Hands on Google Music's new streaming service

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/ Updated: May 16, 2013 9:25 AM PDT

Watch out, Pandora. Google's new Google Music "all access" subscription service just painted a target on your back.

Launched at Google's annual I/O developer conference in San Francisco, the $9.99-per-month Google Music All Access adds new streaming options in the form of radio algorithms and curated playlists, on top of the existing (free) Google Music app.

This puts Google in direct competition with other popular streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify, Slacker Radio, and -- if the rumors are correct -- Apple, if the company's talks with music labels lead to its own subscription streaming product. Google's challenge is clear, but for many users, the features won't justify the cost.

Google Music
Google Music with All Access hits the desktop, smartphone, and tablet. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

How it's organized
All Access works like an in-app purchase; you don't have to download anything additional to get started, but you do need to sign up from the app. It'll work on your Android phone and on the desktop, through the Google Music Web app.

In addition to seeing contextual tabs in the menu button, you'll now see new options for Radio and Explore sections. These new features take on the app's look and feel, which is overall clean, engaging, and -- on an Android device -- very much in keeping with the Android 4.0 look and feel.

Streaming radio
Google Music's premium radio feature works a lot like any other competitors': just start by typing in the name of a favorite artist or song and the service will pull together an endless list of similar songs you might like. Of course, you're able to endorse tracks with a click of the thumbs-up icon or boo it with a thumbs-down.

The playback interface focuses on album art by default, and you can peek ahead at the next song that'll be piped into your ears. Since you're paying for the privilege, you can skip songs with abandon.

Like rival services, radio stations are organized around an artist or song that you like. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

An even more useful trick is to tap or click on over to list view for a glimpse of the fuller playlist. Songs you don't actually want, you can swipe or click away, and you've got the added benefit of switching songs around or selecting a different tune to play immediately.

We really like being able to clear the song list or save the queue as a new playlist. This rejiggering freedom, along with the extended song preview, are things you don't find with other streaming radio's premium services.

In addition to radio options, you can also search for, and start playing, songs on demand without launching an entire station.

Exploring "Explore"
Explore is another new Google Music feature that's long existed on competing music services, like Slacker Radio, for instance. It offers you a chance to browse genre and subgenre category stations, which are curated by employees who have been hired for just this purpose.

The categories are typically comprehensive, and range from Alternative/Indie and Country to R&B and World. There's more to explore by subgenre, and by glancing through featured tracks and new releases.

You'll be able to dip into featured stations, genres, and even subgenres with the Explore feature. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Google says its recommended picks, which could be based on YouTube hits as well as the contents of your own library, will adapt as it learns your musical style preferences over time.

A click or tap on the settings menu in Explore will pull up easy options to start a radio station, add songs to the queue, add them to your library or playlist, and keep them "pinned" on the device. Google will always let you buy it too, of course.

Is All Access worth it?
If you're a big Google Music user who's been contemplating a switch to a subscription service, then All Access may work for you, and the $9.99 monthly fee is in keeping with other premium services.

However, you also get a lot more with the Pandora s and Spotify s of the world even if you don't pay, whereas using Google Music without the further access gives you the key only to your own songs. Free music services like those two pay for themselves with ads, but still give you the basic radio functions. Pandora also lets you shake up stale stations by adding variety, a nice touch that isn't yet part of Google's moneymaking vision.

Google Music All Access on the phone
The good news is, you can interact with much of the music content in similar ways, like launching a station and saving a playlist. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Peeking ahead and saving some offline music with a Google Music subscription just don't seem like compelling enough reasons to jump into Google Music All Access if you're perfectly content with your free, ad-playing app.

You can also find better music value elsewhere. Slacker Radio, for instance, has curated stations in addition to predictive radio streaming, plus some of its mobile apps cache music for offline listening. Best yet, even the free version serves up lyrics while you watch.

So stick with the free Google Music app if you don't really want to do more than play back music you've purchased through Google or uploaded from your own collection. You can always buy individual songs or full albums is the only money you spend.

If you're curious, though, there's no harm checking out All Access during the free 30-day trial -- though Google will start charging your credit card if you don't cancel by June 14. That's not nice, Google. And very sneaky.

Google Music All Access costs $9.99 per month, but if you sign up before June 30, you can get it for $7.99 each month instead. The All Access service is available now in the U.S., with additional countries coming soon.

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Google Play Music All Access

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