How to get the most out of the Google Play Store
Google Play is the cornerstone of Google's ecosystem of content and becoming a critical part of Android. It reaches almost all of Android and through Play Services is capable of fixing many of Android's problems. Google Play also is a content library and ecosystem that is accessible on more platforms than almost any other. Born as the Android Market, it's grown from just a home for apps and is now the one-stop shop for applications, books, movies, music, TV shows — basically anything and everything that you can buy and use on your Android phone or tablet.
And we can help you get the most out of Google Play across your devices. Stick around and we'll show you a few new tricks.
1. What is Google Play?
Google Play is the official content and app store for the Google ecosystem and Android platform. It's where Google wants you to buy apps, movies, music, and even books, if you haven't been completely brainwashed by freemium apps like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans. Google Play goes far beyond Android as a content provider, however, which is why Google changed the name back in 2012 from Android Market to Google Play. It's for far more than just Android.
The videos from Google Play Movies & TV are available in the app on either Android or iOS, as well as in YouTube. Likewise, Google Play Music and Books are accessible on iOS, Android, and through the Chrome browser. And if you're on a computer with the Chrome browser, almost all of Google Play's content is available to you, save for apps, of course.
While this may not be the broadest compatibility, consider that Apple's ecosystem is tied to the iTunes program, so there's no real chance of consuming it outside the home without an iOS device. However, iTunes may have a leg up on Google Play in international content, as Google Play availability is somewhat spotty abroad. Here in America we may have it all, but TV shows are only available in 5 countries, and paid Newsstand content is in only 7.
Google Play rolls out Play Services to over 90 percent of current Android devices every six weeks, allowing Google to issue quick security patches and give devices that will never see a system update some new features for their apps to use. As such, Google Play and Play Services are a big part of Google's answer to fragmentation, and thus a very important part of Android. And most importantly, it does this in the background, automatic, keeping things up to date for you. And granted, some people would like to have more control over Play Services update (I'm not quite sure why), but it doing it on its own means that its one less thing users have to worry about.
As a side note to that, don't go to extraordinary measures to make sure you get the new version of Play Services or anything else. It's a staged rollout; it'll get to you when it does. We wait for it, you should, too.
Now, Google Play has grown over the years, and the store now sits at six sections on Android: App, Games, Movies & TV, Music, Books, and Newsstand. On desktop, you also have a device section where you can buy select Android devices and accessories, but we cannot access those here in mobile. So, without further ado, let's dive into the six we can.
2. Apps: Transform your phone
Apps are one of the most important sections of the Play Store. Heck, most other ecosystems even call their marketplaces app stores. The layout is relatively easy, but has still become somewhat cluttered.
The home tab of the app section is where we see the most clutter. With bigger and bigger icons, we see less and less content on the home tab, forcing us to actually click through in order to see more than the first app in most categories. If you use Google+, you'll see apps your friends use and recommend, but more of the recommendations are based on recent purchases. I'm not gonna lie, I do not spend much time here.
This is where you'll spend most of your time in the App section of Google Play: search. Once you know what you're looking for, search will get you to it the quickest, guaranteed. And once you're there …
App listings are looking better these days. At the top, you have category, install numbers, and whether or not your friends like it. It's bright, colorful, and hopefully informative. If you decide to install, it'll pop up a list of permissions. Resist the urge to just click accept, because this is well and truly the last chance you have to make sure there's nothing that stinks about the app. Take a look, just a glance is all it should really take to tell you if the app is overstepping its bounds.
And now apps are required to state in their listing if they have in-app purchases, which is rapidly becoming more and more popular. It remains, however, somewhat dangerous, especially in games. People have blown hundreds (or, in apps like the Kim Kardashian game, thousands) of dollars on in-app purchases in order to get through a game quicker. In-app purchases are not entirely evil, but understanding them is certainly something you should take the time to do.
If I'm in the apps section instead of just searching for what I'm after, then I'm in categories. There's a fair number of categories, and each one has it's own little subsection of charts for top free/paid, top new free/paid, top grossing, and trending. These charts can help you see what's popular, but not why something's popular, so don't take it as gospel.
The three featured categories on the top each have slightly different layouts. Two are the Chomecast and Android Wear categories, which groups apps by type rather than by free and paid apps. The other is Editor's choice, which are more like lists than bona-fide categories. The first regular category listed below them takes us to the second section of the Play Store.
3. Games: the real reason most people love their Android
Games are where the majority of money on the Play Store goes — thank very much in part to in-app purchases. Games has a home section, where you'll see recommended games based on purchases and your Google+ friends. You'll also see apps featured for utilizing some of Google Play Games features, like cloud save, which all devs should use.
Game listings aren't terribly different from app listings, you have the app type, the download stats, and the description. It is worth noting for parents that the content rating for games is hidden at the bottom of the app description page on mobile. On the web version, it's in the additional information tab.
4. Movies & TV: Watch everything, if you live in the right place
We mentioned Google Play's video content earlier and the perks of it being tied to YouTube. And while you can play anything you've bought in YouTube, you have to buy it here first, in the Play Store. Movies & TV are split into their respective formats, but after that, we have some similarities. We have the top charts to the right, just as we do everywhere else, and we have genres in place of categories on the left.
In addition to the genres, TV has a subsection for Networks and Movies has a subsection for Studios. Each studio and network can be expanded to browse, though they don't appear to be in any particular order and can't be sorted. Hopefully that'll come someday, but for now, browsing them seems a bit random, which has its place in content discovery (and rediscovery), but isn't what you'd want all the time.
Listings here are quite similar to our previous sections, with a category, rating, and a link to similar titles all front and center. However, underneath a teasing piece of the synopsis, you could also find a few other helpful icons. For films rated fresh by Rotten Tomatoes, you'll see that bright little tomato, and films with closed captioning will show that off here, too, which is useful, both for the hard of hearing and those who simply like to use captions when watching in noisy environments, like on the bus or at work. Except you would never watch movies at work, right?
5. Music: And the beat goes on...
Music is a little different than the rest of the Play Store, for a couple of reasons. First, Google Play offers a subscription for music, All Access, so for subscribers, the only times they'll be in this section of the store is when something isn't offered in All Access or when something's on sale. For the rest of us though, Music is much like any other section, complete with homepage, charts, and genres. As before, the homepage hosts featured collections and sales, as well as some friendly reminders that they have All Access and you should really check it out with a 30-day trial.
Each genre has a selection of charts, top albums, new releases, and at the far end, top songs. I personally feel this should be reversed, but they didn't ask me. We also have a list of sub-genres to choose from, so as to narrow down music even more while browsing.
Frozen. It'll never die... not that I mind.
The charts are big, bright, and ... waste lots of space, honestly. Many wish for a more compact version of the charts, with smaller artwork and thus less white around the titles, especially if they're not going to put nice big "Listen" and "Buy $XX.XX" buttons stacked at the end rather than the price and an option button. In that little option drop-down on the charts, you can either directly purchase or add to your wishlist, but there's no instant listen option for All Access users until you click through.
Listings in Music are much like the TV Show listings. We have the album artwork at the top, enlarged to go edge-to-edge, and scrolling down we have the details, track listings and reviews. Explicit albums will get an orange label right below the album name, though I wish they'd invert it so the rest of the badge is white and the badge itself is orange so it stands out a little more. At the bottom of the listing, in addition to similar artists, you'll also get other discs from that artist.
6. Books: Read more, read everywhere
Play Books has been expanding over the years, as it now includes lots more fiction, nonfiction, and comic books.
As before, we have our homepage with curated lists of promoted content as well as recommended and new titles. As always, we have our categories To the right, we have our lists of top content, and hiding to the far right is a thrifty bookworm's best friend: the Top Free Books list. Also, if you have kids in middle or high school who spend English class trudging through the classics, they're pretty much all here and they're free. And while, no, they may not be able to read off their phones in class — that's what tablets and Chromebooks are for — they'll be able to read off them in the car or anywhere else they may whine about being bored.
Listings in Books can either look exactly like the rest of the listings we've seen … or they can look a little sparse. See, many of the free books here from Google Play lack descriptions, so you have only the title, ratings, and statistics to go by. These are public domain works, but that doesn't mean that they're all the same. While many are simply scanned pages, others are flowing text, meaning they can be resized and scaled according to your preferences and your screen size. Browsing is fairly simple, but the selection here is not quite as abundant as Amazon's Kindle store, which is a shame.
The cookbooks here are also enticing, though for more seasonal recipes, you might want to check out the magazines in Newsstand.
7. Newsstand: (Not) all the news that's fit to render
Newsstand co-opted and absorbed the Magazine section, and this section is somewhat different than the others. It's essentially a hybrid section, as you can browse new publications much like you would apps and add them to your news feed in Google Play Newsstand, formerly Google Currents, or you can browse and buy magazines like you would books. As always, categories to the left and charts to the right. For charts in this section, we have two for magazines, but only one for news.
News charts both on the homepage and in each section, are combined for both free and paid sources. Yes, there are paid news sources here like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but by and large, most sources are free feeds provided by the source or site, similar to their RSS feeds (which you can add to Newsstand, too, with a little effort).
For magazines, there's a special icon you'll see for some designating them as Interactive. Interactive magazines will respond to touching certain items, such as by clicking on an article in the table of contents and being taken straight to that article, or clicking on a picture of food and being taken to the recipe in a cooking recipe.
The interactive icon is also hiding in the description section of the magazine's listing.
Much of the rest is familiar, though we have two purchase options: a la carte or subscription. Subscriptions come with trial-periods, so you can check out the current volume before committing to a charge.
8. Everything is in your drawer
No matter where in the app you are, you'll always have the drawer, as a way to quickly hop around and get places more quickly, such as quickly get back to the store homepage or to your content libraries in other Google Play apps. It also hides some underrated features that we will cover in more detail in a moment.
Now, the drawer will change a little bit depending on which section you're in. I say a little bit because only one of the above shortcuts changes. In the homepage of the Google Play Store, as well as the apps section, you will see "my apps." In music, it'll be "my music." In Movies & TV, it'll link to "my movies & TV." You get the idea. Below this changing link, we have a few other links, most notable the wishlist and Play Store settings. But we'll get to those in a minute.
My apps is far and away the most used link for most users in the drawer. This should be a familiar page, you're brought here every time some apps need approval before updating. This is also a helpful place to manage your apps, both those installed and all the apps ever installed anywhere by any of your devices, hence the two columns.
Here in the my apps section, we can come here not only to update apps but also to remove them and to take stock of what has been updated recently. This can be helpful if your battery life or phone performance suddenly tanks, as recently updated apps are at the top, where you can quickly see them and either narrow it down or rule it out completely.
As the "all" list includes every app you ever installed anywhere, it can get very long and polluted over time. Thankfully, we can do at least a little to clean it up. Next to each app in this list there's a little X. You can tap it to remove the device from the list. It can be quite time consuming if you've let the list get away from you, so if you're serious about cleaning up the list, either use the desktop or block out a nice long block of time for it, preferably when you can watch something on your Chromecast while you work.
Many claim that the wishlist feature in Google Play is worthless, including many on the Android Central staff. I respectfully call bull on that. The wishlist is a wonderful tool that — while somewhat underdeveloped (or under-implemented, one of the two) — is quite useful and definitely worth a second glance.
Don't think wishlist, think list. Just a plain list.
The trick with the wishlist is not to think of it just as a wishlist but also as a corkboard, pinning apps/content for later evaluation or use. While awaiting the Moto 360, the wishlist assisted me in curating a short list of Wear apps that I intended to use or at least test upon getting my new toy. I've also used it to pin apps that I will be considering for future articles.
It's also great for pinning apps that you may not need right this second but will buy if and when they go on sale. Because the items in your wishlist are shown at their current prices, it's easy to pop into the wishlist, see if anything's on sale, and then go about your day.
That said, for a wishlist to really function as its namesake, you need to be able to share your wishlists, and you need to be able to gift content. And right now, neither of those things are possible in Google Play, keeping it well behind the iTunes store which has allowed you to gift content since before there were apps.
People: Shopping made social
However, all is not quite lost on the social front. We may not be able to gift apps and content yet (seriously, Google, sometime this decade would be nice), but we can at least share and see content from our friends. That is to say, when you take the time to rate or +1 an app, your friends can then see it and check it out here in the People section. You can see apps curated by your friends, and also by very, (very) select sources.
This is an extension of the social aspect you'll see on most listings. If you utilize Google+ — and Google certainly hopes you do — then your circles will show up if they've +1'd the apps/content you're looking at. You'll see their reviews above all others, because reviews from those you know beat those of faceless strangers.
(As a side note, even if you don't use Google+, add a profile picture so that you're not a nondescript outline but an actual person when reviewing apps you own on Google Play. Especially so we can put a face to the names on these hilarious stories!)
The smaller link below People is 'Redeem'. Now redeem codes can be used for content, but far more frequently they are used for Google Play gift cards, which are wonderful gifts that can be as big or small as you'd like (and are always appreciated by young broke tech nerds like myself). Gift cards are a wonderful way to keep a leash on children's in-app purchases - or your own, if you can't be trusted in Clash of Clans with a credit card.
This is simple enough, you paste your code into the pop-up window and hit redeem. All codes are one-time use, so make sure that the account listed under Redeem is the correct one if you have multiple accounts.
This is used almost exclusively for gift cards, but this mechanism can indeed be utilized by content providers for other content, such as a digital version of that shiny Blu-Ray you just bought. That would require studios turning to Google Play instead of Ultraviolet, Vudu, or the iTunes Store, but the mechanism is here. It's just waiting to be used.
9. A few settings
Below Redeem we have Settings, and while you shouldn't need to come here often, there are some important things in here you should set at least once on every device you use. The first one setting you simply must turn off is hiding under the auto-update setting: add icons to home screen. If every app that's installed gets put on your homescreen, it's gonna be a sea of icons, and if you wanted your phone to look like an iPhone, you'd've bought an iPhone, right? We have an app drawer for apps, and if you really want an icon on the homescreen, it's not that hard to drag and drop.
Another important feature among these is the timeout for requiring your Google Account password before completing a paid purchase. While I do wish there were more options than simply "all purchases" "after 30 minutes" and "never," it is what it is (for now), and if you have kids, then I recommend all purchases.
Above this setting we also have content filtering, another helpful tool for parents. It filters content according to the maturity level (low/medium/high), similar to the ratings you'll see on games or movies.
We also have auto-update settings in here, and you have few choices here, too: update over Wi-Fi and mobile data, only over Wi-Fi, or do not auto-update. Set this according to your preferences, and remember that you can individually take apps off the auto-update list should there be specific apps you do not want to update automatically, such as beta apps or carrier/bloatware apps.
10. The bottom line
Yes, the Play Store is by no means perfect yet, but it's one of the most valuable apps to our Android phones right now — especially for anyone who will receive few if any updates from their carrier/manufacturer. Yes, I want to be able to gift apps to friends and family. Yes, I wish Google Play copies of my Disney films to come with the BluRay — and now, they do! Yes, I wish that Play Movies and TV were available in more places.
Still, as it stands, the Play Store is my number one spot for apps and digital content. Be you a gamer, scholar, or businessman, you can find just about anything your Android could ever need in the Play Store. Using the drawer's quick links, the wishlist, and the good old-fashioned search bar, surfing the Play Store on a shopping spree is simple and almost addictive.