Comparing clouds: A look at the three major cloud music services and what they offer

by Marty Gabel

On Monday at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference, Apple finally unleashed its much-anticipated cloud music service to the world. How does it fare as a response to both Amazon’s and Google’s music offerings? Let’s take a look at the pluses and minuses of all three of these major cloud music services, and also consider some of the other lesser-known alternatives out there.

Google Music

Currently available by invite-only, Google Music is still in beta. Those lucky enough to have access to the service will discover a place where they can upload up to 20,000 songs for free. There’s no opportunity to buy any music, so Google’s offering is more like a digital locker.

On the plus side, Google’s web-interface is sleek, and it easily syncs with the app on your Android device. It’s a great way to access your music remotely and from any computer or device, and I like the way you can set it to automatically add new music you’ve downloaded and re-sync that with all your devices. I was fortunate enough to receive an invite and have uploaded a whole chunk of my library and it plays well over 3G or Wi-Fi and sounds reasonable, allowing MP3, AAC, WMA and FLAC files to be uploaded. It’s also a good way to clear hard-disk space, although it’s not a bad idea to make sure you have all your music backed-up somewhere just in case!

On the negative side of things, however, is that we don’t know how much it is going to cost once the Beta is over. You can bet Google Music will likely try and undercut Amazon’s and perhaps even Apple’s pricing (see below), but right now it’s hard to tell. It’ll most likely be a tiered offering depending on how much space your music takes up. Worth noting: as each individual song needs to be uploaded one-by-one, it can take a long, long time to get all your music into the cloud.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Right now, Amazon’s Cloud Drive lets you upload 5GB of music to its servers for free, and anything you buy from the Amazon MP3 store will be freely available. If you want more storage space, that’s when the prices start racking up. 20GB costs a reasonable $20 per year. Amazon offers 100GB of space for $100 per year, 200GB of space for $200 per year, all the way up to 1,000GB of space for a whopping $1,000 a year.

On the plus side, Amazon lets you upload files apart from music, like movies, so it’s useful for getting other large files off your home computers. I also found the Amazon MP3 player app on my Android device to work pretty well even over 3G. It sometimes gives me ‘network errors’, but I assume that’s more to do with connectivity than the Amazon app itself.

On the negative side of things, once again, be aware of long upload times and the need to constantly update and upload when you obtain new music. Those annual prices also start to get a little high if you want more storage space. Also, there’s no seamless syncing with devices and your music collection like there is with Google’s service.

iTunes Cloud/Match

This won’t launch until the fall, so we’re still not sure exactly how it’ll pan out, but we do know some things. Apple will allow any songs you’ve purchased through the iTunes store to be available in the cloud, but what about all those MP3s on your computer that you didn’t purchase from them? This is where the $24.95 per year fee comes in for Apple’s iTunes Match service, and there’s no storage limit either because the service merely scans your music and plays the full track directly from the cloud.

Apple will stream your music at potentially higher quality than even the MP3s stored on your laptop, which is a nice bonus. The interesting thing is what will happen when you try and stream music not currently available in the iTunes store. If you’re a big AC/DC fan (for example), you’ll probably know their albums are not downloadable from iTunes. So, will you still be able to stream their music if there’s not an identical match in the store? We presume you will, though no-one’s quite sure yet. Also, if you’re a music purist, and love your burned vinyl mono recordings of old jazz 45s, will Apple’s iTunes Match know you want to play that version, or will it simply default to the nasty, over-digitized remastered version you thoroughly dislike?

As an iTunes and Mac user, I’m keen to see if the streaming service will work over Android devices via a third-party app.

There are other alternatives...

There are a number of great streaming music alternatives away from these big three. These also have the advantage of having been tried and tested already. European music lovers have embraced services like Spotify, for example, but that’s not available for US consumers yet. There are other subscription-based music services like Rhapsody, Pandora Radio, Grooveshark and Last.fm, which have established a keen following, but these offer a slightly different take on streaming. Services like mSpot have seen some success lately, and something like MOG may be appealing to audiophiles because it’ll stream music at a higher bitrate than many of its competitors.

So there’s no shortage of choices out there for music lovers, and there should be something to cater for everyone, whether you just want to stream your own collection, or listen to millions of songs that you don’t necessarily own. Despite the fact that Apple’s and Google’s services are both very new and not firmly established, there’s no denying the cloud is where it’s at when it comes to music in the future, so look to the sky.