TLDR Summary: Google Play Audiobooks is fantastic and every bit as great as Audible. I noticed a small syncing inconvenience with Android Auto, but that's easy to fix. Google Home integration is lovely. The big negative: content. Google needs more Audiobooks. I'm sure they'll get more eventually. Until then, we'll struggle with wanting the ecosystem benefits of Google Play but preferring the book selection of Audible.
At long last, Audible has a worthy competitor. It’s called Google Play Books.
In most ways, Audible is a fantastic service. Great selection. Great features. The subscription plan is reasonable for my usage patterns. I’ve been a satisfied user for years. That being said, the Amazon/Google feud continues to prevent Audible from working the way it could in my ecosystem of choice. That makes it less than ideal, and, as far as I know, there hasn’t been solid competition until now.
Confession: I’m firmly entrenched in the Google ecosystem. My phone is a Pixel 2 XL. I use Google Auto in the car. I had a first generation Chromecast. Google Home units litter my house, all connected to a Google Wifi mesh network. And I’m writing this post on a Pixelbook. I’ve always been impressed with Google’s technology, especially their method of syncing and interacting with the cloud. To me, they’ve had a much more forward-looking and experimental technology strategy than Apple, so I’ve gravitated toward everything they do, even when I know it’s not perfect, because I see where they’re trying to go.
Anyway, I spend a lot of time in the car, on the train, walking city streets between the metra station and the office. It sounds nomadic, but it’s far too routine to feel nomadic. I sometimes use the time to think or plan or strategize. I sometimes use it to be creative. Mostly, though, it’s commute time. Day-to-day drudgery. Mundane and pointless, and so I read. Or, more accurately, I listen.
I discovered audiobooks years ago, when Barnes & Noble sold books on tape. Thankfully, technology progressed, and I could listen on my phone or via bluetooth in the car. When I discovered Audible, Audiobooks clicked for me in the same way e-books clicked with the launch of the Kindle.
The Kindle was revolutionary for anyone who reads a lot, partially because of e-ink, but mostly because of Whispersync. I could order any book at any time and start reading it immediately on my e-reader or my phone. Each device would automatically sync my reading position. At night, in bed, I’d read on my Kindle. In line at the grocery store, I could pull out my phone and start reading where I left off in bed the night before. This was magic.
Amazon knew the importance of content availability. They built Kindle apps for Android, Windows, iOS, MacOS, and the web. They championed the idea of “let the people read anywhere and they’ll continue to buy your content."
The first noticeable crack in Amazon’s “Buy it once, use it anywhere” philosophy emerged in the world of video. Once upon a time, I purchased all my digital video from Amazon, but I could never watch it on my Android tablet or phone without sideloading their shitty attempt at a secondary app store. I couldn’t chromecast it without awkwardly casting my device’s entire screen. Suddenly, Amazon wanted me to buy their content, but they wouldn’t let me experience it whenever or wherever I chose. Eventually, they released their Kindle Fire tablets, but their locked down version of Android never appealed to me (although it was great for kids).
Eventually, I stopped buying movies and tv series from Amazon. I switched to Google. And yes, Google Play Movies won’t play everywhere, but they work flawlessly in the ecosystem I currently favor, so they work everywhere for me. And yes, Amazon recently made their Prime Video app available on Android without sideloading, but the change arrived too late. I had already switched, and Amazon hasn’t yet given me a reason to return. (I do have the Prime app on my phone, because I can watch Prime movies or my originally purchased content, but I never buy new video content from Amazon).
I still buy e-books from Amazon, because Kindle e-readers reign supreme. E-Ink readers are, without question, the most paper-like digital means of reading, and I won’t give mine up any time soon. I don’t mind reading on a phone or tablet screen, but only when necessary, and only for short amounts of time.
Anyway, that brings us to Audible, because audiobooks are not e-books. Amazon has taken Audible down the same path they took video. I can listen on my phone, but I can’t cast to a speaker. There is no Google Home integration (for obvious Alexa reasons). So the content I want will again not play nicely with the ecosystem I favor. This is problematic.
When Google introduced Audiobooks, I knew I had to give it a try.For the most part, the experience has been flawless. The Google Home integration destroys Audible’s non-existent Home integration. Previously, I'd need to cast my device audio to the home speaker in order to play Audible content. With Google Play Books, I ask Google Home to read my book, and it picks up from wherever I left off, whether I was previously listening on my phone or on any other device. I can even ask Google Assistant to go back 30/60 seconds for those frequent moments when I totally space out.I have no information on compression rates, but the two books I listened to on Play Books sounded as good as anything on Audible, so quality issues are not a concern. Incidentally, both apps play too quietly via bluetooth, but that could be a hardware or bluetooth problem.
So far, I have only two issues.
One involves Android Auto. When I listen to a book on Google Home, the listening position syncs across my devices. If you open the Google Play Books app, it will ask you if you’d like to move forward to the furthest listening point. This is the same way the Kindle prompts you when you’ve read to a further location on a different device, and it’s great.If, however, I’ve listened to a book on my Home device, then I next try to listen in the car on Android Auto, there is no prompt within Android Auto to move to the most recent position. Android Auto starts playing from the last position in Google Play Books. To sync, I need to close Android Auto, open Google Play Books, say “Yes” when prompted to move to the most recent listening position, then reopen Android Auto. This isn’t a huge deal, except that I’m usually driving when it happens. It's a bit of a hassle (and danger) while driving. It’s not a deal breaker, obviously, but Google needs to streamline the Auto experience a bit. Give me an “auto advance to furthest location” option within Android Auto.
And that brings us to the one place Amazon/Audible still wins: content. Google's Audiobook library can't compete. Yet. I’m sure they’ll add content, unless Audible has exclusive deals with the audiobook production companies or publishers. It’s also possible Audible produces many of their own recordings, which would complicate any Google distribution.
Audible also has better pricing. Audiobooks are expensive. On Audible, I get one credit per month for $14.95, which basically translates to a book a month. I've listened to some huge books that took more than a month to finish, and I banked my extra credits. I'd like to see Google create a similar subscription service, and I’m sure they will, but they can’t do it until they have enough content to justify the subscription. As it is, I’m already back on Audible to listen to Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci biography, which isn’t available on Google Play. I’ve returned to Audible for a specific book, but that means I’m back to casting my entire device to various speakers to listen at home. It’s a pain.
Nevertheless, it's great to finally seem some competition. Going forward, I will use Google Play Books, as long as they have the book I want to hear next, which means Audible ain't dead to me yet.