The world of cloud-based music streaming is still figuring itself out. From the discovery of “Internet radio” apps like Pandora and Rhapsody, to the on-demand online libraries like Grooveshark and Last.fm, determining the best way to take music libraries to the cloud has been an ongoing experiment over the past years. Surprisingly, Amazon emerged a few weeks ago with its own offering: the Amazon Cloud Player. This new product leverages two of its relatively unsung assets: its cloud-based hosting (previously geared towards web developers) and its Amazon MP3 Store.
The Amazon Cloud Drive, which is sort of like a lite version of Dropbox, allows you to upload and store your data in the cloud. The Amazon Cloud Drive accepts any file type, but MP3s and AACs get special treatment. They are automatically made available to you via the Amazon Cloud Player, a web app that streams your own DRM-free music to you via your web browser or Android device.
In this groovyReview, we’ll take a look at life in the clouds according to Amazon Cloud Player. Specifically, we’ll be focusing on the desktop web browser version. We’ll cover the Android Amazon MP3 app in a later groovyReview.
Amazon Cloud Player – The Offer
There’s a gaggle of places where you can upload your files for access via the cloud. Most of them offer around 2 GB of storage for free, as well as a desktop syncing app. The Amazon Cloud Drive’s gambit for winning your business is two-fold 5 GB of Storage for Free and its very own Amazon Cloud Player, which lets you playback music files on your computer or Android device.
Without getting into the specifics of the Amazon Cloud Drive (that’ll be covered in another post), here’s what Amazon is offering you:
- 5 GB of Storage Space for Free – Additional storage is available for about $1 a gig per year. It comes in denominations of 20 GB, 50 GB, 100 GB, 500 GB and 1000 GB. Also, there’s a limited time offer that lets you get 20 GB of storage for free when you buy your first album from the Amazon MP3 Store. This expires after a year, however.
- Unlimited streaming to any Android device or compatible web browser (Chrome, IE 8 , Firefox 3.5 and Safari). Note: This won’t stop your ISP or cell phone data plan provider from charging you up the wazoo if you go over your data limit, however.
- Free storage for songs purchased from the Amazon MP3 Store – You can automatically save songs purchased from the Amazon MP3 Store directly to your Amazon Cloud Drive and it doesn’t count against your quota.
Some caveats: for now, this is only available in the U.S. Also, if you have purchased MP3s from the Amazon MP3 Store prior to release of Amazon Cloud Player, you can’t have them automatically plugged into your Amazon Cloud Drive. You’ll either have to purchase them again or upload the non-DRM MP3s you downloaded—and they’ll count against your quota.
(If you’re shopping around, you should know that Amazon Cloud Drive offers more free storage than Dropbox—which gives you 2 GB—and the same as Box.net and SugarSync. But note that Box.net and Dropbox don’t offer streaming music players.)
Amazon MP3 Uploader
There are two ways to get songs into your Amazon Cloud Drive: (1) buy them from Amazon MP3, or (2) upload them via the Amazon MP3 Uploader. Unless you feel like re-purchasing all of your songs, I’d highly recommend checking out number 2.
The installation of Amazon MP3 Uploader is relatively painless. It’s an Adobe AIR application, which means it’s essentially a web app that doesn’t need a browser (like Tweetdeck and Salesforce.com). As such, it doesn’t do a whole lot of mucking around in your system, which is always a plus, if you ask me.
To download the Amazon MP3 Uploader, launch your Amazon Cloud Player and Click the big ol’ Upload to Your Cloud Drive button in the top-left.
Amazon will then pitch you on the various benefits of installing the Amazon MP3 Uploader, which is really not all the necessary, given that there’s currently no other way to get your music up into your Amazon Cloud Drive. Click Download now. Run the .exe that gets downloaded and follow the on-screen instructions.
The Amazon MP3 Uploader is incredibly user-friendly. It automatically sniffs out all of your music, based on your Windows Media Player and iTunes libraries, and helpfully corrals them all up for your perusal. You can go through and select which ones you’d like to upload and which ones to skip. It’s worthwhile to pay attention to the sizes of each file/folder you are uploading, since space is limited up there in the cloud.
If the Amazon MP3 Uploader doesn’t find what you’re looking for whatever reason, then you can browse for it, too by Clicking Browse for more music. Personally, I prefer to stop the thing altogether and manually choose my music folder. It saves the app from scanning the entirety of my 400 GB drive and shaves off about 20 minutes of wait time. Plus I don’t like robots roaming around my PC looking for things….
Overall, I’m fine with the Amazon MP3 Uploader. I think I’d appreciate a way to upload without downloading the installer, since I like to have the bare minimum of apps installed on my computer at any given time. I think in the future, once Amazon Cloud Drive gets its own syncing client a la Dropbox and SugarSync, the Amazon MP3 Uploader will become defunct. But for now, it does what it needs to. Or perhaps the uploader is doing some funky black belt ninja data compression or upload acceleration in order to increase the upload speed so perhaps it will stick around?? Who knows.
Before we move on to playback, it’s worth noting what the Amazon MP3 Uploader does and doesn’t handle. It turns out that Amazon MP3 Uploader is somewhat of a misnomer—it really should be called Amazon MP3 and AAC Uploader. It handles non-DRM MP3, AAC and M4A files. It does not include WAV, WMA, FLAC, M4P, OGG and all your other more exotic music file types. And that’s probably for the better, since you’ll be streaming these files—it’s probably not the best venue for a 100 MB lossless audio file. Which reminds me, Amazon MP3 Uploader also doesn’t accept files over 100 MB. Again, this is in your best interest—unless you have an unlimited data plan (which few do—including some who think that they do—but that’s another story).
Amazon Cloud Player – Web Version
The Amazon Cloud Player is pretty nice. It’s powered by Adobe Flash and it’s completely self-contained inside your browser window. Although Amazon doesn’t recommend it, you can pin it to your taskbar and treat it like a Chrome web app. Occasionally, you’ll be asked to log in, but with auto-fill, that’s no prob. (A quick note about pinning it to the taskbar with Chrome—you’ll have to navigate manually to https://www.amazon.com/gp/dmusic/mp3/player by copying and pasting the URL in your browser, other wise the Wrench icon gets hidden. But pinning it to your taskbar has the benefit of hiding the location bar, which you’ll see in the next screenshot but not in subsequent ones.)
Navigating Amazon Cloud Player
If you’ve been following along in the article, you can find your most recent uploads in the the Latest Uploads playlist that comes with Amazon Cloud Player out of the box.
Navigation of your cloud-based music library is helped along by the browsing columns on the left. You can sort by Song, Album, Artist or Genre, which is to be expected. Once you choose one of the options on the left, you can also sort it by another criteria. For an experience that’s most similar to an iTunes/Windows Media Player environment, choose Albums and then Sort by Artist in the top-right.
There is also a handy-dandy search bar. While not instant, it’s fast enough to satisfy all but the most impatient of audiophiles.
Managing Your Music in Amazon Cloud Player
You also have the option to do some light management o your library. Each song has a checkbox next to it. You can select one or more songs to play, add to a playlist, delete or download.
The download feature is actually fairly rad. You can download your DRM-free music to any computer or device, as you should be able to. For single files, you can download them one at a time. If you want to download more than one at time, you’ll have to install the Amazon MP3 Downloader, which, sadly, is a separate application from the Amazon MP3 Uploader. Luckily, if you’ve ever purchased something from the Amazon MP3 Store, then you already have the Amazon MP3 Downloader. If you don’t have the Amazon MP3 Downloader installed, the Cloud Player will ask you if you want to install it. For single files, you can politely decline and then get your MP3 directly. If you already have Amazon MP3 Downloader installed, then you don’t have a choice.
Cloud Player Settings
The Cloud Player has a whopping total of two settings for the time being. You can access both of them by Clicking Settings > Your Amazon MP3 Settings at the top of the screen.
Here, you can choose whether or not you want to automatically save purchases from the Amazon MP3 Store to your Cloud drive, or if you only want to save them to your device. You can also specify whether you’d like to automatically download your MP3 purchases that are on your Amazon Cloud Drive or to leave them in the cloud. So far, this is the closest to syncing you’ll get with Amazon Cloud Player. Fortunately, the settings here are specific to the computer you’re using—so you can have it automatically download on your home computer but leave them in the cloud at work.
Considering what it is and what I use it for, I like the Amazon Cloud Player. If I worked in an office where “The Man” frowned upon installing or downloading anything to the company computers, I’d see myself using this in order to get my fix from my personal music library. I’d probably even use this over Grooveshark or SugarSync. The player is much better realized in the Amazon Cloud Player than it is with SugarSync, and the legality of Amazon Cloud Player is much more clearly defined than it is with Grooveshark (I’d hate to get used to Grooveshark only to find out that it got shutdown three months from now—I’ve had my heart-broken before by Lala.com). As a web app, the Amazon Cloud Player is very clean. It resizes well, which is important for me since I use a netbook about 50% of the time. I do experience some slowdown on said netbook, but no more than I do when backgrounding Youtube or Pandora.
Of course, the Amazon Cloud Player isn’t anywhere near replacing the niche that iTunes fills in my life—but that’s not what it’s meant for. Any desktop personal music library, be it Doubletwist, Rhythmbox or Windows Media Player—is going to outstrip the web-based Amazon Cloud Player in sheer features and performance.
There are some areas where Amazon Cloud Player could improve, and I’m sure it will in the future. I’d like to see a play queue feature, similar to Grooveshark. And I could see Amazon Cloud Player succeeding where iTunes Ping may have failed—or at least it could come up with some good recommendations (I don’t mind that kind of advertising). As it were now, Amazon Cloud Player is completely devoid of any ads, which is nice to see in a free product. Granted, the entire thing is essentially there to sell you on the Amazon MP3 Store, but that’s definitely tolerable, given that they welcome all your DRM-free MP3s and AACs.
Will I use Amazon Cloud Player frequently? Probably not. I can just as easily stash my MP3s on my phone as I could in the cloud. And that, I think, is the real challenge that Amazon Cloud Player faces—the dilemma of the data usage cap. Streaming music from the cloud is all well and good, whether via your home network or 3G, but if there ever comes a time when we have to be stingy with our data transfer, services like Amazon Cloud Player will probably be among the fat that gets trimmed in your data budget. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I just don’t see why I should bother stowing songs in the cloud at $1 per GB when I’ve got 16 GB in my pocket 24/7 no matter my “connection” status or location.
I think what is more notable here is what this move represents for Amazon. It’s in the cloud/music locker/MP3 store game. I think it’s safe to say that iTunes has been partially deposed at this point, and I think there are going to be more worthy contenders entering the ring. Amazon is here. Microsoft is here. Google is on its way. Things are bound to get interesting, and it’s nice to see that Amazon is invested.