty) nor internet connectivity (wlan).
  • Responsiveness is abysmal
  • Access to additional content (radio, songs) and your own library is well done, similar to iMusic.

Managing your library

Here iTunes is the way to go, bit of a pain when using Linux, but there are other reasons I have a Windows installation in parallel, so I don’t mind to boot now and then into Windows. iTunes gives you very powerful tools to change all kind of data.

Google gives you a few options: Use your iTunes library – in this case all your playlists and ratings (but see later) are also uploaded. I am not sure what happens if I retag a song in iTunes, or change anything else in there. I guess the song will not be re-uploaded, but who knows for sure. Furthermore, you can edit your library via the web interface, but this is rather poor.

Searching your library

Over times your library grows and there are hundreds if not thousands of artists. So you want to search them. The natural way would be to scroll to the first letter of the artist you are searching, and then look it up. Well, that works perfectly in both Apple’s and Google’s application – unless you are having artists written in some strange script like Japanese or Korean.

iTunes allows you to set a field called something like “Artist name for sorting”, which allows me to put for example “友川カズキ” or “김두수” into the artist field, and into the sort field “Tomokawa Kazuki” and “Kim Doo Soo”. This way I find the artists in the correct place.

Google on the other hand uses simple Unicode order sorting – how could you do that? This is simply plain wrong, and everyone should know that by now. Japanese people will never be able to find anything in their list. And – in contrast to Goole Contacts – Google Music does not support phonetic name fields (similar to the order sort artist) for artists.

What I had to do now is to rename all the artists to include first the phonetic name, followed by the proper name, like in “Tomokawa Kazuki (友川カズキ)”. Something I strongly detest!

Radio stations

I might have a slightly peculiar music taste, but the radio stations mixed by Google are simply a pain. The reason is easy to explain: I live in Japan, and so what Google does is mixing about 80% of J-Pop into the radio, all those happy yodeling girlies I really dislike (see my Anti J-Pop campaign for alternatives – yes, they do exist also in Japan!). iTunes radio is here more relaxed it seems.

I appreciate Google’s trial to cater to local (dis)taste, but besides voting down each and every song I hear I don’t see any other option. And honestly, I cannot go through all this voting down without dying from pain inflicted by J-Pop.

Other than this, the two radio stations are probably more or less the same – but as I said, due to the local colorit it is hard to compare.

Rating

Ohhh, what a dire point. So there you have you well curated iTunes library with 5-star ratings. I used the ratings in a way that those songs I like get 1 star, those I even like more get 2 stars, and my absolute favorites got 5 stars. I didn’t do any negative ratings.

iTunes/iOS Music app allows you to easily adjust rating, and they are synced between devices. All as you would expect.

Now for Google – they did have a 5-star rating system at some time, but:

Thank you for your feedback. We’ve decided to remove the 5-star Rating lab. This decision wasn’t made lightly, but Thumbs Up/Down is integral for the future vision for Play Music and will be a central design point for our future releases. Please note that we’ll continue to store your ratings that you’ve set via the star lab or via iTunes, and we’ll translate them to thumbs up/down (1-2 stars = thumbs down, 4-5 stars = thumbs up).

Here we go – with the move to a new design they threw away the 5-star system, without any reason but integral for future vision – rubbish sales speak. Besides being a very very poor rating system to have only an up and down (good-bad-don’t care), the translation from my rating system to the thumbs up-down is just plain wrong.

<rant>
Why on earth is the current movement to reduce functionality and rob users of control? Gnome 3 is the prime example of how we `stupiditize’ users by taken any freedom from them in the name of simple design. Google now does the same. I am so sick of getting patronized this way, so Gnome3 was completely banished from my computer and replaced by Cinnamon, which uses the same (good) underlying technique, but takes users seriously!
</rant>

Overall verdict

As much as I would like to see Google Music a valid alternative to iTunes, by now it makes the impression of a quickly hacked together rotten piece of code that tries to get a share of the market without providing equivalent service. Google is using its market presence and convenience to convert people, not features and quality. I can only hope that this changes in the future.

That still leaves me with the question – move to Android or remain with iOS …

11 Responses

  1. Many thanks for this evaluation.

    If you are a great fan of Apple music, don’t worry, Apple is going to release an application for Android shortly. I rely on Tunein Radio for Internet radio. My choice for music is a separate personal music player (PMP) since none of the popular smartphones provide comparable audio quality. I do depend on a Cowan Plenue, a Linux based PMP that supports all popular codecs and 24bit capable. I would buy 24bit FLAC tracks of my preferred music (mostly classical) from Presto Classical or Deutsche Grammophon. I was told that HTC’s newest Android smart phone model One A9 provides 24bit audio quality. Among all phones, HTC has the best audio quality.

    • Hi CVR

      no, I am not a fan of Apple, that is why I want to move away. But what they do better is the music app, at least by now 😉
      Concerning the audio quality – yes I agree, having 24bit flac tracks would be nice, but that is something I cannot carry around, and anyway, I cannot *carry* around the proper audio equipment 😉
      Last but not least, getting 24bit tracks for my preferred artist is practically impossible, already getting the CDs involves importing from many different countries, and paying to high prizes 🙁

      But it is good to hear that there will be a Apple Music app for Android, that would leverage the pain at least. Thanks for the info.

      Concerning the Android, HTC is not easy to get here with a contract, Samsung is easy. I will look into it.

      All the best

      • Norbert, you will be glad to know that Apple Music has arrived Android.

        Coming again to HTC One A9, the unlocked version costs USD 399. Specs are good: 32GB 3GB RAM, 1960 1080 display, 5″, 13mp camera, microsd card support upto 128GB, 24bit audio!

    • Plenue is out of my price range, unfortunately, but I am intrigued by the Fiio line up. They seem to have good reviews. Any thoughts on these:

      http://www.fiio.net/en/products

      • Hi, indeed the fiio products are lovely. I have them in the back of my head since quite some time, but well, too far out of my price range, considering that I am soon on the job hunt. Still, maybe maybe in the future …

  2. Me says:

    Try Spotify?

  3. Christopher says:

    Hi Norbert, and thanks for your reviews here. I have two comments.

    First, to second the recommendation for HTC, whose audio equipment does always seems superior. I’ve had a Taiwan model Butterfly 2 for just over a year, and it’s served me well for listening both with headphones and the speakers.

    Second, regarding Google’s thumbs up/down change, I’ve heard this is actually to help the machine learning recommendation algorithms, and entirely unrelated to what one might call “UX.” After considerable trials, they found that a three-level rating system (thumb down, no rating, thumb up) provides better recommendations than a six-level system (0 through 5 stars). In fact, even when you have five stars, you only use three of them when rating your music, so even though you find their new system to be worse, I’m sure you can see where they’re coming from.

    For what it’s worth, I’m a Spotify partisan myself, but I thought you might appreciate the context about Google Music.

    • Hi Christopher,
      interesting what you say about machine learning, but I have to disagree with the fact that one uses only 3 levels. I *heavily* use 5 levels of liking, so I could actually use an 8-level system, instead. At the moment I simply don’t negatively rate songs.
      For what it is worth, they could eaily have kept a 5 star system and used 1,2 – 3 – 4,5 as their categories for machine learnings, I don’t see any contradiction here.

  4. Admittedly Google Music isn’t perfect on Android either, though it’s not as bad as your experience may suggest (`Starting the application, even after cold boot, is successful at a rate of 1/10.`) – but it used to be so! Luckily they massively improved both desktop’s and Android’s Google Music apps over the last 6 months and both work very well now.

    • HI Alessio,
      Good to hear that the app works nicely on Android. I believe that it also works better on iOS in case it is not such a low-spec (wow, never thought how fast I have to say low-spec to one of my units) phone.
      If they could now also fix the ordering problem and add phonetic names, that would be great.

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