Friday, 31 July 2020

A satisfactory solution to the demise of Google Play Music

For generations before music streaming every record on earth became a thing, there have been music lovers known as collectors. Discerning music lovers who will audition, listen, share, and ultimately 'collect' albums to add to their ever growing library. People who would selectively spend their money on supporting artists they loved, by buying albums instead of paying subscriptions to global corporations who are known to pay a pittance to artists
Collectors total album count are their badge of honour, their knowledge of each artist and history, their passion. In the 1970s Vinyl was the collectors medium of choice. For portability in the early 80's Cassette's become almost as popular (although not for the true audiophiles). Then in the mid 80's the Compact Disc became the long term winner for many millions of collectors and in the late 90's MP3 made it's first appearance. With low bandwidth and small hard disk drive sizes, the best we could realistically hope to convert our collections to would use 128kbps, which didn't cut the mustard for sound quality when compared to a CD. Many turned their backs on the technology then, but some of us persevered and started to enjoy FLAC or MP3's at 320kpbs, which for our ageing ears, is perfectly adequate and on a good piece of kit delightful to listen to. 
The sound quality argument will rage on and many CD adopters, through nostalgia or other reasons have even reverted back to Vinyl. From people close to me, that seems to be the over 50's, but perhaps that's just a coincidence?
For those of us who are happy with the sound quality and convenience of current digital formats, our  collections have become monsters and playing back these files with our HiFi systems, a black art. Keeping it simple, perhaps CD collections have remained the most 'convenient', but having 600 albums in the palm of your hand, wherever you are, is irresistible to geeks like myself. 

Although many Amplifiers now have built in Bluetooth, the limitations are obvious for even the least discerning listener. Bluetooth is ok for portable speakers and perhaps low end headphones, but the compression compared to streaming over WiFi should be obvious, music just lacks cohesiveness and joy when compared to listening over WiFi devices. The Chromecast Audio with it's 320kbps digital output is clearly higher quality than any bluetooth device I've heard. 
For many, many years Google Play music (a free cloud service) coupled with Chromecast devices has been a godsend. But, Google have pulled the rug from under our feet and unless we're now prepared to pay for a YouTube Music subscription, we've been well and truly shafted, in a number of ways;
  • Casting Audio to Chromecast devices is not supported on mobile devices without a subscription to YouTube Music.
  • Quality is limited to 128kbps for non subscribers.
  • The interface is geared towards their library (a mixture of audio and video files for albums) not our music collections. Indeed finding and playing music is downright difficult. 
There's more besides, but there's enough here to make YouTube music a service that needs ditching. This is very disheartening, especially seeing as this is the service that we used, in order to use the devices, that we purchased... from Google! It's arguable that we've been mis-sold these Google devices that are no longer freely supported by Google. 
But, technology has moved on and for a little time and effort, and a new way of thinking, we digital 'collectors' can sate our needs. For years, streaming music from a central library on a Mac or Windows PC using Airplay to an Apple TV has been an option, so you could use that route, but if you've invested in Chromecast audio devices and use an Android phone, the best solution is to bring everything back 'in house'. 
Step one acquire a large capacity, fast micro SD card. The beauty of this happening now is that a 128Gb SD card can be bought for around £20. (linked; the one I bought). 
Step two - transfer your entire music collection to SD card. You can either download your music from Google Play, which can take days, or if you have a local backup, (and you really ought to) then you can transfer that. I have 30Gb which I transferred on to the card in less than 20 minutes. I put it into a folder on the card called 'Music'. 
Step Three - swap out your older low capacity card, if you have a card in your phone, copy the files to the new card, but ensure that there isn't another folder with the same name. You don't want to replace your full 'Music' folder, with an empty one. 
Step Four - put the new card in your phone and find a decent music player that supports streaming. 
HiFi Cast

There are dozens of options for step four, but I have chosen an app called Hi-Fi cast. This fab little app has a very easy to use interface, places no restrictions on music quality playback and spots all of my Chrome devices without any tinkering. Sound quality is exceptional, and it comes highly recommended. The free version has ads, but they're not played in between songs, like Spotify and YouTube music, they're discreet banners on the playback screen. You can remove these adverts and support the developers by buying a one time licence for less than 1 months YouTube Music subscription. It's relatively light on my battery and I thank the developers for their work. 


Currently, I'm in my office typing this listening to Pink Floyd and Aldous Harding. Through my Chromecast TV. Like I might have been using the Google Play App. 



Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Youtube Music is nothing compared to Google Play Music.

The transfer is complete, my music collection that I have enjoyed listening through Google Play Music for the best part of a decade has now moved to the new improved cash machine that is Youtube music. 
The end of an era, the end of listening to albums cast to my hifi at 320kbps. 

So what is my problem with Youtube Music?

Let's start with the least infuriating feature. Finding an individual album (that I own and have uploaded) is now incredibly difficult. Albums and Artists are listed on separate tabs. Tap either, through the web or the app, and you're presented with the YouTube Music Artists you have bought, which is none, so I have to manually switch it to uploaded. If I'm looking at Albums, they're not listed in artist order, but album title. With 10,000 songs, that's a lot of albums to scroll through and loading time isn't great, so getting to 'The Seldom Seen Kid" or anything lower down in the alphabet takes forever. But there is an easier way, being Google, of course, I can search! So if I type "The Seldom Seen Kid" it pops up. If I tap play in the web player. It creates a mix of Elbow songs and videos and plays adverts as well. I can no longer listen to my own albums, in the order they were meant unless I scroll down to it, which because of the loading times, is just horrible. If I search for an album on the app and press play, I get adverts and then the music videos where they exist. I JUST WANT TO LISTEN TO MY MUSIC!

As mentioned, this is the least infuriating aspect. 

So on to music quality, A large proportion of the music I have downloaded is in 320kbps. Honestly, played back on a relatively good hifi, this is the only way to enjoy the MP3 format fully. Play Music supported 320kpbs and sounded excellent, you could tweak it so that you didn't have high quality if using your data over mobile, but I'd bought a package with a good allowance, which meant I could enable 320kbps over 4G, meaning high quality sound and full access to my music collection, anywhere.     
    But, not any more, 128kbps is the highest quality available to a non subscriber, so unless I'm prepared to fork out £120 per year, I have to suffer the lower sound quality. 

And finally, the old Play app that so many millions of us have been enjoying for so many years, used to cast to our GOOGLE chrome devices (see I'm making a point here that google sold us these audio devices to work with our music collections). Google devices that we bought in good faith, that streamed via optical toslink (a selling point of the Chromecast audio) at, you guessed it 320kbps. Now alas, that is no longer a feature for non subscribers either. You can stream via the web player, if you use Chrome, but trying to simply play an album from your own collection here is confounded by the shoddy interface mentioned in the second paragraph, although it is possible, although it'll only be at 128kbps, so won't sound as good as when you uploaded it. Which sucks. 
(EDIT: Update - having finally twisted YouTube Music to cast an album I own, in order (even at 128kbps) over our home network, on 5Ghz, it is choppy. Might go back to CDs)

Overall, it's a woefully poor shadow of what Google Play Music was, and I shall be treating myself to either an iPhone next time I upgrade, or I'll simply get a huge memory card and try and find an audio player that will cast from my phone. 

Very poor Google, you've disappointed a large amount of music lovers all around the world and rendered our Chromecast Audio devices useless. Seriously, what am I supposed to do with it now?



Monday, 20 July 2020

My suggestions for avoiding problems with Google Drive shared folders.

As I have recently found out, having a team member leave a shared Google Drive can be infuriatingly complex. The best way to handle a shared Google Drive is by using an admin account for the organisation.
All of the folders within a share, should be managed by this one account. If they are created by the key member representing the organisation, then the sharing permissions for the folder can be managed by the admin. The admin can remove people from the share, or share the folder or files with other people.
Other team members should not create new folders within the Parent folder.
Other team members should, as a matter of course (for their sake as well as the organisation, upload folders, but as a matter of habit, make the owner of the file or folder the orgnisation's admin account.

If you already have an active share with hundreds of valuable files, between a number of people, then you can prepare for future issues (someone moving on) in a couple of ways. There may be better ways, please do share them in the comments if you can think of practical ones.

DISCLAIMER The following advice is provided with no guarantee of success and assumes the person responsible understands fully the process and takes all necessary precautions to ensure data is not lost.
DISCLAIMER 2 - Google forms associated with Google Spreadsheets are likely to become disconnected using the Gung-Ho method.
DISCLAIMER 3 - Think about everything first.

The Gung-Ho method.
Ensure Backup and Sync is running and make sure it's fully synchronised with all of the folders and files associated with your google drive.
Move the shared folder to a backup device.
Login to your Drive account from a browser, Delete your the shared drive folder and ensure backup and sync runs fully as well.
After sync has completed. Ensure your Bin on drive is empty, and your 'shared with me' contains none of the original content.
The final step is for the admin account to re-upload the folder, all contents will now show the owner as the admin account.

The Surgical method
Ensure every team member is aware of the problem.
Each team member should log into the share and change every folder, every file by transferring the ownership to the organisations admin account.
This is much more labour intensive, and the admin account will likely get hundreds of emails advising them that they're the new owner of content within the share.

Why?
If a team member leaves and is the owner of files and folders within a shared parent folder. When they leave (the share) or delete the folder from their drive, some of those files and folders will be deleted, and some move from their drive to their shared with me, and others will move to their 'storage'.
The work that they contributed to the project(s) will be gone.
So it either needs to be uploaded again (the Gung-Ho method) or have a new owner (the surgical method).

The huge, huge problem with Google Shared folders.

Let's say you collaborate on a project with some people. You decide between you that Google Drive is the way you're going to share the work and you find for the initial period, workflow is good and you're contributing, editing and sharing in equal measure. The way collaborative work should be.

Then as the project matures, so do people's intentions and goals. Maybe one goes on to start and collaborate with another group of people, their contribution to the project was more relevant at launch and now they want to respectfully go their separate ways.

How do they reclaim the space back from their drive. How do they (or you) remove them from the share and how do we ensure confidentiality on future work?

Well that's where things get interesting. Lets call the guy who is part of the remaining team, the new leader, A and the person leaving Z.

Before we dig in, I'd like to point out that I am admin for other G Suite partners, and a Google Certified Educator. I know my way around Drive, mostly. Removing a partner from a G Suite establishment deletes their drive, with the option to copy their content to another colleagues account is straightforward. With unlimited storage, this rarely causes a problem. It's the way cloud storage should work when colleagues separate from a partnership.

For clarity, I use the word 'files' to refer to pieces of work, presentations, images, etc, and 'folder' for the containers in which the files are stored. The share we're talking about has well organised files and folders within folders, within folders.

So, back to our issue. It's now time for a team member Z to step out of the workflow and this is where the problems arise. The shared folder is accessed by around 14 colleagues. Some of the work is owned by team member Z wanting to leave, and many of the folders are also owned by the same team member. Across the folders, there are literally hundreds of files owned by different team members. The drive folder is likely added as part of every colleagues 'Drive' too. That is to say, it's not just in 'Shared with me' but it's also copied into 'My Drive' and using storage space.

Changing the owner of the parent folder to colleague A, (still in the group) changes nothing of any meaning. The files and folders inside the share, previously owned by Z, are still owned by Z.
Colleague Z, although he's no longer able to access the Shared Folder that contains everything (via 'My Drive', can still access them, via his Storage tab.
These items won't show up in Z's 'My Drive'. But they will show up under Storage. In addition, the individual files will show what Shared Folder they're in, which colleague Z can access via the link under Details and Location.

Colleague Z has no easy way to help, and for the existing colleagues there's no easy way to ensure Z's removal is smooth, they can't change permissions on files he owns. If he deletes the work (from his Storage tab... the only way he can access them) they the existing colleagues will still have access to those files. But this laborious process is done one file at a time, and there could be hundreds.

We've called this convoluted process, Drexit. It's that bad, colleague Z's files are so deeply entangled and intertwined that unraveling them is proving to be a laborious and unnecessary.

Google Drive, as of this moment is a truly exceptional tool for multi share contributions and collaboration, but although it's set up is simple enough, it's set down is enough to make people reconsider their options. Folder and Project owners need overall control of everything within a folder hierarchy. Ownership should be easily be transferable and an 'apply permissions to each file and folder contained within' should be a simple tickbox available to those who want to respectfully remove themselves from an existing project folder.

When a colleague leaves a Folder share, the process should be simple, currently it's overwhelmingly complex.