“Subscribe now!” blares the banner at the bottom of Google’s Play Music control panel, and indeed, everything about the just-revamped app seems to be shilling for its subscription streaming service, particularly the new auto-generated radio stations that sit (quite stubbornly) in Play Music’s Home tab.
But even if you don’t want to cough up $10 a month to play a streaming shuffle on your phone, there’s still plenty of free stuff to like in Google’s Play Music app for Android and iOS.
For example, you can bring pretty much your entire music collection wherever you go once you upload your tunes and create and save “instant mixes” based on any of your songs. There’s also an offline mode and bandwidth settings to keep you from blowing through your mobile data, an equalizer for teasing the best sound out of your headset, and even a sleep timer so you can doze off to your most soothing playlist.
Upload your music collection
One of the most powerful features of Play Music—namely, its ability to stream your music collection to your Android or iOS device—demands a lengthy, tedious chore on your desktop PC, but the results are worth the time and effort.
Google offers a downloadable ”Music Manager” tool that’ll upload music from your PC or Mac to your Play Music account, or you can simply drag and drop music files into the Upload window of Play Music for Chrome.
Google’s Music Manager tool does its best to “scan and match” your tunes with existing tracks in the cloud, but it’ll end up uploading many of your songs, a process that could take hours or even days depending on the speed of your broadband connection and the size of your music collection.
Once you’re done with all the uploads, though, your tunes will be available for streaming or download in the Play Music app for iOS and Android, and even on Play Music in a web browser—and best of all, Google will let you upload up to 50,000 tracks for free.
Note: Any music you’ve previously purchased from the Google Play Music store will already be sitting in your online music library, and they won’t count against your free 50,000 song uploads.
Create and save an 'instant mix'
Sure, the free version of Google Play Music will let you listen to streaming radio stations, but you’ll have to deal with some ads and limits to how often you can skip, and downloading a station for offline listening is out of the question.
If you’ve got your music collection sitting in the cloud, though, you can create “instant mixes” of your tracks based on your favorite songs, albums, and artists, and then save and download those mixes to your Android or iOS device.
Just go to any song, album, or artist in your music library, tap the three-dot menu button and, and select Start instant mix; when you do, Play Music will generate a mix and start playing the first tune. Tap the mini-player at the bottom of the screen, tap the three-dot menu button again, tap Save queue, then save the songs in the queue to a new playlist.
Now, navigate back to the main Music Library screen, tap the Playlists tab, tap the three-dot menu button on the playlist you just created, then tap Download to save your mix for offline listening.
Switch to offline mode
Once you’ve saved a few instant mixes to your device, you’ll be ready to tee them up wherever you are, even if you’re offline—and indeed, if you’re intent on burning as little mobile data as possible while listening to your tunes on the go, your best bet is to switch the Play Music app to offline mode.
Tap the main menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, then toggle on the Downloaded only setting. Once you do, Play Music will only drop the needle on tracks that are already downloaded on your Android or iOS device, perfect for listening on the subway or keeping your mobile data use in check.
Use as little mobile data as possible
Say you’re out and about and you’re itching to play an album that you never bothered to download in advance. With the right settings enabled, you can still stream your music without taking too big a bite out of your mobile data allowance.
Tap the main menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, tap Settings, then scroll down and tap Mobile networks stream quality.
Now, pick a setting. Low uses the least amount of cellular bandwidth but leaves your music sounding muddier than you might like. Normal strikes a decent balance between sound quality and mobile data use, while High spares no expense when it comes to delivering crystal-clear sound quality.
Tweak your equalizer settings (Android only)
Speaking of audio quality, you can make your own adjustment to how your tracks sound by fiddling with Play Music’s equalizer levels.
On an Android device, tap the main menu button, then tap Settings > Equalizer, and toggle on the main Equalizer switch. The drop-down menu in the top corner of the screen lets you choose from 11 equalizer presets, ranging from Normal and Classical to Hip-Hop and Jazz, or you can pick User to mess with the quintet of EQ sliders.
Below the main equalizer settings are a couple more audio settings: one for Bass Boost and another for Surround sound, handy for giving Play Music’s audio some extra punch and presence. (Note: If the Bass Boost and Surround sound sliders are grayed out, try plugging in a pair of headphones.)
Fall asleep to your tunes
There’s nothing like a mix of mellow tunes to help you doze off, and Play Music has a feature that’ll help you get some shut-eye without playing your music on all night.
Tap the main menu button, tap Settings > Sleep Timer, then select how many hours and minutes you’d like to snooze to.
Tinker with your music queue
Just like the Music app on iOS, Play Music has a queue of “up next” songs—in other words, a list of all the songs that are queued up depending on the album, playlist or artist you’re playing.
As you’re playing a track, tap the mini-player at the bottom of the display to zoom it to full-screen view, then tap the queue button (the one with three lines and a little music note icon) in the top-right corner of the screen.
Now that you can see your music queue, time to tinker. First, tap and drag a handle next to a song to shuffle its position in the queue, or swipe away the song to nix it from the queue.
To jump any song, album, or artist in your music library to the front of the queue, tap the three-dot menu button next to its title and tap Play next—or, if you want your selection to play after everything else in your queue, tap Add to queue instead.
Check out your 'cached' music
One of the tricks that Play Music has up its sleeves is the ability to automatically download a playlist of your recently played songs. If you ever get caught offline without having downloaded any music manually, you can count on your cached music to tide you over.
First, make sure you’re in offline mode: Tap the main menu button, then toggle on the Downloads only switch.
Back on the main menu, tap Home—and when you do, you’ll find a “cached music” playlist, all downloaded and waiting for you.
If you’re short on storage space and you actually don’t want Play Music automatically downloading any music, tap the main menu button, tap Settings, then toggle off the Cache music while streaming setting (or Cache during playback on iOS). You’ll lose your cached-music playlist, but at least you’ll conserve precious storage space on your handset.
Clear out old cached data and downloads
Running out of storage space? There’s an easy way to instantly zap all of Play Music’s downloaded tunes, along with any auto-downloaded “cached” music.
Head for the main menu, then tap Settings > Clear cache. That’s a move that could instantly free up hundreds of megabytes of storage, depending on the size of your “cached music” playlist.
Next, tap Manage downloads. You’ll jump to a screen that shows all the downloaded music and podcasts on your device. Just tap the little orange buttons next to each track, album, or artist to instantly wipe them.