Google Play Music's new "All Access" option is the same basic idea as other on-demand services like Spotify and Rdio, and it boasts a comparably large collection—ultimately smaller, and with the only exclusives being a handful of "Live @ Google" performances that have always been free downloads anyway, but it still has almost any current song the average user is likely to search for. Put head-to-head against Spotify and Rdio for the same $9.99/month price, All Access feels bare-bones and decidedly inferior. Aside from its smaller catalog, it doesn't sport as informative and feature-rich an environment (with lots of exclusive performances and commentaries) as Spotify, it's not as elegant and intuitive as Rdio, and its only social functionality is sharing via Google+. Google's advantage is that any of the up-to-20,000 songs you've uploaded to its cloud space can be shuffled together with the All Access on-demand library and seamlessly streamed from the same interface. But that's only a big deal if you've uploaded a lot of songs that aren't in the Google Play catalog. A lot of the service's shortcomings can be attributed to Google just being the latecomer, and you might hope that it will catch up quickly, but, then again, its music store, after having debuted two years ago, still feels years behind iTunes and Amazon MP3. The All Access mobile app is also currently Android-only, although I would expect them to roll it out to other platforms soon.
One cool feature is All Access's integration with the Google Play Sound Search widget for Android. The only reason I still have SoundHound on my phone is because, when it IDs a song, it also gives me a link to the song on YouTube, in the very reasonable event that I want to hear it again or share my discovery. With All Access, Sound Search is even better, since it links you to a much higher-quality version of the track available in Google Play's on-demand library (although, of course, you still can't share it the way you can share a YouTube video).
Aside from the on-demand catalog, All Access also includes a Pandora-style radio mode. For some, this will be an afterthought. For others, it will be the service's primary function. Personally, when I just need background music, I tend to leave the selections to the radio, rather than manually queuing up songs or assembling my own playlists. I only go on-demand when I want to check out a new release, or when I hear a song from a new-to-me artist and want to see what else they've done.
All Access operates the same way as Pandora, intelligently generating stations of like material based on an initial song, artist, or album you select. It has a thumbs-up or -down system to help it get a sense of your tastes. To get you started, Google will suggest a few stations based on songs already in your collection (provided you have one). Before All Access launched, I remember Google Play Music suggesting "mixes" (automatically generated playlists) in the same way, assembled from songs in your cloud space. I never tried any of those mixes, but I assume the idea was the same as the "Genius" feature on iTunes (though I never used that either, so I wouldn't really know). In any case, based off just a few days of use, I've been pretty impressed by how well Google seems to understand what I like.
Following Google's suggestion, I launched a radio station based on JJAMZ's "Square One." Then, as an experiment, I also used "Square One" as a launching point on Pandora, supplying it with no other information about my tastes. I even did the same with Spotify's radio feature, which I'd never really tried before.
Pandora was definitely the most eclectic. Within the first five songs, it had already played two that aren't available anywhere on Google Play Music—LoveLikeFire's "Inner Space" and Plane's "I See Love in the Future," the latter of which isn't on Spotify either (and which isn't missed). The fifth song, however, was by Rob Thomas (the Matchbox Twenty guy, not the Veronica Mars guy), and that's when I pulled the plug on that. And nothing else it had given me was anything I felt especially compelled to investigate further afterward.
Spotify's rarely discussed radio service surprisingly fared a little better. It was not as adventurous and played some songs I already knew (whereas Pandora's first four recommendations were completely unfamiliar to me), but everything seemed to make sense in being of a kind with "Square One." That is, until the tenth "song," which was a 30-second commentary track of Youngblood Hawke discussing their song "We Come Running" (which, no, was not the eleventh song; that was the completely unrelated "Jag in a Jungle" by Brite Futures). A bug, I'm thinking?
Google's selections were generally similar to Spotify's—The Submarines and The Joy Formidable even popped up on both, though not the same songs. I found more winners overall—that is, songs to my personal taste—among Google's song choices. It also has the unique and really cool feature of letting you look ahead to see the next 25 songs that are coming up on your station.
If you're curious, here's what each service picked for me:
Google Play Music All Access
- "Recover" - Chvrches, Recover EP (2013)
- "We Got the World" - Icona Pop, We Got the World (single) (2012)
- "Little Numbers" - BOY, Mutual Friends (2011)
- "Robots in Love" - Beautiful Small Machines, The Robots in Love EP (2009)
- "Human" - Oh Land, Oh Land (2011)
- "Dark Doo Wop" - MS MR, Candy Bar Creep Show (2012)
- "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" - The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar (2011)
- "Junk" - Kitten, Cut It Out EP (2012)
- "Always the Last to Know" - Blondfire, My Someday (2008)
- "Swimming Pool" - The Submarines, Honeysuckle Weeks (2008)
- "Culling Song" - The Bluetones, A New Athens (2010)
- "How Do You Go On?" - Pete Yorn, Nightcrawler (2006)
- "I See Love in the Future" - Plane, I See Love in the Future (2007)
- "Inner Space" - LoveLikeFire, Bed of Gold (2006)
- "Her Diamonds" - Rob Thomas, Cradlesong (2009)
- "Interlaid" - Lasorda, Lasorda (2012)
- "Barefoot Winter Waltz" - The Last Royals, Twistification (2013)
- "9669" - The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning (2009)
- "Just Like Honey" - The Submarines, The Shoelaces (2011)
- "Photolights" - California Wives, Art History (2012)
- "Roman" - Housse de Racket, Alesia (2012)
- "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny" - Kitten, Sunday School (2010)
- "Magic" - Air Traffic Controller, Nordo (2012)
- "Leaving You Behind" - Amanda Blank, I Love You (2009)
- "We Come Running" Commentary - Youngblood Hawke (2013)
- "Jag in a Jungle" - Brite Futures, Dark Past (2011)
This is all fairly anecdotal. I don't truly understand how any of these radio systems work. Pandora has been around the longest and is based on the Music Genome Project, which has received the most input, which, in theory, you might suppose would produce the most accurate results. Spotify supposedly draws from Facebook data, in addition to its own community. Google's All Access service just rolled out, and even though its Play Music store has been around longer, it's not the most popular destination for consumers and reviewers, so I'm not sure what its selections are primarily based on. Maybe it uses all that search and Gmail data it collects from spying on its users? In any case, for all three, their accuracy surely varies according to the song you choose to start from, and even the same song will produce different results every time; Google and Spotify's selections were close enough that that contest could have gone either way. That Pandora experience was not an isolated incident, though. No matter whether I'm starting from Metric, whose appeal is fairly well-established, or something newer like Chvrches, it seems that Pandora will invariably inevitably point me in the direction of Train or Five for Fighting or some such thing. I really can't account for this head-scratching behavior.
There were also no ads on Google's radio, but that's because I'm on the 30-day trial for its premium service. There is no free level for the radio, and I suppose that's the main reason why, once the trial runs out, I'll just go back to ad-supported Pandora (and maybe try Spotify some more). Meanwhile, for the on-demand, which I know I wouldn't use as often anyway, ad-supported Spotify is good enough in a pinch.