Last week Apple gave us a previous of iCloud and iOS 5 at its annual WWDC conference. What they showed was pretty impressive, but most of it is still beta and won't be generally available until the Fall. Of particular interest to me are their plans around moving iTunes to the cloud and finally relieving us of the painful and outdated method of cabled sync in order to move content to mobile devices. But if you're like me you don't live in a world where Steve Jobs has complete control over your mobile existence, there are a couple of Android-based alternatives available right now that you might want to look at; Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta.
Amazon Cloud Player has been around for the past two months or so, and I've been using it off and on since then with generally good success. They give everyone 5GB of storage for free, but as I mentioned in a prior blog post you can get an upgrade to 20GB by purchasing any album, including a bunch for just 99 cents. Google Music Beta came out shortly after Amazon and gives you storage for up to 20,000 songs; plenty more than most people will require. I finally received an invite to the beta a couple of weeks ago and so I installed it right away and had a chance to compare it with Amazon. Here's how the two offerings compare:
Installation: Both products download and install very easily, and both use a Flash-based component for scanning music on your local machine and uploading it to the cloud. But they greatly differ in their approaches to this. The Amazon uploader must be manually initiated, and once it kicks off it spends a few minutes analyzing your iTunes library, compares it to what's already been stored in the cloud, and then presents you a screen where you can either automatically upload all the music it finds that's not already in the cloud or selectively upload the playlists, albums, artists, etc. that you'd like to be synced. It also provides a comprehensive report of content that it finds that it is unable to sync, e.g. DRM'd content. By contrast, Google's default mode is to always run in the background and automatically upload new iTunes music to the cloud, without the user having to take action. In theory this seems like a better and more elegant solution. However, in my case the Google software consumed nearly all of the CPU on my machine while scanning/uploading my iTunes content, and to add to my frustration the upload process itself took an incredibly long time - roughly a couple of days to upload just 3500 songs. In fact, the CPU consumption was so bad that I had to go into Task Manager and lower the priority of the Google music manager process.
Web Music Player: To be honest, I didn't spend much time using either player - after all, I've got iTunes running on my laptop! But they both seemed to do the job, and Google's player has a few extra features such as thumbs up/thumbs down and keeping track of the play count. But I do like the look of the Amazon player a little more, plus it has the advantage of being able to play music purchased from the Amazon MP3 store.
Advantage: Neither - it's a tie.
Mobile App: Both mobile apps did the job and generally worked well over Wi-Fi or when wireless coverage wasn't in issue. But on several occasions the Google app would just stop midway through a song for no explainable reason. I like the UI better on Amazon, and I like the fact that it lets you easily switch between music in the cloud vs. music sitting on your device. Google lets you do this as well, but you have to go into one of the options settings in order to switch back and forth...a bit of a pain. I've also used both applications during long bike rides that went through areas of spotty to low coverage, and I have to say that both applications had their share of issues when dealing with bad coverage and both frequently just stop working and never recover even when reception improves - maybe they should reverse engineer the Pandora app and figure out how they are so good at dealing with this. Google would also randomly skip both forwards and backwards within a song when experiencing reception issues...very strange. Amazon performed a bit better, and I suspect it "reads ahead" within a playlist and stores upcoming songs within its local cache. I'm sure Google does some of this too, but perhaps its cache is smaller. One very annoying problem with Amazon is that it sometimes caches garbage for a song, and once it does then each time you play that song you'll hit that garbage and it just stops playing..at least until the cache is cleared.
iOS Support: Well, as you would expect neither offering has native iOS support, although both claim to be usable from Mobile Safari. I was able to verify this myself using my iPad.
Advantage: Neither - it's a tie.
In summary, I have to give a slight edge to Amazon, although not by much. And both companies need to spend time on their Android apps and improve their handling and recovery of reception issues.
Oh, and it looks like Spotify is close to launching here in the U.S....I can't wait.