Google Music went live in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain this week, bringing the company up to speed with the likes of Amazon and Apple by allowing users to purchase songs and albums while also offering a digital locker service. On top of that, Google's earlier content deal with Warner Music also went into effect.
The most intriguing feature of the launch, though, was the promise of not just a digital locker for music collections, but also a scan and match service that would rival Apple and Amazon. Both companies charge customers $25 per year to scan their music collections and make available comparable copies in the cloud, yet Google piqued interest with information that its own scan and match service would be free while accommodating 20,000 tracks. Amazon offers a free solution too with its Cloud Player, but the company has a hard 250 track limit on music not purchased through its service unless people pay the annual fee.
There’s no indication at all that it’s scanning and matching
There was some confusion as to whether the feature went live in Europe on Tuesday, with no mention of scan and match on the Play Music website or in the upload software, but the service is definitely active in the UK. Before you can start uploading tracks to Google Music, you have to download the company’s slow and bothersome Music Manager software. Once you point it in the direction of your music collection, the software works in the background to upload your music to Google, but there’s no indication at all that it’s scanning and matching your collection. The first time we used the software, we thought the feature simply wasn’t active — there’s no mention of it during the setup process or while the client is uploading data. We only figured out that our songs and albums had been matched after we took a closer look at the software and the traffic it was using.
When Music Manager is matching your songs against Google’s collection, track names and upload progress won’t be displayed. The software will simply blaze through the "upload" process and typically be done in around 30 seconds with one album. Try to add something that Google doesn’t have, and you’ll start to feel the pain of slow upload times and drawn out percentages, not to mention an unreasonably high processor load. We’re guessing that Google is trying to make the experience as seamless as possible for users, but it’s perplexing that there’s no mention whatsoever that music is being matched against its database.
After your music safely makes its way to the cloud, you can listen on different Android devices as well as iOS devices using third-party clients and Google's HTML5 webapp. You can also use the company’s web interface to play your music, build playlists, and even download your music from a different location. Every time you do so, Google warns that you can only download each track twice — strangely, there’s no such restriction if you’re pulling your collection down using the Music Manager.
Google is trying to make the experience as seamless as possible
Uploading the soundtrack to The Dark Knight Rises along with Only By The Night by Kings of Leon resulted in a painless matching process. The files downloaded from Google's servers vary in quality, however: Hans Zimmer’s score gave us a bitrate of 256kbps, while the Kings of Leon maxed out at 320kbps. Google only deals in MP3s too, regardless of the format you upload — The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack started life as AAC from iTunes Plus, for example. If you upload AAC, Ogg Vorbis, or FLAC using the service and Google doesn’t find a match, then the files will automatically be transcoded to 320kbps MP3. There doesn’t look to be a way to turn off the matching feature either, but Google does allow you to fix incorrect matches using its web app.
All in all, Google’s scan and match works. We would append "as advertised" to that statement, but it seems to be just the opposite situation right now, with nary a mention of the feature on the Google Music site. Time will tell if scan and match will have the same teething problems that Apple’s iTunes Match did, but we doubt many people will be complaining about the process or any minor problems given that it's free and quicker than simply uploading gigabytes of data.