How does Apple's iCloud compare to other cloud services? No streaming option, for starters.

Categories: Music & Tech

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Yesterday, Apple described and semi-launched its newest service, iCloud, an online storage locker that will automatically sync all of your Apple devices together with music, apps and books purchased through the iTunes store. What does that mean, exactly? Well, we break it down and compare its features and pricing to Amazon's already launched Cloud Drive and Google's currently invite-only Google Music.

First up, the straight facts: iCloud is free for all iTunes, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch users and will sync all of your data from Apple programs across all of your Apple devices. If you'd like to use it for music, it's still free, provided you purchased all of your music from the iTunes store. For everyone else, there's an annual $25 fee to get your music library onto Apple's servers so you can access it in the cloud. Apple has not yet confirmed whether this is a one-time fee of $25 for each block of songs, or if you have to pay that fee annually regardless of whether you add new music to the mix.

So, then, how does it all work?

Unlike Google Music and Amazon Cloud Drive, you don't have to upload your entire music library to Apple's servers; instead, iCloud will scan your hard drive and match your library against theirs. Provided you pay the $25 fee, you'll be able to access your iTunes library anytime, from any Apple device. Essentially, iCloud lets you download songs you already paid for to multiple devices, multiple times. As anyone who has ever had a hard drive crash knows, Apple hasn't previously allowed you to re-download songs; now it does.

So there are two different services at work here: iCloud, which is free and syncs data across platforms, and iTunes Match, which is $25 a year and lets you match your iTunes library on Apple's servers. Neither is revolutionary, and both are something Apple should have offered long ago. Notice anything missing there?

Yep: streaming.

A few places yesterday were reporting that iCloud will enable streaming to multiple devices. That's not the case. Once your songs are in the cloud, you can download them to any device, but not stream them. Streaming your tracks would mean you wouldn't have to download them at any point. It's likely that this is the first step toward the infrastructure required for a streaming service, but it's not there yet.

If you're a little confused, don't worry. Here's a quick breakdown of the essential services from each of the big three:

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The confusion is probably coming from the fact that most people are comparing all three services -- but they are each their own beast and mostly different from one another. Let's break it down even a bit more simply:


Amazon
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  • Cloud Player is part of the larger Cloud Drive eco-system.
  • You upload your music to Amazon's cloud using Amazon's propriety software. It might take a few hundred hours, depending on your location.
  • Once uploaded, you can access it anywhere from a computer or mobile phone and stream your tracks live.
  • You can download music back to your hard drive after uploading it.


Apple
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  • iCloud will give you access to anything you've purchased on iTunes on up to ten different devices.
  • If you didn't purchase your music on iTunes, you can pay $25/year to have iTunes Match look at your library and mirror it online. It takes just a few minutes.
  • Once it's on the cloud, you can download your music onto any of the ten devices wirelessly.
  • Everything happens automatically. It essentially removes the need to sync your iOS device with a cable to a computer.

Google
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  • Using Google's Music Manager, you upload music from your music library onto Google's servers. It's unclear how long it'll take, as Music Manager doesn't break it down with a time estimate.
  • Once it's there, you can access it in any browser or on Android phones and stream the content to the device.
  • Once on the cloud, you cannot download music back to your computer, meaning it's not much of a backup service. That said, Google Music is still called Google Music Beta, which means it's not feature complete yet

Each of the services kind of does its own thing, and each is going to appeal to different people for different reasons. For instance, if you just want to have access to all of your music while you're at work, you'll be best off using Google or Amazon's services, since the Apple method requires you to download both iTunes and the tracks. However, if you're an Apple fanatic with an iPhone, iPad, another iPhone, an iMac and a MacBook, you'll probably be happy to download and sync all of your music across your different products.



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14 comments
Jmpmk2
Jmpmk2

Sorry, dudes, but if you're content with the sound quality of an mp3 or similarly coded internet stream, you're contributing to an epidemic that's slowly killing the art of music.  Sample music however you want, but enjoy it the way it was intended to be heard, by purchasing the music in a full fidelity format, not the bitcrushed, phasey, distorted mess your streams are.

All of these business models are great for selling computers, tablets, and other peripherals, but they're terrible at paying artists and supporting an entire audio industry who actually cares about your listening experience.

What you all are describing is the equivalent of taking iPhone photos of world-famous art, blowing them up, hanging the "pieces" up in an exhibit, and forking over a grip of cash to Steve Jobs for the privilege to see it: he gets all your money and you are deprived of the intended experience.

It's all disgusting, frankly.

Thorin
Thorin

Actually, iCloud upgrades the quality 256 bitrate -- so in that way, it's actually offering better sound quality than most people are getting elsewhere -- but when it boils down to it, each service offers its own thing and is going to appeal to different people. I wouldn't say there is a catch-all solution to solving the music industries woes, cloud storage is just another tool. 

Jmpmk2
Jmpmk2

One good step to solving the "music industry woes" is to stop cheapening the product to such an embarrassing level that the consumer deems it has no value. 

Televisions continue to provide better picture, automobiles continue to provide better gas mileage, video games get better graphics and a more immersive experience, but music...?  Music thinks it should make both the delivery medium and playback system shittier and shitter until it's nothing but 7khz of ear-bleeding harmonic distortion.  The listening experience being proposed isn't worth a damn, and that's why it's going to fail.

The business of music is in trouble because it is being run by electronics companies, whose interests are solely about profiting from the sales of electronic devices.  Apple, et al. NEED music to be cheap and consumable because their iPods have zero value if there is nothing to play on it.  The cheaper (or more free) music is, the more valuable their products become, and you can bet they'll bleed every ounce of life out of the traditional industry until it is.

Apple makes a great computer, but they haven't done one positive thing for music, and iCloud' is not a step in the right direction.

Ed
Ed

I've done A/B comparisons, playing CD's thru my Onkyo receiver and Bowers & Wilkins speakers and listeing to the same music on Rhapsody streaming through a Logitech Duet (containing a Wolfson Digital Analog Converter) and the difference in audio quality is negligible. 

At some point, audio quality becomes an arms race; IF I spend $500 more, then $500 more, then $500 more. It's a trade off, I'd rather have access to the 10 or more CD's released this Tuesday alone (Woods, Arctic Monkeys, Bridges, Black Lips, etc) than spend $150 to purchase all of them.

Don't know how old this chart is but I've read that Rhapsody's audio quality is superior to mp3. Not a shill, just a huge fan.  http://www.cnet.com/1990-7899_...

backbeatmod
backbeatmod

@Jmpmk2: You make some really great points. You're clearly living with a romanticized notion of the "listening experience," which, as you alluded to, has all but disappeared from our lives and culture. That's what has cheapened the music, if you ask me, the ease and accessibility of the music.

Do you remember the days when you'd actually have to wait until an album came out to hear it? When all you had to go on was short blurbs in magazines with artists talking about the album? That anticipation would build and build before ultimately culminating with buying the album and then finally sitting down with the record and thumbing through the liner notes and admiring the artwork.

Fact is, that experience just doesn't happen anymore, unless you make a concerted effort to experience music that away or if you're a niche vinyl collector -- and even then, chances are you've already heard the music before you purchased the vinyl. Hell, by the time an album even comes out nowadays, it's already been exhausted -- well, unless the music has a rare timeless quality to it, which, let's be honest, only a handful of release each year do.

So just the same, while you make some salient points, I'm going to have to agree with Eric. File crushing hasn't killed music. If the music is worth actually owning, it's worth buying on vinyl. The rest? I'm content to dial it up on Rhapsody or MOG.

Jmpmk2
Jmpmk2

I agree.  CDs have been dated technology almost from inception.  The sample rate was created to match a random film standard and has never been ideal for music.  It's also a fine example of cheapening the product.  Inferior sound quality, inferior packaging...greater portability, but that's about it.

Tell the difference between 256kbps and a 24bit lossless digital file on an iPod?  Of course not.  The shitty D/A conversion, the shitty output amplifier, and the shitty earbuds won't allow you to hear to depth and dynamic range of a quality recording (the phasey ocean sound will always be there).  Put it on a real playback system, though, and it's fairly obvious.  Your statement is like saying a Geo Prism is just as nice as a Maserati because they're both parked in your garage.

You don't think movies are best experienced in a dark theatre, with a giant screen and great sound?  You think they're better on a laptop in your kitchen?  Yeah, you can watch a movie that way and appreciate the story, but wouldn't you rather experience the film at its greatest potential?  I know I would.  Life is too damned short to be slighting myself at every turn. 

Eric
Eric

"Sample music however you want, but enjoy it the way it was intended to be heard, by purchasing the music in a full fidelity format."  By this logic, we should also be shunning CDs, since they only offer 44.1khz sampling rate at 16 bits.  

You'd be hard pressed to find a listener who could tell the difference between a 256kbps AAC/MP3/Ogg/whatever other compressed file and the original wav/aiff/flac/whatever other lossless format you've got in mind.

And if anything's killing the "art of music," I don't think it's file compression.  Those Netflix/Hulu/YouTube streams you watch are similarly compressed (hell, DVDs are pretty lo-fi too), but it has no effect on the "art of film."

Ed
Ed

OR for $10/month you can subscribe/listen to Rhapsody and its massive library on 3 different computers (although not simultaneously) and an android phone (which I plug into my car stereo and use as an MP3 player) and all without uploading anything.

backbeatmod
backbeatmod

Not to shill for Rhapsody by any means -- although I am certainly an advocate -- but even if you don't flip for a subscription, you can sample up to 20 full songs a month for free on their website. Likewise Napster, I believe. Otherwise, there's always YouTube in a pinch.

Pagansoul
Pagansoul

But $10 a month is $120 a year.  If I needed to constantly sample new or unknown music then it might be useful but I already own everything I want and buy used what I do not own.  For sampling music I use Pandora and if I come across something I would like to own I either purchase the CD, buy the MP3  or shop the net for the cheapest price.  I will load my iTunes purchases (about 10 full albums and another 150 singles) and hold off on my ripped music till I see the complete terms of the iTunes Match.

Ed
Ed

I'll bet that even buying "used",  you're spending $120 a year. . I used to spend that a month easy.  For that $10/mo, Rhapsody has allowed me to explore classical music in depth (I can access 10-15 different recordings till I find a version of a symphony I like), discover new composers, listen to old songs by artists I'd almost be embarrassed to buy, discovered related artists.

ITunes seems to be geared for the casual listener or people who still feel a need to "own" CD's. Pandora meandered too much for me. I want to hear what I want (full albums or THE song I want to hear by a specific artist), when I want

backbeatmod
backbeatmod

Not to shill for Rhapsody by any means -- although I am certainly an advocate -- but even if you don't flip for a subscription, you can sample up to 20 full songs a month for free on their website. Likewise Napster, I believe. Otherwise, there's always YouTube in a pinch. 

backbeatmod
backbeatmod

I'm with you, Ed. I subscribe to both Rhapsody and MOG and am completely satisfied with both. Don't really feel a need to own music anymore -- well, besides what I've already purchased, of course -- and if I do need more, there's always eMusic. 

Ed
Ed

I'd subscribe to MOG if I could stream through my Squeezebox and home stereo.  What are the pros and cons of MOG vs Rhapsody?

Been dying to find someone who, like me, samples a lot of new music (must be like 5-7 potentially great new CD's out today alone. Beats buying /"owning" anyday) AND who subscribes to both services.

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