Apple, are betting you want your music in the cloud, too. There's no question that storing your favorite music in the cloud is very convenient, but figuring out which of these high profile services is right for you is tough. Especially considering they are just weeks old, with two of them (Apple's and Google's,) not even out of beta.
1. The hype around music cloud services is crazy These products remain in their infancy. Apple's iTunes in the Cloud is so embryonic its service only offers one released component--the purchasing and wireless sync component, which I reviewed here. Google Music Beta is only available for the lucky few who have free invites, and while I found it impressive, the final version doesn't even have a release date. As for Amazon Cloud Player, it's been out for just six weeks. If you're serious about moving your music to the cloud, the first piece of advice is hold on a moment. There's a lot to shake out.
2. You must understand iTunes Match If you use iTunes--and around 70% of Americans do, according to 2010 stats--you especially want to wait and see. Apple's offering is obviously iTunes oriented, but there's a catch. It's only a free service for music you've bought through iTunes. If you want to upload music you've ripped from your personal collection or anywhere else, it's going to cost you $24.99 a year through another component, iTunes Match, scheduled for fall. It's free for the first 5GB, but serious music collectors will easily burn though that.
3. Google may have a space advantage If you're a serious music connoisseur and use iTunes as most people do, the Music Beta by Google, still invite only, actually is a better solution--at least at this stage in its development. It allows you to sync and download your entire iTunes collection, ripped CDs, plus many other music file stored locally or on a network. Google's service allows 20,000 tracks recorded in most popular formats (see charts) and bitrates, but pricing and availability is still a big unknown.
4. Amazon costs deserve close scrutiny For those not locked and loaded into iTunes with collections stored within iTunes and beyond, Amazon Cloud Player is a contender. Its Amazon Upload Player will only upload MP3s--even the MP3 songs in your iTunes collection. But its automatic scanner (for MP3s in iTunes and Windows Media Player) works in a sketchy way in my experience. When it doesn't work, you have to manually point it to the physical location where your music lives. If you buy one album from Amazon's store, Amazon throws in 15GB free for a year in addition to the 5GB free for the service. After that, though, the service is priced by the gigabyte--$1 a GB, to be precise. Over time, this winds up being pretty expensive.
5. Your devices matter Are you a PC or Mac user? Do you have an Android-based mobile phone or tablet or other devices (like a BlackBerry, or HP WebOS smartphones)? You might even have a discontinued Microsoft Zune or a dying-off Nokia Symbian. These gadgets all play MP3s. It's still unclear whether or how well Apple, Amazon, and Google musical cloud services will work from and download to the rich mix of devices out there. The only thing that's obvious--because it's in Apple's best interest--is that Apple-loyal folks with iOS devices are going to be safe with the iTunes for the Cloud offering. Amazon is going for all things Android. Or so Amazon says. It's still so early. And everything else is, well, still a bit cloudy.
6. Upload speeds matter Now let's talk specs. Steve Jobs says specs don't matter anymore, but they do if you're considering moving music to the cloud. Not everyone has the time to sit around while uploading music libraries to the cloud or downloading them to various devices. So far, in my experience, Amazon Cloud Service is generally faster at uploading and downloading than Google's offering. But the music beta by Google is still in development. In terms of sheer performance for uploading, reviews show that Amazon is a bit faster at uploading. During this week's announcement at WWDC, Apple CEO Jobs bragged a lot about how much faster iTunes for the Cloud would be than Google, but again, there's nothing to test but his word. BYTE just wants to see it in action. There were quite a few disappointing things about the iCloud announcement in general.
7. Audiophiles will have special concerns So far, we've been talking about MP3s and the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format for purchased iTunes music, but true audiophiles know there are many more formats out there with better quality sound. An example is the Free Lossless Audio Codes (FLAC), a super high quality format available for compressing your CDs and even LPs into smaller files without any audio quality loss. Note that only Google supports uploading of FLAC files. But don't cheer yet. As soon as you upload these files to Google's service, it converts them to MP3s. Admittedly, it converts them to highest quality 328Kbps MP3s, but your lossless format is now at a bit of a loss.
8. Related movie questions remain far from answered More and more, photos, movies, and other rich data will become part of the collection on your devices. At the time of this writing, the music beta by Google is limited to music only. That could change, along with Google's pricing, performance, and availability details. Apple's service, unavailable to test, purportedly will support photos, documents, and calendar info. Video details are not clear yet. Amazon goes even further--I've tested this--and Amazon Cloud Player let me upload, store, and download any file format (from videos to zip to exe files to encrypted files) to its service. It's distinct from the other two services in that it's a true storage locker, which makes its higher price more acceptable.
9. Consider offline access to music Another thing to consider with these services: will you have access to the music offline? iTunes for the Cloud and Amazon Cloud Player allow you to download music to computer and devices. But the music beta by Google will cache four to five songs and allow you to play them back even if you don't have an Internet connection. This might not seem like a big deal in our always-connected tech world, but is definitely worth a mention.
10. Conclusion: You want to date, not marry, for now Cloud services for music are hot--and hot for a reason. People need a safe, secure, and flexible way to get their music (and other files) off their devices and into the cloud. But these services, are not yet ready for primetime. They all are promising. Their comparative offerings and specs are complex and worth considering. Start watching them now as they evolve and improve into mature products. When BYTE launches in July, our team will provide the deepest and most authoritative reviews, shootouts, and comparisons in this space.
For InformationWeek and the upcoming BYTE, I'm Brian Burgess.
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