With the upcoming launch of the Nexus Q, which lets you stream Google Play content to your TV or stereo, Google will compete more directly with Amazon and Apple in a media-store melee where price is taking a backseat to how and where consumers can play what they buy.
Using both a computer and a tablet linked to each store, I checked out the online media markets run by these internet behemoths. I used an iPad for Apple’s iTunes and an Android tablet for Google Play.
Apple Has the Most Content
I found, first of all, that Apple continues to have the biggest catalogue of music and video offerings–more than 28 million songs and 45,000 for-purchase movies as of April and more than 85,000 TV episodes as of last October.
Google is far less specific about the size of its catalogue, but it clearly trails the other two. Publicly, Google says only that it has “millions” of songs and “thousands” of movies and TV shows.
Varying Pricing Models
Prices for new releases were the same at all both services: You can rent movies in standard definition for $5.99 each or in high definition for $6.99 each or you can purchase them for $24.99 (standard def) or $29.99 (high def). In the music markets, current albums go for $16 plus and singles for $2.19.
Nevertheless, I found considerable variation in the pricing of older movies, TV shows and music. Google Play, for example, offers a free song every day (presumably to attract you to the store).
Playback Options Differ
Regardless of what you pay, you don’t always get the same playback options–especially with video. For example, if you rent a film on iTunes, you have 30 days to start watching it, but once you start, you retain access to it for just 24 hours. Google Play offers the same 30-day interval for initial access, but the window for watching it once you’ve started the video is 48 hours. These limits vary from title to title, in part because Hollywood studios dictate them–and the studios are still scrambling to figure out how best to monetise their content.
More significantly, though you can instantly stream iTunes purchases to Apple TV, the iTunes store does not support instant streaming of content to iOS devices–iPads, iPhones and iPod Touch players–which means that you have to download the (purchased or rented) content first. Google Play, by contrast, can start streaming purchased or rented content on compatible devices immediately.
Device support is a big differentiator. You need either a desktop-grade browser or an Android device to watch Google Play videos. This holds true even for the Nexus Q, which requires an Android device to serve as its remote control. But even without a Nexus Q, you might be able to watch Google Play content on an HDTV if you have a device equipped with an HDMI output.
To play videos from Apple’s iTunes store, you need an iOS device–an iPhone, an iPod Touch, an iPad, an Apple TV or a computer running iTunes. Apple also sells a $45 dock-to-HDMI connector that, in theory, lets you watch iTunes video on a big screen without having to invest in an Apple TV. But user reviews are decidedly mixed on how well it works.
Options for high definition (HD) versus standard definition (SD) video vary, based both on device support and licensing considerations. Apple offers all videos in both SD and HD–if such versions are available from the content provider–because the iPad and current iPhones and Apple TV support both.
Google Play offers less HD content than its competitors. According to Google’s documentation, studio licensing agreements dictate HD availability.
Finally, the services have different rules on how many devices you can use to watch media streams or to download content.
Apple iTunes Store: Biggest, But Not Best?
Apple pioneered the online media store when it launched iTunes and the breadth of its content offerings is unmatched. But the features in the current version–iTunes 10–are starting to look a bit dated.
Most notably missing is support for streaming purchased content to iOS devices. When you buy a song or a video on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you must download it to play it and that can take a while. Apple TV does let you stream iTunes purchases instantly, however and several third-party apps promise to add streaming support to iOS devices.
Otherwise, Apple unlike Google Play, requires you to install desktop software and treats purchased music and videos fairly consistently. You can store iTunes content online using iCloud and sync it to as many as ten authorised devices, including five computers. De-authorising a device from within iTunes on a computer is easy.
Purchasing videos from the iPad iTunes app requires only entry of your Apple account password. Once content finishes downloading, it appears in the appropriate player (music or video).
The New Kid: Google Play
The new kid on the media store block, Google Play doesn’t yet have the volume of content (especially HD movies and TV) or ubiquity of device support enjoyed by its competitors.
But if you happen to own an Android device of fairly recent vintage, acquiring content via the Google Play Store app is as easy as doing so on the iPad. Simply manoeuvre to the appropriate content category and search or browse as you prefer. The Play Store charges purchase or rental fees to the credit card that you have on file for all your Google purchases; if you don’t have credit card data on file yet, you’ll be prompted to add it.
Music that you buy from Google Play automatically goes to your online Google Play library and you can stream it to any Android device or browser. You can also upload up to 20,000 songs from other sources to the library via Google’s free Music Manager software, which makes the service great for streaming your tunes anywhere. But you can stream music to only one device at a time.
You can also opt to download purchased tunes to up to ten authorised computers or Android devices for offline playback. If you run up against the ten-device limit, you can de-authorise a device and then add a new one–but you can’t do this for more than four devices per year.
Download limits are less generous for movies and TV shows: You can download them to only five devices and you must delete the download on one device if you wish to view it on a sixth screen.