All About Google Play

All About Google Play

If you haven’t yet noticed, Google has consolidated all of its digital media offerings into a single online store. Google Play offers a one-stop shop for music, video, apps, and e-books — and, most recently, the company’s new line of mobile hardware. Here’s what you need to know about the change.

The name has created some minor controversy. Google is aiming for more fun and excitement in contrast to the company’s history of generic names (Android Market, Google Books, etc). Plus, despite the similarity of content, “Play” creates a distinct brand from their competitions’  “App Store” and “Appstore.” However, some feel that the name goes too far toward the casual end, making Google seem less serious and professional.Nevertheless, the Android Apps section still offers a wide variety of apps. Sure, there are plenty of games and casual distractions which earn the “Play” moniker. However, there is also no shortage of serious apps for business and lifestyle productivity.

Anyone used to the old Android Market will have no difficulty finding their way around, with slightly retooled versions of the same sections (Top Free, Top Paid, Staff Picks, etc) and a new section devoted to the increasing number of Android tablet users.While I appreciate the integration of browser and mobile devices, the desktop Play is far better than the mobile app for searching and sorting the results, and any app that you find can be “pushed” to your device without leaving the PC. It would be very nice to have a virtual Android emulator, to preview or use the apps in the PC browser, but that may be asking a bit too much (especially considering the lack of touchscreen control on most desktops).

Google Music has been given an extensive makeover. Past Music users will have very little difficulty adjusting, but the new format is much more slick and easy to get around. Unless your tastes run to the VERY obscure and esoteric, Google is second to none when it comes to finding and buying any kind of music. Google Music still offers a whopping amount of free space for tracks (my extensive music collection only filled about one-quarter of the allotment), and the Music Manager allows for surprisingly fast uploads and downloads.

Less satisfying is the mobile Music app — it works great for streaming, but if you have more than a handful of tracks, it can be difficult to navigate through all of your artists, albums, genres, and playlists… and I would definitely appreciate a more streamlined process for downloading tracks to my phone for offline use.The Music & TV section is good, but not great. Google makes it as easy as possible to browse, rent and/or and purchase video, with helpful categories and search tools. In addition to the growing list of movies, Google has added several TV shows to Play, often in HD format.As with all of its competitors, the selection is hit or miss; while there’s plenty of good stuff here, it won’t take long for you to think of a movie or TV show that Google simply doesn’t have.

This is especially true for new releases, for which the prices seem a bit higher on average than iTunes or Amazon — although in general Google hits the same $1.99 price point for most non-current vids. For playback, the desktop browser interface works flawlessly, but the Android app suffers from a number of compatibility issues and inconsistent restrictions (i.e., not all features are available on all devices).

The e-book area has recently been split into two sections: Books and Magazines. Like Music, Google Books is a slicker version but largely the same as ever. With a huge range of books, Google provides you with anything from free classics of literature to competitively-priced current best-sellers (as well as that jumbled mess of words that your crackpot neighbor recently self-published). Desktop users get a convenient browser format, while mobile users can choose between installing the “official” Google Play Books app or downloading the file for use in any e-reader app. There are the usual difficulties with some books being available in ePub format, and others only as Acrobat files (i.e., annoying to try to read on a smartphone-sized screen).

Magazines are a new feature of Google Play, sharing many of the pros and cons of other Play categories. With the desktop or tablet app, the presentation and ease of use is unbeatable, and the inclusion of interactive features (and many back issues) gives some magazines a big step above their print versions. Many major titles are available from Play, but by no means all — in fact, the first five magazines that I searched for (Time, Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Better Homes and Gardens, Entertainment Weekly) had no Google Play edition at all.

On top of this, the prices are off-putting. To be fair, Google doesn’t charge any more for digital magazines than anyone else, and the prices are largely set by the publishers. However, if you’re expecting to get a benefit from the savings on physical manufacturing and distribution (or to get a digital edition free with your existing print subscription), you’ll almost certainly be disappointed.

Google Play Devices is the company’s hardware venture. Currently, there are only three items for sale, and of these, only one (the Galaxy Nexus smartphone) is available at the time of this writing. The Nexus Q media-streaming device and the much-anticipated Nexus 7 tablet are both on a pre-order basis, with an estimated ship date of “soon” (2-3 weeks, so possibly by the time you read this).

The 7″ tablet in particular looks like it could be a hit, competing directly with Amazon’s Kindle Fire for the wallet-friendly tablet market. Interestingly, Google has yet to offer Chromebooks on Play, despite expanding sales of the cloud-focused notebook to Best Buy and other retail outlets. Google’s hardware aspirations are worth watching, whether you’re an interested consumer or a nervous third-party hardware partner (who has suddenly found themselves competing with their OS developer for sales).

All-in-all, Google Play is a solid option for Android users. You probably have most or all of the individual Play apps pre-installed on your Android device, and Play makes it easy to find, access, and organize apps and media with a straightforward and integrated storefront. There are some individual elements that third-party apps can do better, but as a complete solution, Google is moving ever closer toward the unified approach that iOS fans know and love.

In the larger picture, Google Play is not really revolutionary, nor does it have much potential to change the market. Google has a long way to go to match Apple’s seamless software/hardware ecosystem, and has little to no chance of catching up with Amazon’s mighty media and physical sales empire. Where Play excels is in its appeal to existing Android users, providing incremental improvements to selection, integration, and user-friendliness — with the familiar but evolving Google design aesthetic.

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