Testing Google Play Music's new streaming quality settings

New Play Music settings could cut your streaming data usage in half

The launch of Google Play Music All Access last month reminded many of us just how much data the app uses for streaming and caching. There were a few things you could do to try and limit your usage, but in the end Google was likely going to stream as high quality of music it could, data caps be damned. Google listened to some of the complaints coming its way about the data usage, and has released an update that gives users better options to limit data usage by lowering the stream quality in Play Music.

Rather than allowing the app to offer as high of quality music as possible given the current connection, users now have three settings -- low, normal and high -- to cap the quality, and therefore data usage, of streaming. We've done a little semi-scientific testing on the new settings, and have found them to be quite effective.

So, let's put things to the test.

In our previous tests of streaming with Play Music, we found listening to a long album on the highest quality could eat up 200-300MB of data if you had a good network connection. That's just not feasible for many of us with data caps, and the new settings seem to help. To test, we listened to five songs in a row (from Ben Folds Five Live, if you're curious) on mobile data, with automatic caching turned off, once with the highest quality set and again with the lowest quality set. Adding up the data usage afterwards, the results are impressive.

Highest quality

With the highest quality setting, playing five tracks -- 23:38 worth of music -- on mobile data used approximately 69.58MB of data. This seems to fall in line with our previous readings when the app streamed the highest quality music, and it sounded just as good to our ears. To break it down, that's approximately 13.91MB per song, or 2.96MB per minute of streaming on the highest quality setting in Play Music. Now depending on the highest bit rate of the song available these numbers could change, but this is a good baseline to go with.

Lowest quality

Listening to the same five tracks with the app set to the "low" quality and data usage setting yielded much lower results: 23:38 worth of music used approximately 34.68MB of data. Breaking that down, that's approximately 6.94MB per song, or 1.48MB per minute of listening on the lowest quality setting. So given these numbers in this test case, the low setting will use about half (or slightly less) of the data usage that the high setting will. As for the quality, that's going to be up to the person listening to determine. There is a noticeable decrease in quality to our ears, but it didn't drop so low that it bothered us.

That's some substantial data usage savings and it's great to see Google offering this option now. Whether you have a slow connection or are just being mindful of your data cap, you can now be a little more secure in your ability to stream from Play Music with these new settings. 

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

  • Imagine my surprise when I blew through 2 of the 3gb of my data in less than a week! Haha, although now I just pin the music to my device at home over WiFi and I don't have to worry about streaming anymore.
  • I'll have to give this a try. My biggest problem with the app previously was that its stream was unreliable to the point of being completely unlistenable. (Probability of actually getting through a single full song without extended buffering about 1/2.) Here's hoping that the new lower data mode also makes things more robust. @Entrical - The pin thing works great, and I've been using it. But sometimes I don't wanna have to plan in the morning everything I'll listen to all day, you know?
  • I'm pinning all my playlists so I can listen to whatever I want whenever I want without streaming. Posted via Android Central App
  • I don't know that the update will help you if you were having buffering issues. The quality would auto-adjust depending on the speed of your connection. It just so happened if you had a fast mobile connection, there was no way to prevent it using the highest quality setting and burning through your data. So if you were having buffering issues, it was probably already trying to use the lowest setting. At least this is my understanding of how it works.
  • Or their lowest wasn't low enough. Or the variable bitrate code was glitchy. Album art doesn't even show correctly so I wouldn't go around assuming Google got it perfect. I had buffering issues too. I also had more than one streaming error notification. Not to mention songs playing fine then suddenly getting bumped to the next track. It's a fantastic service and I'm subscribed for the foreseeable future but it's not without faults.
  • And this is about the only good reason to still be on verizon with unlimited data, I don't have to worry about this yet. I used Tune in Radio for 2 hours a day everyday for a month and it uses 2 GB for the entire month, and is the only app to have a sleep timer to shut itself off when I go to sleep, pandora and Play Music app both need a sleep timer option IMO. Since I have been using All Access i haven't used tune in or pandora in a month, so much music to download, great price. I used 692 MB in 16 days with all access
  • How is your experience with streaming audio from other applications (Spotify, etc) under the same network conditions?
  • a) I don't use Spotify, but my Pandora experience has been pretty rock solid. Literally
  • What happened there? Anyhizzle, Google Play streaming used to not work for me worth a defecation, whilst Pandora worked just fine. In very brief tests today, Google Play streaming now appears to be much improved. So, preliminary hooray. Posted via Android Central App
  • The ROM I'm on has a data usage calculation bug of some sort. The result is speedtests think they are 100 times faster than they really are. Imagine my shock when I got a data usage warning (from the phone, not verizon) and noticed Google Music was claiming to of used 48GB of data in 3 hours haha.
  • This is great for sprint users who get .02 on the download. Posted via Android Central App
  • This doesn't even matter to us Sprint customers that have unlimited 4GLTE. From the DARK AC App!
  • Even better for us sprint users with late. We don't have to worry about data caps so we can play at the highest quality Posted via Android Central App
  • Nice try but not really the case any more. Many areas have already been upgraded to LTE while most of the remainder already have upgraded backhaul/3G and are actively awaiting LTE. In my area LTE sped test consistently run between 12 - 35mbps and 3G is between 1.5 - 2.6mbps which I more than enough to stream Google Music in high quality.
  • That's actually really bad for a brand new LTE network with no users on it. When Verizon LTE launched my Bionic (shudder) got 75mbps on a consistent bases. Now I get about 5.
  • Verizon just launched 4G in the college town of 3500 I live in. At&T takes 80% of cell business in this town. Right now there is probably only 2500 people in town because of summer classes. I get 35 - 45mbps which is no where near 75mbps. Just saying?
  • My friend on Verizon LTE in Atlanta gets 15-30 mbps. I think you're making a mountain out of a mole hill.
  • Actually, those are good speeds for Sprint LTE. It tops out at around 35Mbps. The main reason the Verizon LTE got bad is because of the way Verizon deployed their LTE. They only put it on a third of their towers in any given area. They're relying on their low frequencies to cover lots of people. And they do. But that's the problem. There are now a ton of users on each of those LTE towers, and the speeds are plummeting. Sprint's network is being deployed completely differently. It has lower top speeds, but Sprint is adding LTE to every tower in each market, not just a few scattered towers. This means that each tower will have fewer people on it, thereby keeping the number of users per tower way lower and speeds much higher. So, while Verizon might be capable of 75Mbps speeds, it's subject to intense overloading, causing much lower speeds, especially during peak hours. Sprint's network will be able to provide a much more consistent and reliable experience in the future.
  • You have to remember, too, that back then there were not many devices "capable" of LTE connectivity. Now days, there are probably lots of devices walking around that will connect the instant the LTE network goes live.
  • I was going to try a similar test today, so thanks. Where is your test for the "Normal" setting? You did high/low but what about the middle one? That's what I have mine set on right now, but I might bump it to low depending on the usage.
  • The "Normal" setting will obviously be more or less right smack dab in between the high and the low...
  • i wish there was a setting for ultra insane high amount of data so i can use as much as possible. i mean whats the point of my unlimited data if im not going to stretch my legs a little
  • On Spotify, there's three settings for the bit rate streaming. Given my cheap grade earphones I always download and stream on a Normal quality setting (96 kbps). Anything higher would be in vain. They offer other settings too: high (160kbps) and extreme (320kbps). On extreme, you can be looking at consuming about 1GB for a whole album.
  • Your math is off. By your calculations 320kb/s streaming would be higher quality than uncompressed 16-bit 44khz stereo. After all, the data capacity of a music CD is only approximately 700MB, and a CD can hold about an hour of music. Your mistake was confusing bits for bytes. A byte is 8 bits so at 320kbps you have 320,000 b/s * 3600 seconds in an hour / 8 bits per byte = 144,000,000 bytes or 137MB (144,000,000 / 1024 / 1024 = 137) for an hour of music, not 1GB.
  • Unless the "albums" you listen to are 30+ tracks each AND the songs are 20+ minutes long, there's no way you're pulling "about 1GB for a whole album". I just looked at a few different albums I have that are entirely 320kbps, each of which were no more than 15 songs (which is just a tad higher than the average 12 or 13 song album), and none of the albums topped even 200MB.
  • Options: 1) Low
    2) Medium
    3) High
  • Geez... If you go back into the Verizon threads, you will find comments from me about three years ago when there were first hints carriers were considering abandoning Unlimited Data plans. I also predicted new algorithms for data utilization reporting. Imagine my surprise when my average utilization fell from 4.75Gb per month to less than 500Mb per month on Jan 2012. No, I didn't change phones (until last July) or change my usage habits. Maybe 3G is really that inefficient but my 3G device was still in use until July when the advent of 4G came along for me and I was able to draw 22Mb/s - on my new S G3 phone nonetheless... So while the cost of memory plummets, the carriers and cloud providers are pushing us to put our "stuff" in the cloud only to re-render it as a "Service." On top of embedding media "crap" in web pages that we don't want, why would we risk our ridiculously expensive mobile data plan allotment to play music we already own? Thank goodness for drag and drop, wifi, and pinning. Heck, even the horror of NFC is better in a pinch than cannibalizing my precious mobile data. It should be about another year before mobile data web sites start shoving garbage at you in HD and "high quality" as ads... rendering your $30 2Gb plan useless.
  • Wow. You should have your own reality show on TLC: "Tech Forum Medium".
  • You want to know something that's even funnier? I was born and raised on Long Island...
  • That still sounds like a ridiculous amount of data. Spotify on High streams using OGG format at 160 K and low at 96 K using OGG again (more efficient and better quality than MP3) on Extreme it uses 320 K OGG. The high stream is excellent and equivalent to 256 K mp3 or better really and in no possible way does it use 13 MB per 4 minute song!! I mean heck that is a silly amount of data for a music streaming service designed for mobile access with the inherent problems that mobile access brings. Just my two cents. Jeremy
  • But it's not designed only for mobile access....If I'm at home streaming my collection through my home system from my computer, I want it to be as high as possible (no data limit there) If I'm on my mobile phone I want it to be lower due to data concerns. The idea that it's only "designed for mobile" isn't correct.
  • I thought the high setting streamed at 320kbps. That should be around 9.6MB per 4 minutes. I don't know where the extra 3.4 MB of data is going. Wonder if android is reporting wrong or if there is something else downloading eating up data?
  • Their data per song tests are pretty worthless. It is caching future songs as quickly as it can. There is no telling what the actual bitrate is.
  • No it wasn't. They specifically pointed out that they de-selected the Automatic Caching option prior to the tests. As for my own experience, I tested out the low setting yesterday. Listened to roughly 1.5 albums and used about 70 MB over Verizon LTE. It's definitely a huge reduction in data usage, but I still appear to get better data savings using Rhapsody. Going to stick with them for the time being.
  • This is exactly what I was thinking. Why does this not raise any question marks in people's minds? I tried the subscription, but the music sounds absolutely awful to me... Even on the highest setting with LTE turned on blahblahblah. So I won't be keeping it. They seriously sound worse than a 32kbps MP3 file. And now, to hear that it's using almost double the amount of data that I expected? Wow... Not that I care too much because I'm on Sprint but it still at least makes me question where all the data is going. And to one of the other commenters here in response to Jeremy MacMull's comment, if you read above you'll see that caching was turned off.
  • Any thoughts on sound quality degradation, Andrew? Posted via Android Central App
  • Quality definitely degrades a notable amount on "low", but whether or not it'll be bad enough to bother you will be a personal choice. Most people will probably be happy on "normal". Posted via Android Central App
  • ...and UNICORNS!!
  • i hate those carnivorous mono-horned animals. But i love VZW unlimited
  • I'm rocking unlimited on Verizon as well. Nothing but highest quality for me.
  • That is the exact reason why the modern day High End SmartPhone must have at least 32gb of int storage with sd-card support, without sd-card support 64 should be the norm. This 16gb of int storage with a pathetic 9gb of usable storage is just a total rip off to the paying customer, most who don't even know the difference. I refuse to buy any new phone without plenty of int storage. The web page reviewers should be complaining about these same things so the manufacturers would stop shoving the lower end of the high end phones down the US public throats. The SGS4 in Korea is a 64gb phone and in the box comes an extra battery and a battery charger that will charge the phone and the spare battery at the same time. This all comes in the same box that the US public gets their 16gb pathetic version in. Something isn't right and someone needs to start really complaining about this bull shit.
    Sorry for venting but I just don't understand why more of the educated consumers and the Web Sites don't scream about this. I just want the best phone that can be made and adding int storage during the build process costs pennies and very little real estate.
  • The lowest quality is still substantially higher than 128 kb/s (~1 MB/min) which seems excessive to me. For listening in my car with road noise and whatnot 96 or even 64 kb/s HE-AAC would probably be adequate, why don't they offer something like that?
  • While I cringe at the notion of that bitrate, I know what you mean. My car isn't a POS but it's no Lexus either and the stock audio system isn't that finely tuned. I doubt I'd hear much, if any, difference on a long road trip.
  • Sprints would never be that high. They are only using a 5x5 lte band allocation. Other networks using at least 10x10.Thats why I left to T-Mobile.
  • I know this probably won't happen, but I wish Google would include native support for Opus, or at least in the music app. In my tests, the quality is phenomenal throughout the bitrate range, and it apparently supports dynamic bitrate, frame, and bandwidth adjustment. It would also benefit Google Hangouts, which really needs a voip call feature BTW. Opus would solve the complaints about the quality and bandwidth usage of All-Access.
  • Seems like low quality is still pretty high bandwidth. That rate is over 200 kb/s. Need to get to almost half that again. I'm perfectly ok with 128 kb/s for streaming over the air to save data and work on a crowded network. I wonder what kind of impact all the folks who signed up for the free All Access trial are having. I haven't signed up yet but do plan to try before the end of the month. Still I have noticed significant problems with streaming my music and clips in the store lately. I hope this gets much better once many on the free trial drop or that Google makes some improvements.
  • 6/17/13: I experimented with it for the first time today and after maybe 30 minutes of high quality streaming I used up 157MB. That seems pretty high even with skipping a few times. I'll try it on normal next and see how it does. I normally stream for about 8 hours a week and can see this blowing through my 2.5GB allotment if I leave it on HQ. 6/18/13 edit: Ok, I switched to "normal" and still used a huge amount of data. I found a setting to change to see if it helps, but have not used it much yet. I unchecked the "cache while streaming". It seems the app will prefetch 3-4 songs ahead while playing the current one whether you want to listen to them or not. I am hoping this will help. Meanwhile, I bucked up the additional $10 a month to have unlimited 4G. :)