Amazon Steps up Cloud Offering, Gives Unlimited Music Storage (for a Limited Time)
Amazon Steps up Cloud Offering, Gives Unlimited Music Storage (for a Limited Time)

It's not the second coming of iTunes or anything that drastic, but Cloud Drive, Amazon's new cloud storage service, is a good product with a narrow focus. If you're looking for bells and whistles -- recommendations, sharing with friends, instant playlists -- you won't find them at Cloud Drive; it lacks the music-nerd features of subscription services like Rhapsody and Rdio. But it does what it does well. If you want remote access to your own music collection, Cloud Drive is a very good option.

The service has two components: Cloud Drive, the actual storage service, and Cloud Player, which plays music files. Cloud Player lets the user play stored music files from any web-connected computer. For mobile users, Amazon has integrated Cloud Player into its Amazon MP3 app.

Cloud Drive plays only those files in a user's music collection. It does not offer a "jukebox in the sky" type of service with unlimited streaming access to millions of songs; it simply puts the tracks you already have into remote storage and allows for remote access from PC and mobile devices. This could be a viable option or the more casual music consumers who aren't interested in the value proposition of licensed music subscription services like Rhapsody, Napster, MOG and Rdio.

Here's a deeper dive into the service's performance in a number of categories:

- Ease of Use: Cloud Drive and Cloud Player live up to the expectations of an e-commerce giant that regularly scores high marks on customer satisfaction. In terms of ease of use, Cloud Drive matches or exceeds its competitors: mSpot, MP3Tunes, Audiogalaxy et al. But the integration of the Amazon MP3 store and the music buyer-friendly pricing structure may make Cloud Drive the best of the bunch. Uploading files was made easy by Amazon MP3 Uploader application that I installed on my computer to handle bulk uploading -- otherwise the Cloud Player uploads small numbers of files at a time. My first 5GB will take about four hours to upload. All in all, the process of uploading and playing music files was intuitive and painless.

- Sound Quality: Amazon sells 256kbps MP3 files, but the streaming quality of songs stored in Cloud Drive is unclear (several minutes of searching the Help and FAQ sections proved futile). As is often the case with streaming services, the streaming quality is good enough for the hardware used for everyday listening. I could not tell the difference between the same song streamed on Rdio and Cloud Drive.

- Mobile App: Cloud Drive and Cloud Player is built into the Amazon MP3 app for Android, so users can seamlessly go from store to player. You have the option of storing purchases to Cloud Drive or to hard drive. The app has a music player, the Cloud Player, which partitions the songs by location: cloud-stored music on one side and on-device songs on the other. That means your songs may not be listed in one place. So after I purchased songs and downloaded them to my device, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to upload my locally stored files to my Cloud Drive account. It seems that going the other way -- store to Cloud Drive and download to mobile device -- works better.

- Price: Amazon has priced Cloud Drive to drive high adoption. Downloads purchased through Amazon's MP3 store will not count toward your storage limit -- so keep buying at Amazon and there's unlimited cloud space. For all other files, the first 5GB are free, which should cover about 1,000 music files. The 20GB option costs $20 per year, but Amazon offers it free with purchase of an MP3 album. Considering that Amazon's MP3 store has great prices -- $8.99 for most and many good albums for $3.99 or less - this is a really good deal. But it appears this offer may not last forever. Once I purchased an album at Amazon, I received an email notice about a "free trial offer" for 20GB of storage space resulting from my album purchase.

- Partnerships: There is one area where Cloud Drive is behind its competitors: accessibility on different devices. At the onset, Cloud Drive suffers from a lack the partnerships with equipment manufacturers that allow it to be used on more than PCs and mobile devices. This is to be expected for a brand new service. Nevertheless, Amazon is behind its competitors in allowing their users to stream their music collections from a variety of devices. MP3Tunes, in contrast, has deals with companies such as Sonos, Roku, Tivo, Logictech, Wii and Playstation. For listening through your home stereo system, Amazon has some catching up to do.