Last week, Google relaunched YouTube Music as a direct competitor to other streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, an evolution that we'd been expecting for some time as the company sorts out the branding of its increasingly overlapping streaming services. Download.com is in the "Early Access" club, and we're prepared to tell you if Spotify, Apple Music, or another established rival is better for partying 'til the break of dawn.
There's still a free version, and it's generous: You can't download tracks or listen in the background, and there will be ads in between some songs, but the free version of YouTube Music still offers features that we're not used to seeing in the competition's ad-supported tier: You can play specific songs and skip to the next song in a list as many times as you like. Unlimited skips and on-demand listening are customarily reserved for paying customers, so we're surprised to see Google opening the gates this wide.
The app is handsome and easy to navigate: Despite the association with YouTube (you'll even be able to access it via web browser at music.youtube.com), YT Music shares little of the video streaming service's aesthetics, instead looking more like Google Play Music or another conventional tune-streaming platform. Even the video content is largely stripped of its YouTube-ness: There are no descriptions, no comments section, no sidebar of similar recommended clips; just the video, some basic controls, an action menu (add to playlist, share, start radio, go to artist's page), and a list of the other videos, if you're watching from a playlist.
As far as basic navigation goes, it basically feels like Play Music or Spotify. The home screen features a selection of themed playlists, recommendations based on your listening, a "New & Trending" section, new releases, and separate sections for music videos and concert footage. The Library tab in the lower right features the content that you've played most recently, followed by separate sections for your downloads, playlists, albums, liked songs, and artists.
When you tap on Downloads, a gear icon appears in the upper right, which is a shortcut to your download settings. Here you can see how much space is available on your device and how much the app is using, a toggle for offline mixtapes (a dynamic selection of recommendations), and a "Clear Downloads" action. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a way to delete specific songs from your downloads; it's all or nothing. But overall, the app feels snappy, makes good use of screen space -- and connects directly to a version of Google's famously capable search engine that's been optimized for music.
Discovering new music is easy and inviting: Like Spotify and Pandora, YouTube Music has "radio" stations. These are a type of playlist generated by the streaming service, with two important differences. One, it's an endless river of music, whereas a regular playlist has a specific number of tracks. Two, you can vote up or down on a song to refine the river; voting up tacks more similar songs onto the station's queue, and voting down removes similar songs. Liking a song also adds it to the Liked Videos section of your regular YouTube account. This list is private by default, but you can make it public and share it with your friends.
This radio function is available for every artist, album, song, and playlist in the catalog, so you get many points of entry to start exploring.
Huge and accessible library of music videos: You might not think of video as something important to a music service, but don't forget that YouTube has a colossal vault of music videos and concert footage, many of which have never been found elsewhere. Now, all of this content is coordinated under the YouTube Music banner (and apparently legitimized from a legal standpoint), so you can delve into it without having to engage with YouTube's growing clickbait problem. For music lovers, this is the best version of YouTube by far, which itself has proven invaluable as a cultural archive.
Location-based recommendations: You can optionally let YT Music generate recommendations based on your physical location, another thing we haven't seen from the competition. Your Google account can track a wide variety of things if you want it to, from your commute route to your favorite restaurants, so this is basically an extension of that. For example, the mobile app detected that I was at work and presented some instrumental playlists with labels like Ambient Bass, Classical Focus, Epic Film Scores, and Muted Jazz.
When you open a playlist, you can add it to your library, download it for offline listening, add it to a queue, shuffle it, share it, or open a "radio" station, which is a dynamic selection of similar tunes that you can vote up or down like Pandora.
Play Music uploads are slated for migration to YouTube Music: One of GPM's interesting features is the ability to add your own MP3s to fill in gaps in the catalog; Metallica, the Beatles, Beyoncé, Tool, and others have taken non-standard approaches to streaming music that could, in some cases, make their catalog difficult to obtain, and this helps you get everything under one roof. Google tells us that this personal MP3 catalog feature will be added to YouTube Music, but we do not have a specific date for that yet.
Currently missing popular features like an equalizer and Apple CarPlay: While the look and feel of YouTube Music is very polished overall, there are definitely a few Under Construction signs here and there. For example, there's currently no support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which is "coming soon." Google Play Music has been available there for some time now. It's not clear what form YouTube Music will take in your car, given its emphasis on video content; it will probably be audio-only, for safety reasons.
Spotify on iOS also has an equalizer to let you adjust bass and treble, with a selection of presets if you don't like fiddling with sliders. Apple Music doesn't have an EQ, but it does have a long list of presets. These are important tools to compensate for the quirks of our various listening environments -- but unfortunately YT Music doesn't yet have it. The company told us last week, "It's planned as part of the Google Play Music migration-related work." This statement doesn't reveal very much, but at least we have official confirmation that it's in the pipeline.
Last but not least, YouTube Music doesn't offer a setting to let you adjust the overall quality of your stream or your downloads. So if you have roomy storage space or a high data cap to accommodate high fidelity, you won't be able to take advantage of that quite yet.
The subscription system is a little confusing: Depending on whether you want YouTube Red, Google Play Music by itself, or YouTube Music by itself, you'll have a potentially confusing matrix of different subscription options. $10 a month gets you YouTube Music, but not Red; that combo is now $12 a month. And by the way, YouTube Red is now called YouTube Premium. But other than including the new YouTube Music, it's still YouTube Red, just with a different name and a slightly higher price tag.
Meanwhile, Premium still includes a subscription to Play Music, which you can also get separately for $10 a month -- unless you signed up early and got the $8 a month deal. Signing up for GPM used to get you access to YouTube Red/Premium, but that's apparently no longer the case.
As you can see, it takes some time to figure out what you get for how much you're willing to pay.
Until YouTube Music adds more features from Google Play Music, it's hard to justify replacing GPM or its main rivals, unless you watch a lot of music videos. On the bright side, you can continue on with GPM, Spotify. or Apple Music for the foreseeable future, until you're ready to make the switch.