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First look: Amazon's Cloud Player on a smart phone

Consumer Reports News: April 01, 2011 04:23 PM

Amazon's Cloud Drive music service may be controversial with some music labels, but it provides a useful and fairly user-friendly way to access your music from multiple—and especially mobile—devices.

That’s my take on the service, which launched this week, based on using it on my first-generation Motorola Droid, and accessing my music via the phone’s connection to the Verizon data network and Amazon’s Cloud Player interface.

Amazon starts you off with 5 gigabytes (GB) of free storage—enough to hold around 125 albums. You get a boost to 20 GB (500 albums) if you buy an MP3 album from Amazon; the extra storage is free for the first year, and $20 a year thereafter; you can also simply buy more storage from the get-go, at $20 per 20GB.

(A fine point: If you opt to save Amazon MP3s on the Cloud Drive at the time you purchase them, Amazon won't count them against your storage "allowance." However, if you instead choose to download the files, and later upload them to the Cloud, their size will figure into your limits. Got that?)

Here are my impressions:

Getting going is easy—if lengthy. The service itself was quite easy to set up. You first download software, both a file uploader and the Cloud Player itself, to the computer on which your music resides. You install it and begin uploading. Then you must download and install the Player to any other device on which you want to play back files; I downloaded the software to my Droid on the Verizon network.

Getting your music up to the cloud requires patience. It took me a little more than two hours to finish uploading a gigabyte of music from my computer to the cloud. But you needn’t wait until the process is finished to begin listening; the first songs became available for play on my phone within a minute of initiating the uploads.

You can’t yet upload music to the cloud from your phone—or at least neither I nor my fellow co-tester, colleague Paul Eng, could figure out how to do it. Paul has an HTC Evo 4G, which runs on the Sprint network.

The player itself is fine. The Cloud Player is simple, yet highly functional, with buttons for viewing music stored either on the Cloud or your phone. Sorting options are by playlist, artist, album, or all songs. During song playback, other controls appear along the bottom of the current album's artwork, including buttons for play/pause, forward and reverse skip, as well as buttons for shuffling and repeating tracks.

In addition to time elapsed/remaining counters, the player interface has a bar with a moving cursor that provides a more graphic indication of how far you are along in the song. Sliding that cursor forward or backwards with your finger also lets you jump to different places in the song.

Sound quality was decent. Using both headphones and external speakers, the streamed songs sounded so good, I couldn't tell them apart from tracks I had stored on my phone. That's probably because Amazon doesn't compress the music you send to it. (In this case, what goes up, does in fact come down.)

Response was a bit sluggish. When playing back songs stored on the phone, all the controls seemed quite responsive—about as fast as on a real MP3 player. But when playing songs streamed from the cloud, however, pausing and stopping took about a half-second extra, and it took up to 2 seconds to skip to the next track in an album. Sometimes the player would just hang, as if it forgot what it was looking for. Until networks and phones get much faster, lag time will be one of the downsides of streamed content.

You can all but eliminate any lags, however, by downloading any song on the Cloud directly to your phone, assuming you have sufficient storage to do so. I found it took less than a minute to download a song to my Droid with a WiFi connection or a strong 3G connection. You can create playlists as well, but only with the songs that are stored on the Cloud.

Streams were mostly smooth. I experienced no problems streaming music during my informal testing, whether I was listening in by basement over Wi-Fi or roaming in New York metropolitan area in my car. During his first day of streaming on the Sprint network, Paul encountered frequent interruptions, accompanied by network-error messages and requiring several reboots of the phone. That may have been a first-day aberration, however; since then, Paul too has found streaming to be reliable.

Bottom line: Based on our informal tests, Amazon's Cloud Drive service doesn’t quite match the experience of listening to a music collection downloaded to a device and accessed via the best music players, notably Apple’s iTunes.

That said, the experience, at least on the Sprint and Verizon phones we tested, rivals that of the popular Internet-radio apps like Pandora and Slacker—with the added ability to stream your own music, in entire albums if you wish. A few caveats for mobile use of the service: Your listening pleasure will depend on the quality of your wireless connection, unless you choose to download songs to your phone—which might then lead to storage issues. And check your data contract and usage to make sure that this “free” service doesn’t wind up you inadvertently costing you in higher data charges.

Also, even if you never stream from it, the Cloud service can provide a free offsite option for backing up your music collection. That said, I’d consider it only as backup. While I wouldn't hesitate to send copies of my favorite songs up to the Cloud, I would never trust Amazon—or any online service—to be the sole repository of music I own.

Mike Gikas

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