The Best of the Cloud

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Top Cloud Services for Storing and Streaming Music

Online music lockers not only back up your music library but also let you listen to it on most any device, anywhere you have Internet access. All three of the services we looked at work on PCs and Macs; mobile device support is more fractured, however.

Amazon Cloud Player

Amazon is the most agnostic music service, supporting the Kindle Fire, Android devices, iPhones, and the iPod Touch. Although an iPad version isn’t available yet, the Web interface works fine on mobile Safari (albeit without some Flash functionality, such as the ability to drag songs into a playlist). It leaves Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry users out in the cold, though.

Amazon customers enjoy 5GB of free storage; you can purchase more starting at $20 per month for 20GB. Songs bought through Amazon don’t count against your data cap. Unfortunately, the service has an Achilles’ heel: Amazon’s Cloud Player supports only MP3 and AAC files, leaving you on your own to convert unsupported file formats.

Apple iCloud

Just as Google Play is all about Android, iCloud is limited to iOS mobile devices. Fair enough, but many users will object to having to purchase an iTunes Match subscription ($25 annually) in order to sync their entire music libraries to iCloud. Without that, you can stream only the music you’ve bought through iTunes. The service will stream all the tracks in your iCloud library as 256-kbps AAC, regardless of how you originally encoded them (that’s fine if you encoded them at a lower bit rate, but it’s terrible if you en­­coded them using a lossless codec).

Although Apple gives you 5GB of storage space, everything you store in iCloud—photos, documents, music, and more—counts against that quota. An additional 10GB, 20GB, or 50GB costs $20, $40, or $100 per year, respectively.

Google Play

On Google Play, you can store up to 20,000 songs, with a maximum per-song file size of 250MB. (Songs purchased from Google don’t count against that quota, but currently Google offers no means of buying more storage.) If you rip your CDs and encode them to FLAC, OGG, or AAC (the codec of choice for iTunes), Google Play’s Music Manager (for Windows, Mac, and Linux) will transcode your tracks to 320-kbps MP3s (you’ll get a lower bit rate with a slow Internet connection). What Google Play won’t do is play nice with iOS or Windows Phone 7 devices.

The Winner

In this cate­gory we’re declaring a three-way tie. Google Play supports the largest number of codecs, Amazon Cloud Player supports the most platforms, and Apple iCloud is the most natural fit for the iPad.

Music Storage and Streaming Services Compared

FEATUREAmazon Cloud PlayerApple iCloudGoogle Play
Cost of paid service plans $20 to $1000 per year $20 to $100 per year n/a
Storage limit (free service) 5GB 5GB 20,000 songs (up to 250MB each)
Storage limit (paid service) 20GB to 1TB 15GB to 55GB n/a
Operating system support Windows, Mac Windows, Mac Windows, Mac, Linux
Mobile device support iOS, Android iOS Android
Other device support Kindle Fire Apple TV Google TV, Nexus Q
Audio file format support MP3, AAC AAC MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, OGG
Streaming bit rate Original bit rate 256 kbps Up to 320 kbps

CHART NOTE: n/a=not applicable

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