One of the best things about Android is the diversity of apps that pop up in the Play Store, but sometimes the best apps are those produced by Google that integrate flawlessly with the rest of Google’s services. Case in point: Google Play Music.
While there are all kinds of music players available — whether you’re looking for something that is minimal and simple, that is robust and feature-filled, that can be controlled by hand gestures, or that can play music from multiple devices — the best option for most users is just to stick with Google’s wonderfully easy-to-use app.
Play Music has been around for a while now, and it’s been my music player of choice ever since its inception. You can call me a Google fanboy if you want, but the app does its job, and it does it well.
When you first open the app, you start at your Listen Now section. The app will scan your device for music files and load them here, as well as displaying any songs that you have saved in your Google account (you can upload all of your existing music to the cloud when you first sign up, up to 20,000 songs). You can select to show only On Device songs, or all of them. Since streaming music can use a lot of data, it’s recommended that you listen to On Device songs when Wi-Fi isn’t available, and only stream music when Wi-Fi is available. Thankfully, there is an option for ensuring that in the app’s settings.
The Listen Now screen will display various songs, albums, and Instant Mixes that it thinks you would like based on your recent listening history. Generally, I have no need to go digging through My Library because everything I need is in Listen Now. If you’re feeling lucky, you can shuffle all your music, but Play Music picks it based on your recent listening history rather than just shuffling everything.
By swiping in from the left or tapping the headphones in the top left, you can open the side menu where you are presented with more options. The typical music player menu, My Library, is accessible here. From there, you can search for songs by genre, artist, album, or a list of all your songs.
The song that you have playing constantly stays in a thin bar along the bottom with just a pause/play button present. At any time, you can swipe up from that bar to pull the now-playing menu into view. There are lots of swiping motions, making the entire app feel smooth, slick, and intuitive.
Below, you can see the Now Playing screen and the album view. The Now Playing screen remains simple while displaying the album art prominently allowing it to move slowly, panning across the full album, which is a surprisingly nice, subtle effect. The bottom has repeat, previous track, pause/play, next track, and shuffle buttons. Up top, there are settings and a button for viewing the queue of songs. Swiping left will switch to the last song, and swiping right will switch to the next song. To return to your previous screen, you can just swipe the Now Playing screen back down.
The album view brings with it some great visuals. Thanks to Google’s music matching service, it found the album art for me as well as the image of Stromae that is displayed at the top. Unless you have some very obscure, unknown artists, Google will probably be able to find some great pictures for them. The orange pin indicates that the album has been downloaded to my device for offline use.
The slide-out menu on the left side also has options for Playlists, Instant Mixes, and the Shop. The Shop will just redirect you to the Google Play Store’s music section. Playlists is a simple list of your custom playlists, and the Instant Mixes are an interesting creation which we will talk more about later.
The queue, accessible from the Now Playing menu, is perfectly intuitive. Grabbing the three lines on the left side of any song will allow you to grab it and move it around. Slide it to the left or right to clear it from the queue. Creating your perfect queue only takes a moment, since you can add any song to it by tapping the three dots on any song and selecting Add To Queue.
With lots of sliding motions, modern card-styling, and a consistent white and orange color scheme, the user interface is really gorgeous, but Play Music holds a lot of great features too.
Instant Mixes are my go-to feature for listening to music. You can create your own Instant Mixes from any song, album, or artist by choosing the option from the three-dot button on any of them; Play Music will then search for songs in your library that sound similar and compile a temporary playlist for you.
The app will also automatically create some Instant Mixes based on songs you often listen to, and it will display them both under the Instant Mixes tab and the Listen Now screen. To start an instant mix, just tap the sparkling CD icon that is in the center of the image. For getting a good mix of similar music without manually putting it together, nothing beats Instant Mixes.
The notification, like any good music player, includes play/pause and skip buttons, plus album art and artist, album, and song info. You can also exit the app by tapping the X in the upper right of the notification. This is a small but useful feature when you want to quickly pause or skip a song.
The widget isn’t the most beautiful, just the typical pause/play and skip buttons, plus a thumbs up button for rating good songs, album art, and the song and artist. For devices that support lockscreen widgets, though, the lock screen widget is much better; the album art takes up the entire thing. When Android 4.4 Kitkat eventually starts rolling out to devices, we’ll see Play Music supporting album art that covers the full lock screen.
And don’t forget that you can upload up to 20,000 songs from your personal collection to Play Music via the desktop, which we’ll cover in a minute. This huge limit makes it easy for anyone to transfer their entire collection over to the service.
But the feature that makes Play Music competitive with the likes of iTunes and Spotify is called All Access, and it’s Google’s $9.99 a month all-you-can-eat music service. For that monthly payment, you can download all the music you want from the Google Play Store, and none of those songs count toward your 20,000 limit. Then you can stream these songs from any device or browser, and the Android app even supports saving those songs for offline use.
If you’re using the Android app, you’ll eventually want to use the Web interface on your computer. It looks much like the Android app with card-styling and white and orange colors, and it performs nearly the same. The advantage here is that Music Manager can be downloaded to your computer, which will allow you to upload songs to the service and keep a folder on your computer constantly synced with Play Music.
Having your entire music collection stored on Google’s servers saves a lot of space on your hard drive too, and it means that wherever you have access to a computer with a Web browser, you have access to your music. Of course, your music can be downloaded for offline listening as well.
Interested yet? You should be. Google Play Music provides the basics for the casual listener in a svelte package, while also bringing its own unique Instant Mixes and All Access service. Look no further for the best music player on Android.
What do you think of Play Music? Do you have a preferred music player? Let us know in the comments!