Plexamp, the only Google Play Music replacement

Plexamp, the only Google Play Music replacement

What I loved about GPM

Google Play Music was nothing short of revolutionary when it was first released in 2011. While I was quick to spoof my location and hop on the Spotify beta early I still had a proclivity towards wanting to own my music and GPM catered to that desire.
Within minutes I was able to upload my entire 20,000 track library to Google Play Music and access it instantly on my Android device for free.
The fact that Google counted track numbers and not the size of the library was evidence enough that Google was catering to the consumer with the launch of the service.
Shortly after Google raised the limit to 50,000 tracks, and refreshed the UI into what I felt was the best ui of any music app at the time. They added radio and a Spotify-like subscription service that molded seamlessly around your uploaded content.

The highlights of Google Play Music was the excellent queue management, ease of music discovery and a radio that actually gave me relevant tracks. The fact that the entire experience built upon my uploaded content meant that I was constantly finding music that I loved while the radios on almost every other application slowly devolved into mumble rap after a short handful of songs.

What I wanted to see from GPM

Google Play Music however did not age well. Even after having a fantastic refresh of the User Interface that came along with the Google Play rebranding it slowly fell into neglect and became one of the slower applications on my device. It became a ritual for me to tap on the Now Playing widget and waiting upwards of 60 seconds for the application to not only open but for some reason browse back to the main screen just to pull up the now playing screen and finally begin playing.
I wasn't alone in the longing for yet another UI refresh of the Google Play Music application. This refresh was teased several times at different Google I/O's but never came into fruition.

What GPM fans got instead was Youtube Music. When YTM launched it had almost none of the features of GPM and the UI while good looking was much more cumbersome to use. YTM was a shell of GPM and to make matters worse, Google made official it's plans to kill off Google Play Music for good.

As a fan of GPM I wanted to see the following from YTM:

  • GPM's excellent queue management.
  • Faster application startup times.
  • Lyrics aggregation on uploaded and streamed content.
  • The ability to download my uploaded content from Google Takeout (Google Music Manager was no longer available).
  • The ability to upload my content from the web browser or from the mobile app.
  • Radio that used my uploaded content as a metric for what I liked to listen to.
  • A native desktop client similar to Spotify that didn't depend on a web browser
  • The excellent auto playlists from GPM that I grew to love.

I switched early to YTM, wanting to know if I could live with the change, I had high hopes since Google promised feature parity with GPM. Being a skeptic I, at the same time, used Google checkout and download my library back to my computer.

YTM not only missed the mark, it went in a different direction

It was clear YTM was a streaming first platform, my uploaded content was strictly partitioned off from the online library. Uploaded content is never included in radios, and if you play uploaded content you get a degraded experience.
You could play the same track uploaded and in comparison to the streamed version you didn't get lyrics aggregation, it didn't pull album art from Googles library, you didn't get links to the Artist/album pages.
You didn't even get an Artist page, instead only finding uploaded content in an endless list of all of your downloaded content.

YTM did maintain some features I wanted to see. It did maintain the excellent queue management. YTM was significantly faster. YTM did get close to the auto playlist experience with its Mix Tapes, however they almost all were for Mumble Rap and Pop songs so I stopped using them shortly after they released.

I was still carrying the 7.99/mo deal for GPM/YTM/YT Premium so I apprehensively started looking for alternatives.

My options

Of my options, I had a plethora of streaming platforms. The first one that comes to mind is likely Spotify. My experience with Spotify by comparison was a horrible application, and horrible radios that also quickly devolved into mumble rap and chill-step.
There was a dirty hack to include your uploaded music that involves running an always-on computer with the Spotify client pointed to your local library and storing them as playlists and downloading them to your devices using Spotify Premium.

Apple Music isn't much better, almost every screen bears a large advertisement for Apple Music premium. While this goes away when you subscribe, it does not allow you to explore many features other than streaming a track.
The application, while attractive, was not much better to navigate than Google Play Music. Apple Music naturally leverages AirPlay however this is not as versatile as Spotify Connect and Google Cast protocols backing it's competitors.
It has also been almost a decade since I have purchased music on iTunes. Instead I was purchasing music from Bandcamp and Qobuz whom do the music catalog better than Apple ever has.

Tidal and Deezer looked promising however they merely rehashed the Spotify experience, in HD, they make same UI mistakes and none of these options offer the ability to use your own uploaded music.

How Plexamp stacks up

A few years ago I bought a Plex lifetime pass. I am a huge fan of Plex as it is one of the few services that brings owned content into the modern smartphone era extending the DLNA experience to the smartphone world.
Plex is great for movies and TV Shows, however it always seemed like Music and Photos were an afterthought. More of 'you can do these also!' they never seemed to be a primary focus with the Plex experience.

Enter Plexamp. Plexamp is a pet project started by some of the Plex developers in their free time. It focuses entirely on the music, and served to 'dogfood' a new audio engine named 'Treble' that would soon be included in the main Plex application. It has recently seen it's v3.0 update which includes mobile applications and a revamped ui.
Plexamp requires a Plex Pass, which comes with several quality of life features but, in my opinion Plexamp alone fills in all of the value you need from the 120$ lifetime price tag Plex Pass carries.

So I spun up a Plex server, which can be done in a few seconds using Docker, signed into Plexamp, and started listening. I was very surprised to see that it had no problem streaming 16 and 24-bit flacs over T-Mobiles cell network without buffering. And for the times I lost my network for short stints it handled relatively well resuming playback within seconds of me regaining a connection.

Fresh ❤️, the ultimate throwback playlist

Soon after adding my checked out Google Play Music library I was rediscovering a lot of my music. It was nice to take some time away from streaming and focus solely on my library.
I very quickly grew to love Plex's auto playlists. A notable example is 'Fresh ❤' which refreshes daily and consists of 'music you like' (rated higher than 2.5 stars) that you haven't heard recently.

Tidal Integration

Shortly after, I discovered a Tidal deal that gives you any Tidal subscription for 4$/mo for the first 4 months. The sale includes the family tier! After 4 months this reverts to the normal pricing, which for Tidal Family is the same price as Spotify Family.
We already subscribe to Spotify family, so making the switch over to Tidal for the same price was a no-brainer. The advantage is that Tidal integrates with Plex and I wanted to see how close this integration comes to the Google Play Music experience.
Once I linked Tidal to my account on plex.tv I saw Tidal listed as another library source in Plexamp. I was delighted to see that my radios seamlessly include Tidal tracks interlaced with local content.

Once linked, the Tidal integration works just like you would expect coming from GPM. I like that the Tidal badge marks any content you downloaded.
By contrast, you cannot differentiate in GPM without toggling the downloaded only switch and watching what disappears.
And, unlike YTM, your local and Tidal content are treated the same. Both pull in lyrics when available and both share the same context menu options.

There were some instances where some Tidal content that appeared in the app was not playable. However I found that this content was not available even on the Tidal app so I feel this will be slowly worked out over time as Tidal's API improves.

Beautiful User Interface

I could go on and on about how good the Plexamp ui looks. Plexamp cleverly picks up color accents from your now playing music, its queue management exceeds that of Google Play Music. It not only allows you to add to and rearrange your queue you can also insert new tracks via "Play Next" and add tracks to the end of your last selection with "Add to Queue".

Additionally, browsing through your library manually has all of the views you'd expect. The Artist, Albums, and Tracks views have a really nice list scrubber that provides haptic feedback as you slide over each letter. This is an attention to detail I have only really seen on iOS.

Plexamp also supports casting, but not just to chromecasts. Plexamp can cast to several audio sinks using Google Cast, Airplay, Sonos and other Plex players on you network. In addition to this plethora of protocols, we also have DLNA coming from the Plex server.
I use the casting feature heavily to have my music follow me throughout the house. I however do not have Sonos speakers so I cannot comment on the Sonos experience.

Plexamps 'related' tracks

There is even more to write home about when it comes to queue management. You can long press to 'pick-up' and rearrange the tracks in your queue. Long pressing any Track/Album/Artist reveals options to 'Play Next' or 'Add to Queue'.

Improving on GPM, Plexamp addresses a key annoyance, you never accidentally swipe songs off of your queue. Instead, swiping left reveals a 'Remove' button.

For any track that is currently playing, Plexamp provides you with a related tab in the queue. This makes it easy to build a queue from songs similar to the one you're currently listening to.

The queue management is what I miss most from GPM. Thankfully, on plexamp, I found myself easily and quickly building ephemeral playlists using the queue management just as I was on Google Play Music.

Downloaded Music, without the BS

Downloaded music works just as it should. You can tap on any track, album, artist, or playlist and Plexamp will happily start downloading the tracks to your device's storage.

Something that really annoyed me with GPM was that, if I found myself losing service, tapping the 'downloaded only' button wouldn't let me actually play my downloaded music.
Even in download only mode, it seemed GPM still needed to phone home to verify your license before you can even browse your downloaded tracks. I found this extremely frustrating as this behavior did not line up with what I felt the feature was advertised as.
It should be obvious that I wont have service to verify the tracks on my mobile. Especially when the app prompts the user to switch to downloaded only mode upon network loss.

By contrast, in Plexamp I can lose service at any point in time, go to my downloads section and tap to browse through any of the content I have saved and it will start playing immediately just like a local track should. This extends to any Tidal content resting in your downloads.

One thing that I do miss from GPM is that GPM was able to jump to the next cached track in the event that a song hits the end of it's buffer. Plexamp currently does not do this, in fact no other music application I have used can do this.
With Plexamp you are instead rewarded to keeping a few music collections in your downloads, which works best when you collections are playlists as they automatically update, based on your parameters, when you enter the application.

Plexamp is the great GPM update we've been waiting for

In conclusion here is a list of GPM features that I find important and how they compare to Spotify, Youtube Music, Tidal and Plexamp:

Feature Plexamp GPM YTM Spotify Tidal
Sane queue management Yes Yes Yes No No
Integrate Local Content with cloud library Yes Yes Almost No (without hacks) No
Fast UI Yes Yes Yes
Auto Playlists Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Scrobbling Yes (with webhooks) no no yes yes
Music 'Pinning' Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Auto-play 'pinned music' No Yes No No No
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