Google Play Music All Access hands-on: should you switch from Spotify or Rdio?

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After months of rumors, it's finally here: Google has launched an unlimited subscription music service to take down competitors like Spotify and Rdio. The service exists as a $9.99-per-month upgrade to Google Music called All Access, and it's available today on the web and Android devices (US only). We've spent some time with All Access to see if it's worth your while to swap to Google's new offering.

Google Music first launched over a year ago and until today, it's only allowed you to upload your music collection (up to 20,000 tracks) to Google's servers or listen to songs you've purchased from Google Play. That free option remains available, but with an upgrade to All Access you get a handful of extra features. First and foremost, you gain streaming access to "millions" of songs, and you can add tracks to your library and download them for offline use. Google has also introduced a radio service in the same vein as Pandora and Spotify — you choose a song, album, or artist and a playlist will automatically be created for you — though you get unlimited skips with All Access.

Apps have seen a complete redesign

Both the Android app and the web app are centered around five main menus: Listen Now, My Library, Playlists, and Explore. Both Listen Now and Explore focus on recommendations, though the latter offers curated playlists, and options to look through particular genres. The former is designed to just give you a couple of quick options when you don't have time to look around. My Library features everything you've uploaded to Google Music, as well as any other album or song you'd like — just click the menu button and you'll be given the option to add it to your Library. From there (on the Android app) you can download for when you don't have internet access. Compared to Spotify, My Library is a welcome addition: with the former service if you want to curate a selection of albums or tracks for your own collection you have to add them as playlists only. In addition, with Google Music, you don't have to worry about whether you own a particular track or not — stuff you've uploaded and music in the collection are all integrated seamlessly.

Thankfully, both apps have been completely overhauled from their prior versions for All Access, and both have seen significant improvements. The Android version is thankfully much more intuitively laid out than earlier versions and it runs very smoothly. It's also quite attractive, as it definitely shows some of the efforts Google has been making towards design unification across its offerings. The now well-known three dot menu button is littered all over the app — each song, album, and artist, as well as other pages in the app feature separate menu buttons to go to settings, start up a radio session, add songs to your library, and more. It can get a little complicated but it is a big step up from the previous version of the app.

The web app looks much the same as the Android app but is just on a larger scale. It isn't quite as elegant as the mobile version, however, and we really wish Google would make a full-blown desktop app — the web interface just isn't particularly quick. Unfortunately you can't upload tracks from the browser — you still need to use the (frankly awful) Music Manager desktop app to do that.

Which one's right for you depends on the platforms you use

From the time we've spent with Google Play Music All Access, it's clear that it's a viable alternative to the competition. Its pricing model matches Spotify and Rdio, both of which cost $9.99 per month for mobile access. (Spotify and Rdio have cheaper $4.99 options, however, that allow for unlimited desktop streaming, and they have some limited free streaming as well.) If you're looking to make a decision today, the most important thing to keep in mind is which ecosystems you use: Google Music is only available for Android and the web. The competition not only streams on iOS and Windows Phone, but they hook up with other devices like those from Roku and Sonos. If that's important to you, you're going to be better served elsewhere. It's also not clear how Google's music selection compares with the competition: the company hasn't provided an solid number of how many tracks it has on offer. However, if you want to give All Access a try, Google's offering a 30 day free trial, though you need to sign up with a credit card. So long as you start a monthly trial by June 30th the service will only cost you $7.99 per month, otherwise you'll be paying $9.99.

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