As of July 2013, the Google Play store officially reached over 1m apps published and over 50bn downloads.

As of the same date, iTunes achieved 575m registered users and it’s adding 500,000 new accounts every day.

There is no denying the power and ubiquity of Apple’s digital music service, after all it has transformed the way that everyone on the planet consumes music.

iTunes is a deeply flawed experience though. It’s impersonal and slow, with lack of support for different file formats, a stubbornly rigid price model and no browser access.

In an ongoing series I’ve been checking out the competition to see if I can find a digital music platform that can finally trump iTunes.

So far, 7digital and Amazon MP3 have both shown many surprising wins over the Goliath of iTunes. I saved Google Play till later as I expected this to be where the true battle lies. 

I was wrong.

The experience begins well enough…

Homepage

Top marks for clarity and attractiveness of layout.

It’s not the most content-rich of homepages, but it’s certainly an improvement on Amazon MP3’s shotgun scatter approach.

The special offers on new releases, in particular the deal of the day are certainly attractive and offer a massive temptation away from iTunes and its rigid pricing policy.

Sign-up

Before I’ve even started browsing, I’m immediately presented with this pop-up, which explains the features of Google Play clearly.

Google Play is not only a music download site, it’s a streaming site along the lines of Spotify.

In using other download sites such as 7digital and Amazon MP3, I’m used to very simple and fast purchase functionality. Here I’m already forced into a journey I may not have necessarily wanted to take in the first place and it’s pretty long-winded.

Here are the steps:

I’m asked to create a Google Wallet account. There’s no PayPal option.

I’m then asked if I want to download the Music Manager.

This is a separate programme that uploads your music to the cloud and downloads music from Google Play to your desktop.

So once all of that’s done and downloaded, I’m free to browse.

Search and product listing

Search is fine, with predictive keyword suggestions.

Product listings are then presented well, with large clear images, prices and if you click on the artist picture you are presented with an impressively comprehensive biography.

Product page

I’m going to buy Madonna’s Like a Virgin for £1.99, because I would be an idiot if I didn’t.

Again a very attractive and clear layout. 

Snippets of tracks can be previewed by clicking the ‘graphic equaliser’ button to the left of the track, and customer reviews can be accessed by scrolling down the page.

It does seem a little bare though. In fact I’m starting to realise that there’s very little else going on here. Just grey.

There are no further recommendations here, let alone albums by the same artist. There’s a single tag that says ‘80’s pop’ but when you click on it, it reveals these disappointing choices.

Prince? Fine.

Journey, Dire Straits and Tracey Chapman? I’m not sure Madonna fits in the same bracket there.

Basket and checkout

You can either click ‘add to wishlist’ to continue shopping without leaving the product page, or click the price, which denotes ‘buy’.

After a single confirmation screen, your purchase is ready.

Post purchase downloading and streaming

You can listen to the album direct from the browser by clicking the clear call-to-action button in the pop-up window above. Although it’s not clear how you download the album.

In fact it took me a while to find where you actually download your files from. 

After clicking away from the pop-up, I headed into My Library, then I had to click on the relevant artist image, before landing on their list of tracks.

This in itself took a while to chase around.

I finally found the option to download here, hidden within the tiny slither of a menu button.

When I’ve clicked ‘download’ I’m informed of this:

Only twice? That seems a little tight.

Then I remember that I was encouraged to download the Music Manager at the start of my journey. 

Upon clicking on the Music Manager, I’m presented with this message:

“Please sign in to the Google Play music player on the web before using Music Manager”.

I’m already signed in to Google Play. I’m listening to Madonna right now through the player.

I click on the button in the pop-out that says ‘Go to Google Play music player’, it opens yet another browser tab that opens the Google Play music library that I’m already signed in to.

Patience is wearing a little thin now.

I then click on the ‘retry’ button within the pop-up, and it finally works.

I am subjected to multiple questions asking whether I want to sync the Music Manager with existing files on my desktop or iTunes, and various other customisable options before set-up is finished.

The Manager doesn’t open automatically. I have to fire it up from my desktop.

Once it’s all up and running though, downloading the tracks I’ve purchased is a straightforward and speedy process.

I can also download the tracks using the Music Manager as many times as I like. I’m not a big fan of using a separate programme to manage my music, expecially when I already have iTunes, Spotify, Windows Media and thanks to this series of articles, AmazonMP3 player.

However I am happy to find you can download the tracks directly from the web browser. The limit to two downloads does seem really stingy though.

You can stream any of your music via the online player, which launches at the bottom of your screen. So not terribly obvious to find. A separate window launch would be better.

When you navigate around the site while the player is streaming, new browser tabs are opened, so the playback remains uninterrupted, which is a handy feature, until you inevitably close the tab accidentally.

On top of this, the Music Manager doesn’t allow you to stream music. It’s just an download/upload manager.

Unlike the Amazon MP3 software that requires to be downloaded and launched in order to stream music from Amazon, the Google Play programme does nothing of the sort. It only streams through the browser.

Mobile site and app

Google Play doesn’t operate a separate mobile site. You have to download the app.

That’s fine, as I’ve had nothing but trouble with the Amazon MP3 and 7digital mobile sites due to the fact that you can only purchase from the mobile site and download and play through a separate app.

Unfortunately if you’re an iOS user like myself, the Google Play app doesn’t allow you to purchase music either. If I want to purchase music from Google Play on mobile, I have to navigate the desktop version of the site via Safari.

Then whilst in the app, I have yet to figure out how you actually download your purchases from the Google Play store. I have been assured by numerous online sources that it can be done, although I’m rather sceptical.

Is it because I’m using an iPhone? Is Google Play and iOS really that incompatible?

I can’t be bothered with this anymore.

So I’ll ask the question that I always ask at the end of each of these articles, just for the sake of tradition and to give myself the satisfaction of providing the answer.

Better than iTunes?

Emphatically no. 

It may be better in terms of price, but I begrudge giving my money to something so restrictive, long-winded and unpleasant to use.

There’s little in the way of curation. The navigation is terrible. Sign-up is needlessly long-winded. The Music Manager download was a farcical experience. I can’t get my head around how I’m meant to use the app, or even if I can.

Is this just because I’m an Apple user? I’m doing all of this via Mac and iPhone. If this really is the case, then I’m shocked at how prejudiced the Google Play experience is against Apple users. 

For more digital music UX from the blog, check out seven reasons why I love Spotify and 17 why I don’t.