It’s been a huge week for digital music lockers. First Apple made iTunes Match available to U.S. customers, then Google Music launched. These two services are competing with with Amazon’s Cloud Player (which is integrated with the new Kindle Fire) in a new realm of cloud music storage.
The three major contenders offer similar products with a similar mission: Allow users to buy new music and access existing libraries from multiple devices, via the cloud.
Here’s how the services compare to one another in terms of ease of use, pricing, mobile accessibility, and track selection.
A disclaimer: I am a Mac owner. As a result, my desktop experiences are based around Mac OS X Lion. Windows integration may differ. For this test I used the new HTC Rezound, the iPhone 4S and iPad 2 and the Amazon Kindle Fire.
Google Music is free to all users. This includes access on the web, desktop and mobile devices. Google does impose a library limit of 20,000 songs. Purchased tunes don’t count.
iTunes Match is $24.99 a year. For that $24.99, users get the ability to upload 25,000 songs, excluding any iTunes purchases. Macworld offers a fix for users who have more than 25,000 tracks in their iTunes library but still want to use the service.
Amazon’s Cloud Player is free for for up to 5GB of uploads (not counting Amazon.com MP3 purchases). Plans with 20GB of storage (for any type of data) start at $20 a year; the space for music is unlimited.
Winner: Google Music, because it’s free. Still, $20 for unlimited song storage is worth a gold star for Amazon.
The iTunes Music Store first went live in 2003. Within five years, became the biggest music retailer in the United States. What has kept iTunes in the number one spot — despite competition from Amazon, Walmart and Best Buy (now defunct), eMusic, 7Digital, Sony, Microsoft and dozens of others — is that finding and buying music is very, very easy.
iTunes is bloated, especially on Windows. But it boasts one of the easiest search and purchase processes on the Internet.
Amazon has a section of its website dedicated to purchasing MP3s, but the search and purchase process can be hindered by accessibility issues. Depending on where you search, your artist selection could come back as a physical CD or as an MP3.
Google’s new music store has a clean layout like iTunes. The problem with Google Music: it lacks a shopping cart. You must purchase a track or album on the spot, and can’t group a bunch of purchases together for later.
Likewise, there is no “wishlist”, which Amazon and Apple offer. Google also makes navigating sections more difficult than it should be.
All three services make purchased tracks accessible across devices immediately. iTunes Match also makes all past purchases available. Amazon will store purchases made after March 2011, but previous purchases need to be manually uploaded. Since Google Music is so new, it’s a given that all of its purchase history is available.
Winner: iTunes. It’s still the fastest way to search for and find songs with minimal hassle.
A big promise of all three services is the ability to listen to your songs and playlists without having to download them.
All three make good on this promise. Apple uses iTunes as its central music hub. You can authorize up to ten devices for use with iTunes Match — five can be computers with iTunes — to stream or download songs.
Streaming songs within iTunes, as we described in our iTunes Match review, is almost indistinguishable from listening to a local file. Songs and albums show up in iTunes regardless of whether they have been downloaded locally or not.
Amazon and Google both use web-based playback systems. Amazon’s is the clunkiest of the bunch. Yes, you can browse by album, artist, song title or playlist, but navigating through the interface can be a chore.
Google has clearly spent a lot of time on its web-based music interface. But I found that songs or playlists would occasionally take a long time to switch from one to the next. Like Amazon, Google Music doesn’t work well with compilation albums — an annoying problem for someone like myself who has hundreds of them in her collection.
Where Google gets major props is that its cloud player is optimized for mobile devices as well. Amazon has an iPad interface for its Cloud Player, but no iPhone or mobile phone interaction.
Winner: Google Music. It’s the only service that lets you access your library from mobile and desktop browsers across platforms.
Uploading and Downloading Songs
Listening to music in the cloud is great. But first you have to get it there.
All three services support uploading purchases or songs obtained in other ways (ripped from CD, downloaded off the web, and yes, even pirated). Depending on the size of your library, this process can take quite some time.
This is where iTunes Match becomes worth its $24.99 yearly fee. The service can match tracks already in your library with songs in its database. If it finds a match, you don’t need to upload those tunes. Where it can’t find a match, those files are uploaded to the cloud.
This process works quite well. In my tests, iTunes Match has not once confused one file with a different version of the same song (which is useful when dealing with live tracks, alternative takes or remixes).
Amazon and Google both provide file uploading utilities. Google’s Music Manager can integrate directly with iTunes and monitor your iTunes folder to upload new tracks and match existing playlists. The program runs in the background, continuously uploading new iTunes tracks to your Google Music library.
Amazon also links with iTunes playlists and uploads albums and songs to Amazon Cloud Drive. This application needs to be launched to work; there isn’t an auto-sync option.
When it comes to downloading files, Google Music in its current state is painful. Users can only download tracks from the web interface twice. Using the Music Manager, however, users can download all of their files.
The problem with the Music Manager: there isn’t a way to select what files you want to download, or to auto-download new purchases.
Amazon makes downloading new purchases a snap, and also makes it easy to download existing songs for albums from the Cloud Drive interface. Amazon can also automatically add downloaded tracks to an iTunes or Windows Media Player library. If you also have iTunes Match, those Amazon files are usually just moments away from being synced and matched to the cloud there too.
Winner: iTunes. It’s the only system that is truly hassle-free. Amazon’s option is better than Google Music, which is a real pain.
It isn’t enough to listen to music from your computer. We also want access on the go.
Apple’s mobile solution is the most limited in terms of device access. Playlist syncing and file access is only available on an iOS device. For iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Apple TV owners, this is great. But users of other mobile systems are out of luck.
Amazon makes things a bit easier by providing a mobile app for Android and an iPad-friendly web view of its library. Though not currently in the App Store, the app aMusic is a good way for iOS users to access their Amazon Cloud Player files. With any luck, it will be back in the App Store soon.
Google should be commended for making its music store compatible not just with Android, but with other browsers too. Visit music.google.com on an iOS device, and users are treated to a well-designed HTML5 app player.
The app player doesn’t offer offline playback, but the interface is similar to the Google Music Player for Android. The unofficial gMusic app is also a great option for iOS users. It doesn’t offer playback editing, but all other files are accessible and can be downloaded for offline listening.
Winner: Google. It’s the only service that is truly cross-platform friendly.
All three cloud music and storage platforms have their share of pros and cons. For iOS users, iTunes Match is going to offer the best user experience. For Android users, Google Music is a great option with a lot of flexibility for mobile — despite some limitations on the desktop side. Amazon is more of a mixed bag. The service is great as a way to buy and download MP3s, but it doesn’t really take advantage of the cloud as well as it could. Still, it’s a worthy option.