10:32 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman

Amazon's Cloud Drive: First Impressions

We take Amazon's new Cloud Drive music-streaming service for desktop browsers and Android handsets out for a spin.

Cloud Drive, which Amazon announced Tuesday, lets users access up to 20 GB of their own music from any desktop browser or Android smartphone. Cloud Drive provides 5 GB of storage for free, but will upgrade that to 20 GB with the purchase of any album from its MP3 download store. How well does it work and is it worth the time it takes to set up?

Using my desktop computer, I navigated to On the Amazon home page, it had a splashy announcement about the new service, with links that lead directly to it. There are several components needed to set up Cloud Drive.

First, you have to have an account. If you don't already, you'll need to set one up before proceeding. Once you agree to the terms of service, Amazon prompts users to download a new version of the Amazon MP3 Downloader software.

Because the service launched on a Tuesday (the day on which new releases become available), I purchased a new album for which I'd been waiting so Amazon would upgrade my storage from 5 GB to 20 GB. Before allowing me to download my newly purchased music, Amazon asked if I wanted to store it in Cloud Drive instead. I declined and used the Downloader to retrieve my purchase. What's odd is that there's no option to add the music to Cloud Drive and download it, too.

In order to play music in the browser, Amazon has created the Cloud Player. The Cloud Player is a simple (and not very attractive) piece of browser software that lets you access and play your tunes. Too bad there's nothing stored in there yet.

To transfer music from your hard drive to Cloud Drive, Amazon requires another download -- the Adobe AIR-based Amazon MP3 Uploader. Thankfully, neither the Amazon MP3 Downloader nor Uploader software required a restart (at least on my Mac). The Uploader software is not very good. When opened, it automatically starts to scan the local hard drive for music files. Since I have about 120 GB of music on my computer, I forced it to stop and chose to manually search for files instead.

The file access tool is clunky at best, and very slow to use. I chose to upload full albums (as opposed to individual files) to make the process a little bit less annoying. I chose about 20 albums (approximately 2 GB worth) and hit the upload button. It took about 35 minutes to transfer the 2 GB worth of music from my hard drive to Cloud Drive. (I have Verizon's FiOS service at my house with 35 Mbps down / 35 Mbps up.) I repeated this process all day until I had about 1,600 tracks (approximately 17 GB worth) uploaded.

From start to finish, setting up the service and uploading 1,600 songs took about eight hours. That kinda sucks. So, why bother?

My main travel machine is now a MacBook Air. It has only 128 GB of local storage available and I want to keep as much of that storage free as possible for work-related purposes. I haven't put any of my media (music, movies, etc.) on this machine. Using Cloud Drive, however, I can listen to a selection of my music anywhere I have an Internet connection. Thankfully, it works as advertised by Amazon.

Amazon says that tracks are streamed at the full bit rate of the original files, and it supports a number of file types. The files I uploaded were a mix of AAC and MP3 files at varying bit rates (though most are at 256 Kbps). I plugged in my good headphones (Shure SE-310s) and performed some side-by-side listening of the Cloud-streamed file and the one stored locally on my computer. I couldn't discern any differences between the two, so Cloud Drive gets a thumbs up from me -- at least with respect to quality.

The other reason to bother with all this is so that you can access your music from an Android smartphone. In order to do that, Amazon has created an entirely new version of its Amazon MP3 Store for Android handsets. Download and install that, and you'll have access to an app that plays local files, allows you to shop for new files, and allows you to stream the music stored in Cloud Drive.

I tested streaming playback on a Motorola Droid X over both 3G and Wi-Fi. In my listening, I have to say the music streamed wirelessly to the Droid X didn't sound quite as good as the real file, but it was definitely better than what you'd get from the free versions of Slacker or Pandora (no offense, guys!). The Android app is pretty decent, though I wouldn't use it to play back any music that I might have stored on the handset.

The Cloud Drive Player won't work through the browser of any of the iOS devices I have laying about, despite a number of tricks I know to get around Amazon's blocks.

Before you jump into Amazon's music cloud, consider these drawbacks:

Drawback Number 1. Using Cloud Drive on either a handset or laptop browser requires an Internet connection, so there are plenty of places where this service won't work and/or be accessible at all.

Drawback Number 2. The software tools are scrappy and don't function well.

Drawback Number 3. Streaming services such as Slacker work instantly and allow users to cache music locally for use in offline modes.

Drawback Number 4. Cloud Drive takes effort and time to set up properly, even if you only want to upload a few dozen tracks.

Will I continue to use Cloud Drive? On occasion, I suppose, when I am using a device that has good Internet connectivity and no music stored locally.

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