This tech review is going to be just a little bit different from prior ones (and not just because it’s actually current; I think at least half of the old ones are for software that has since stopped existing). Most of the previous reviews have been for a specific piece of software; today, I’m looking at a somewhat broader platform.
“Play” is Google’s attempt to corner the market on digital media, or at least to have a healthy share of it along with Amazon and Apple. With Google Play, one can buy news magazines, movies, music, e-books, or Android apps. As I do not have an Android, and have little interest in trying out the magazines, I shall be focusing on movies, music and books.
On none of those three categories can I recommend Google Play.
All three media are purchased in the same manner, and it’s relatively smooth. You go to Google’s website (play.google.com), browse to where you want to go, and select the item. I will say that browsing the catalog seems to be a terrible mess, though; it is by no means as straightforward to navigate as Amazon, and I’m not always happy with Amazon’s organization. But once you’ve found what you want, it’ll come up with a price on it; click the price, and you’ll have the option to buy it. As per my usual standards, I tried out all the features using free offerings rather than paid ones, feeling that my money is best spent on entities that have proven themselves worthy of it. But the same process applies with freebies… including an irritating requirement to have a Google Wallet account. You cannot use any other payment method, and you must have your credit card on file with them — even if you’re only picking up a freebie. It’s a degree of short-sighted arrogance that is unfortunately reflected at other points in the Play experience.
The selection is pretty good, I’ll give them that much. And I’ve acquired a substantial collection of freebies from them. But it hasn’t been a smooth process. Buying the music, that’s easy enough. Making use of it, that’s another question. With Google Play, you have two options: play it online, which is a nice enough feature to offer, or download it for offline play. Like most sane individuals, I don’t want all my music listening to be funneled through Google’s website, so naturally I would prefer the latter.
And there, again, there are two options. But neither of the options for downloading are very good. The Google-preferred way is for you to download Google Music Manager to your PC and use that to manage downloading your songs. All your songs. Every time. Oh, there’s a “Download New” button, but it doesn’t work right. If you’ve made any changes to a song file after you’ve downloaded it — for example, if you’ve corrected the very-frequently-erroneous release date information — it doesn’t recognize it as the same song. Sometimes it won’t recognize it as the same song even if you’ve changed nothing. So your “Download New” button quickly begins to look like your “Download Entire Library” button. I think mine’s reporting 140 songs, and I know I haven’t left that many undownloaded. (And yes, those are all freebies; whatever I have to say about the tech, Google Play has been pretty generous with freebies.) Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except for one crucial oversight: “Download Library” and “Download New” are the only download options in the software. There is no option to pick and choose an individual song to download, the way there is with Amazon’s Cloud Player. I’ve emailed Google Support in the past about this, and was told they’d add it to the suggestion file, but the suggestion has not borne fruit.
If you want to download an individual song from Google Play, you have to go to the other download option: the Play website. Here you will have the option to select the track or album, click the button with three vertical dots, and select “Download”. It downloads just like any other MP3, with you having full discretion on where to put it. It’d be perfectly reasonable, except for one little thing. When you download music this way, Google Play warns you that you are limited to doing so twice per song. So you had best be sure that if you ever buy a new computer or audio device, you transfer the songs from your old device manually, or you’ll use up all your individual-song downloads — and being faced with the choice of losing songs in a hard drive crash or dealing with Google Music Manager is not something anybody should have to deal with.
It is worth noting that I have not experienced any similar warnings of download conditions with any other service. So when it comes to buying music, there’s a clear value in not buying it from Google. They encourage you to use a piece of software that doesn’t work properly, and do so by limiting perfectly reasonable choices without a reasonable cause.
There’s an extra wrinkle I’ve discovered as well. If you download an entire album together, it gives you the album in a zip file (this counts against your two via-the-web downloads per each song). And every so often, there’s an error with the zip file in which a few individual tracks (it seems to be ones with a quotation mark in their track name) will not unzip because they are still password locked. You do not, of course, have the password, so you have to download that track separately — using up your last via-the-web download for it.
Music Service Rating:
Reviewing the movie service of Google Play is as simple as asking a question: How well do you like YouTube? Because that’s essentially all that Google Play Movies is: YouTube. The player on the Google Play website works exactly like YouTube, and buying a movie through Google Play adds it to your YouTube account so you can also play it on YouTube’s website itself.
Rather importantly, these represent the only way to play most movies (at least, without a Google device; I do not know if Google’s various laptops, phones, and TV dongles have special Google Play movie storage rights not granted to other systems). Google Play does not offer software to play movies, nor does it offer a means to download them for offline playback, nor do they come with an UltraViolet license. One exception is movies with the Disney Movies Anywhere license; however, this is due to Disney’s licensing decision, not any feature of Google’s. Otherwise, playing a movie from your Google Play library means streaming it on Google Play or YouTube every time, and buying a movie on Google Play means it will not be part of any other video library you have.
So the question of whether Google Play Movies is worth using can be boiled down to the following: Is your internet connection fast? Is it reliable? Are you unconcerned with bandwidth caps? And do you genuinely like YouTube compared to other streaming options? If the answer to any of those is “no”, then Google Play Movies is not for you.
Movie Service Rating:
Google Play’s book section includes regular books and comic books. As with the movies and music, you have the option of reading these online through the website. For text, this works reasonably well; it loads quickly, and pages can be turned with the click of a mouse or the press of an arrow key. For comics, it works much the same, but is hampered by the fact that comic book pages are not designed with a computer screen in mind; personally, I’ve never been a fan of having to scroll down to read all of a comic book page, and then doing the same thing with every subsequent page.
Like the music, you also have the option of downloading the books. Supposedly. Like the music, there are a few hitches in the process, and in this case I found them insurmountable. There is a download option, and it gives you the choice between EPUB or PDF format, but with the exception of public domain works (which you can get anywhere) it doesn’t actually download in those formats. Instead, it downloads an ACSM file. What this is, is effectively a file containing a link to download the file — which is a bit of circuitous hoop-jumping that is introduced as a form of DRM, supposedly to combat piracy. (One of the files I was testing with was a copy of Catching Fire that Google had offered as a giveaway a few months back. Anybody want to take bets on this DRM being successful at stopping piracy? I haven’t looked, because I obey the laws, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts the second novel in the Hunger Games trilogy is being torrented left and right without the pirates ever having touched Google’s copy; as is so often the case, this is DRM that hurts only the honest buyer.)
ACSM files can only be opened using Adobe Digital Editions. I found this out through searching the web, because Google Play did not see fit to tell me this at any point in the experience. It simply let me select “Download EPUB” and then stare in wonder as I received something else. So after a bit of research, I downloaded A.D.E., installed it, ran it, and watched it crash upon launch again and again. A bit more research showed I needed to use an older version on my computer. (Note: while I understand this to some degree, given that I’m working on on older machine, I must point out that my Nook for PC reader and Kindle for PC reader are working just fine, thank you. For that matter, so is Lego Batman 3, and you aren’t going to convince me that an e-Reader takes more resources than that.) So I installed the older version of A.D.E., and finally instructed it to open the ACSM file to download my book… and it failed. Repeatedly. Giving an error message that at no point is explained in Google Play’s FAQs, nor Adobe’s. I can only presume it’s because it’s an older version of the software, but this is no real excuse; as the server and file are both there (see below), accessing it should not be an issue even with older software.
Fortunately, the error message provided the URL of the actual EPUB file, allowing me to copy that to my browser and finally download the legitimate item. Which, as it turns out, will not open in any other reader on my PC. I can understand it not working on Kindle for PC — wrong format, after all — but it won’t open in Nook for PC either. DRM again. It’ll only open in A.D.E., which while it is barely serviceable as an e-reader, is not where I have any of the rest of my library, and rather more importantly, it’s not very functional. Every time it starts up, it attempts to resume any failed downloads — and, of course, fails again. So any attempt at reading a book downloaded from Google Play is, at least for me, fraught with a few minutes of delays with an ever-increasing list of error messages from failed attempts at resuming failed downloads.
Naturally I have uninstalled the software and shall not be touching it again. It is literally too much trouble to put up with even for a freebie. It is inferior in all respects to Nook for PC, Kindle for PC, or picking up an actual physical book.
Google Play certainly offers a decent breadth of material, but this does not distinguish them from their competitors. The central question is, as always, about the experience of actually accessing and playing (or reading) the content. The answer is simple: It is terrible. All three forms of media are aggravating to use with Google Play. And in all three cases, there are much more pleasant alternatives available. When it comes to music, Amazon’s Cloud Player is more convenient and more sensible. When it comes to movies, I am sure that fans of streaming will find any other provider to be at least as serviceable; for those who do not like streaming, or cannot use it, Google Play is not an option at all. And when it comes to books, both Nook and Kindle for PC outperform it on the most basic measure of all: they actually work.
I may continue to download free music from Google Play when I see something I like, always with the awareness that I have to be mindful of that absurd two-download limit, but I cannot see any circumstance under which I will be giving Google Play my money.