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iTunes Match vs. Google Play Music on the iPhone

Okay, so we already had a look at both services on the desktop. It's now time to get to the iPhone for a mobile app comparison. Why the iPhone? Because on Android, you cannot use iTunes Match. It's that simple.

On the Apple's front, the default music app is doing all the heavy lifting. In the settings you need to fill in your iTunes Match credentials and activate iTunes Match. Being the built-in app, it enjoys an in depth integration with the phone. For example, any music in your default music app can become a ringtone or can wake you up. You can also search your music from the home screen. It's an unfair advantage (I don't think Google could do it even if they wanted to), i'll grant you that, but it's there. The app is otherwise pretty easy and nicely done. Here, again, you can choose to stream or download songs and/or albums. They'll download in the background and if anything fails (because you suddenly go offline for example) it'll pop you a dialog so that you know. Same as in the desktop app, you can choose to view only your local collection or to see the whole iTunes Match library. The songs can be controlled through the lock screen, the headphones and while playing, your lock screen shows the album cover art and the song name, album, artist etc. It's pretty neat and works well.

One thing that annoys me is that whenever you recycle the app (restarting the phone for example) the playlist is lost. iTunes fares better on the desktop on that front. That said, whenever you launch the app it will get back to where you were, most often on the album you last listened to.

On Google's front, the app is called "Google Play Music" and is free. Once installed, you enter your Google credentials and all your music shows up. From there, you can download the music you want to listen to offline. But only albums, not individual songs. And if you leave the App (of turn off your phone) the download stops and doesn't resume automatically whenever you turn it on again. That makes the process of downloading songs a little hit and miss or painful as you have to keep the phone turned on and the app running until it finishes.

As in the default music app, you can search artists/tracks/albums but for some reason, it doesn't work. And it's not as if it kinda worked, no, on most searches I get nothing even though I know I have an album of that name. I can only think it is a bug and will be fixed, but I could not avoid mentioning it.

Another drawback of Google's music app is that it does not remember your playlist, just like the website and the default music app. So you're listening to an album then do other stuff on your phone. When you launch the app again, if it has been recycled it will show up your home screen and there is no way to resume your album - that is, unless you know which album and which track you were listening to. Pretty painful for me.

There is also the artist art, just like on the website, which is a little maddening when many artists don't have any picture and some others bewildering things in there.

One note about some annoying thing. When I tried to update tags in already-imported MP3 files, well, the files would not update as we've seen in the previous article. However, I quickly ended up with albums that showed up two or three times, as well as albums where each song would appear twice. Duplicated tracks also showed up on the website, but duplicated albums only appeared on the iOS app. And from there, the only solution I found to fix the issue was to uninstall and reinstall the app. Quite painful.

Other than that, the app works fine and my music plays just fine as well. The controls also works from the lock screen and headphones, and the album art is also displayed on the lock screen with all other infos.

The wrap up

In Apple's favor:
  • Better integration to iOS (unfair advantage, but advantage nonetheless)
  • Download are much more likely to actually get downloaded.
  • Ability to view only the music you have offline.

There's really nothing where the play music app surpasses Apple's.

And the winner is Apple, just like on the desktop. That said, just like on the desktop, both apps actually work and are solid music players, but Google's version is notably lacking some pretty useful features and some maturity. I'm just back from holidays in a place where I didn't have free cellular access, and to sum it up, I didn't listen to music at all since most of my albums were not downloaded and I had no simple way of finding out which ones were anyways. Google's music player is, in this regard, barely useable.

iTunes Match vs. Google Play Music on the desktop

My iTunes Match subscriptions isn't working anymore (some tech issue that will be fixed soon I hope) so I got to test Google Play Music for a couple of weeks. That's great!

In this first post, I will compare both services on the desktop. There is a second post with a look at iOS.

Updating your cloud collection

First off, the program that does update your music collection. On Apple's side, it's simply iTunes. On Google's side, it's an app called the Music Manager. The key difference I could find is about the way to add a new album once the initial sync is complete. On Apple's side, you need to manually add the album to your iTunes collection. On Google's side, if all your MP3s are in some central repos, the app updates your collection automatically. I couldn't get that working on Linux at home, probably because my music is on a samba share, meaning it's not on a local drive and the app doesn't get any notification when a file is updated. So I have to quit the app and launch it again for it to rescan my folders. Still simpler than Apple's approach. On the bad side, Google seems to store your MAC address on the first connection and forbids you to connect from any other MAC address. That's... bewildering.

One word on Tagging and Covers. iTunes Match is quite picky when it comes to covers and some albums never got a cover. There was very few albums in that state for me so it was no biggie, but still, Google's program is much better at handling covers. However, with Google, I could not figure out how to update a tag in a MP3 file. You can go to the website and update your song, but I would have liked the updater to automatically update the songs on which I modified any ID3 tag... On iTunes you can just delete the album and re-import it. It's not perfect, but it works.

So, on Google's side:

  • Automatically uploads songs I add to my MP3s repos (even if this feature needs work).
  • Works on Linux. I'm on Linux at home, so that's a plus for me.
  • Better covers support. More formats supported (Apple's list is more restrictive). Both support the formats that count for me - MP3 and a tiny bit of AAC.
On Apple's side:
  • The update works on any machine with iTunes on it. That's a plus if you want to update your collection from multiple places. Or if you ever change your PC. I cannot imagine that Google will keep that policy (I can only update from the first PC I ever updated from) in place for long but you never know.
  • Updating a tag in an MP3 file can be propagated to the clients.

So, that was for the update part.

The player

Apple's player is, once again, iTunes. That's no tiny lightweight app, but the behemoth behaves. You might like it or not, but you can find you music and play it. It will register to the play/pause/next/etc keys on your multimedia keyboard. After a reboot you get your playlist where you left it. You can download songs to have them locally or stream your songs, your choice. If you choose to download songs, you can decide to view only the songs you have locally. That's useful when you only want to see part of your collection. I share the same iTM account between me, my wife and kids, so there is a sizeable part of my collection I'm not interested in.

Google went the way of the web app. So everything works on your browser of choice, providing you have flash. There is an option to get your sound played with the HTML5 output, but it doesn't work reliably and at some point no sound at all comes from the damn thing and you just have to press F5 to refresh the tab. And lose your playlist. Because the webapp doesn't store your current playlist. localStorage anyone? Anyways... Also, no way to listen to anything offline. You have to be connected. No biggie on a desktop, not so much on a laptop. But, for all its caveats, the app works and you find your music quickly. It is pleasant to use. Then, there is this "Artist art" that is an image depicting your artists. You kind of see it everywhere. All artists will have one, except those that don't and you cannot do shit about it. Can't change them (and they're pretty inconsistent so far). Can't avoid them. That's the way it is. Whether you like those images or not.

So, on Google's side:

  • Works on all OSes where flash works, which is more than Apple's offering: Windows and Mac. Again, I use Linux at home...
On Apple's side:
  • Remembers your playlist after a reboot / app restart.
  • Ability to work offline. Also ability to hide the music you don't have locally.
  • Handles multimedia keys on the keyboard.

Wrap up

Both offerings are solid and work well, unless you're offline where Google's offering will stop dead, or if you're on Linux and then it's Apple's offering that won't work (I run my iTunes in a Vista VM - quite the painful way). But more people are offline on their laptop than on Linux.

Google wins on the update side and Apple's on the player side. Since one's supposedly spends much more time listening than updating/adding stuff in one's collection, I'll have to declare Apple the winner on the desktop. And believe me, I'm no fan of iTunes. And yes, Google's offering is Free vs 25€/year for Apple. I still think Apple's offering is stronger.

There is a second post with a look at the situation on iOS

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