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Google Play Music is finally available for iOS, bringing the cloud-based music service to your iPhone, but it's not quite on par with the Android version. You get most of the same features, but you won't be able to buy music like you can on Android.
As a way to avoid giving Apple its standard 30 percent commission, Google decided to keep the capabilities to purchase music and sign up for All Access on the Web. In other words, if you want All Access or to buy a song, you'll have to head to your desktop to make your purchases then fire up the app on your iPhone to start listening.
Navigating the app
Google Play Music gives you a grid of your music using album cover art. Across the top of the interface you can browse by genres, artists, albums, or songs, or use a search button in the upper right if you know what you want to listen to. By hitting the main menu button in the upper left, you can get to Google's Listen Now option, your personal music library, playlists you have already made, and some other options.
The interface is very intuitive, and it's laid out in such a way that just about anyone could pick up the app and immediately understand how to use it.
Using the free version
The Google Play Music app on its own is free and has a few useful features without signing up for a subscription, but you will still need a standard account with Google (such as Gmail) to get started. Using Google's download manager for the desktop, you can upload up to 20,000 songs of your current music library to Google's cloud servers so you can play them on your iPhone or through a Web browser. The download manager offers a number of options for uploading, including straight from your iTunes library.
Once finished, all of your music is stored online, so you don't have to worry about storage space on your iPhone, and you can listen from any device seamlessly. But, as a streaming service, you also won't be able to listen to your full library of music when offline. Fortunately, you can download some of your favorites for when you want to listen and don't have an Internet connection.
The Google Play Music app also works seamlessly with Chromecast, so you can send music to your entertainment system just like you can with other streaming music apps, such as Pandora and the Google Play Music app for Android.
Going All Access
To really take advantage of the service, you can sign up for Google All Access on your desktop computer. For $9.95 per month, you'll then have access to Google's library of more than 20 million songs, which lets you search by song, album, or artist to find music you like for listening directly or making playlists. You also be able to listen to customized ad-free radio stations by selecting a song, album, or artist, and there are no skip limits (a common limitation in other apps). Just like the free version, you'll be streaming from the server to your iPhone by default, but can also download your favorites so you can listen without an Internet connection.
With All Access, you'll also be able to take advantage of the Explore tab found in the app's slide out menu in the top left. Here you can browse Google's entire catalog by genre, listen to playlists made by Google's staff, and browse through the new releases and chart toppers. The app shows featured playlists at the top, followed by top albums, and then has top songs at the bottom. It's a great layout for discovering new music, and Google will also use an algorithm to suggest songs you might like based on your listening habits.
Google Play Music is certainly not the first app of its kind, and is actually entering a fairly crowded genre of apps in the App Store with this latest release. For a similar experience you could download apps like Rdio or Slacker Radio, and several other lesser known apps that do about the same thing. But with that said, Google Play Music has an excellent interface that's easy to use, an enormous library of music, great music discovery features, it streams music at up to 320 kbps, and works well on all your devices. Even the free version is worthwhile because you can upload 20,000 songs to Google's servers and use the app as your main music player without paying a dime.
There are only a few drawbacks at this point with Google Play Music when compared with other similar services. One is that it doesn't work on the iPad, but the company says an iPad version is currently in the works. The app also doesn't have an option to show lyrics, and you won't be able to read band bios, features found in many of the apps from this genre. It's also not yet on par with the Android version, with some features, such as the "I'm feeling lucky" option for creating radio stations, not yet available on the iPhone. Still, Google's first foray into the streaming music category in Apple's App Store is a solid first outing and I'm sure we'll see more improvements down the road.