Sunday, April 15, 2012

Google Play Music: it's ALMOST there.

"Music in the Cloud." The phrase itself sounds sort of like "Pie in the Sky," doesn't it? Well, so far that's kind of been what cloud-based music has equated to. A year ago I blogged about this same thing, shortly after Amazon had released their music locker and many months before Google finally released their "Google Music" service, which has now been merged with their app store, the Google eBookstore, and movie rentals to be rebranded as "Google Play." (This post is about the music portion of Google Play, so I'm going to refer to it as Google Music for now to avoid being ambiguous.)

When Google Music was released I was pretty stoked. I had quickly bumped my head on the free space available in Amazon Cloud Player, and Google Music offers virtually unlimited space (you can upload 20,000 songs, which is way more than are in my library!) for free. Also, you can reportedly stream your music over the Internet to almost any device. This works pretty good on the Web, but I find the experience less than flawless on Android.

But before I tell you about my Android frustrations, I want to touch on a few problems with the Web player. I won't go into uploading music with the Music Manager; it's a little weird to not be able to upload them directly but instead have to point software at them and let it do it for you, but that's been covered already by others. I didn't find the upload experience particularly painful myself, and you only have to do it one time for the main body of your library, and then only occasionally (unless you buy your new music from Google, of course, and then it automatically shows up in your account without any uploading at all!) I find the player to be serviceable, but there are some things missing:
  • There's no good way to eliminate duplicates. This was never a problem for me until I tried to upload a new CD worth of songs in FLAC format when I had already uploaded them in MP3 format. There's no way to tell which is the higher-quality copy, and there's no way to mark several files for deletion all at once. I'd like to re-rip all of my CDs to FLAC (which is lossless) at some point and eliminate the old MP3s I ripped years ago, some at embarrassingly low quality to save space on old hard drives, but when I do so it will be a real pain in the next to replace them on Google Play.
  • Playlist functionality is pretty limited. I guess I'm spoiled by years of using Mediamonkey, but I would love to be able to have the player randomly select songs to play based on the star rating I give them, or some other classification, like "Christmas Music."
  • Oh, wait. There IS no star rating system. It's thumbs up or thumbs down, and that's the best you can do on Google Music. And the rating isn't uploaded with the file; I know some of the MP3s I uploaded had ratings on them already. Actually, I know that ALL of them had star ratings already!
  • Oh, wait again... there IS no way to assign a classification to the file, other than "Genre." In Mediamonkey I have a number of fields that I can use to classify files... I can automatically generate a playlist of songs for Christmas or Easter, or high-octane songs to keep me awake during my work day when there's no caffeine available. In the Google Play player, there's none of that.
But enough of that complaining; the Web player is serviceable, and it gives me instant access to my tracks from any Internet-connected computer. Could be cooler, but it gets the job done. My real gripe is with the Android app.

Come on, now. This is a Google service on a Google OS! Shouldn't it be AMAZING? Well yes, it should, but it's not... at least not on my lower-powered phone, a Samsung model that is called Vitality on Cricket (which is what I use) but which is called Admire on other carriers (I know MetroPCS has it by this name). The internal memory of this phone is a little cramped in this phone... only 125MB... and this is where many of the problems with the Google Music app seem to lie.
  • The app seems to keep the catalog of music you're storing in the cloud, plus complete copies of any tracks you have recently played, stored in the phone's internal memory. This, friends, is madness. There is no reason to stick this huge file in my 125MB of phone memory when I've got a perfectly good 8GB MicroSD card riding in there (and the phone can support up to 32GB!) There are certain things that are required to exist in that internal memory, including some uncooperative apps which refuse to be moved to the MicroSD card. At least the Google Play Music app itself can be moved to the MicroSD card!
  • Since the app fills up the internal memory with its own huge data file, after I use it for a while I wind up not being able to install new apps any more. Even if the app is going to wind up on the MicroSD card eventually, some free internal memory is required in order to install it in the first place. There are other high-profile apps that are offenders in this way as well... Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Reader, and some others are the usual suspects on my phone.
  • So, in order to install new apps, I have to choose a few of these badly-behaved apps and do a "clear data" to free up some space. By the way, the fact that all of these apps are fighting for the same few MB of storage space also means that when I've got my huge Google Play Music file on my phone, I stop receiving new Gmail. Facebook, Twitter, Reader and the other members of this crew seem to somehow figure out how to keep operating... why not the other two apps from Google? On the Google OS? (Wait, did I mention before that this is Google software running on a Google OS?)
  • When I "clear data" on Google Play Music, I have to wait for EVER for it to re-download its data file. I have no idea why this would be. I've currently got 9,312 songs in Google Music. There's no reason that at least a list of the albums couldn't be downloaded via a good WiFi connection in less than a minute. Track names and album art could populate over time, but at least with the list of album names I could start to select albums, and if I select album the app could quickly download the track list, and then I could start a song streaming. As it is now, I usually have to wait overnight for the songs to populate.
  • Even then, even after waiting overnight, often the newest songs in my library aren't there. In fact, sometimes even days later, with WiFi available for a good 18-20 hours of the day in my home and workplace, those new songs don't show up. It's positively ridiculous.
  • Sometimes after a "clear data" I can't get the song library to re-download at all.
  • Fortunately, there is a "Refresh music from Google Music" link in the settings. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it doesn't do squat.
  • It is possible in the app to flag a track or album to be made available offline; when you do that, the audio data is downloaded to your phone (to that precious internal phone memory, apparently) so you can listen to it without streaming it. There is also a setting to allow that to happen automatically when you play a song, so that Lady Gaga track you listened to yesterday is automatically available offline today. Problem is, once you've downloaded that offline data, there doesn't seem to be a way to reclaim the space on your phone; if you flag it as not available offline, the size of that darn data file stays huge.
  • Every time you open the Google Play Music app, it reports the name of the last song you listened to to Android, even if you don't start it playing. This is not a problem except that I scrobble my song plays to (want to see what I listen to?), so every time I open Google Play Music it scrobbles the last song I played again. I've sometimes wound up having to delete three or four consecutive scrobbles of a single song from my list.
  • Don't even get me started about automatic side-loading of tracks from my phone to my Google Music account. Dictate a shopping list into Evernote? It winds up in your Google Play Music. Record a radio talk show with TuneIn? It'll wind up in your Google Play Music. I don't know of any way to turn this off, or exclude files created by specific applications. I'd prefer to turn it off entirely... how often do I have an MP3 on my phone that I didn't already have on my computer? Here's a hint: NEVER.
I eventually gave up on the Google Play Music app. I haven't removed it from my phone, but it was so difficult to get it to work that I quit using it. Maybe if I had the snazziest Droid from Motorola and it had eighty zillion terabytes of internal memory I would be happy to let Google Play Music save a file in the phone's memory. But why should it take such a large file? This is supposed to be a streaming solution. It's supposed to mostly live on the Internet, not actually on the phone. I would prefer for the app to be mostly a front-end for a Web back-end, not a traditional music player that supports downloading the song automatically when you play it. I was so looking forward to using Google Play Music on my phone, which I got last December shortly after Google Music was released... now I'm pretty disappointed. I hope Google gets their act together and refines their app into something those of us with more modest Android phones are able to use.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Long Distance Calls: Oh Please.

I feel the urge to rant briefly about something that is ridiculous. Pick up a phone right now and dial a long-distance number, but do not dial "1" or "0" first. What do you hear? Why, you hear a recording that says that you have to dial "1" or "0" first. Now, since you were directly dialing the number, it stands to reason that you are not interested in visiting with an operator... in fact, I doubt most people even know why you would even want to dial zero-plus-area-code (you do it to place collect calls, person-to-person, the sort of call where you need an operator's assistance). People who do need zero-plus dialing know how to do it and aren't likely to forget. It seems to me that if the computer is smart enough to know that you need to dial "1" it could default to that, don't you think? Or how about letting you dial "1" or "0" right there while you're listening to the recording without having to hang up and re-dial the whole number?

And what about local calls that are mistakenly dialed with the "1" prefix? In the area where I live, you now have to dial the area code even for local calls, but if you dial with a "1" you hear a recording that you shouldn't have dialed the "1". Here's your hand slap, the recording implies, now go back and do it right this time you smelly gorilla-fingered cretin. Come on... we can route full-motion video around the world instantaneously using satellites, but we can't build a phone system that can intelligently ignore the digit "1" when it is not needed, even though we know that's the problem and will happily play a recording for the caller to tell them so? It's like there's some passive-aggressive person at the phone company giggling every time someone dials or doesn't dial that one extra digit.

Get real, phone companies. Get rid of the superfluous initial-digit recordings.