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Cloud music services: Spotify vs iCloud vs Google Music vs the rest

Ask someone what ‘The Cloud’ is and they’ll either look at you like you’re mad, tell you it’s a UK-based provider of public Wi-Fi, or explain that it’s a series of tubes in the sky. Without wanting to get too technical, cloud computing is essentially about storing more and more of your stuff online and not on your computer, not on your laptop – and not on your phone.

The advantages this has is that you can access a larger amount of files on your device without it having to take up the internal storage of your phone.

Perhaps it does without saying, but the downside to streaming from the cloud is that you need a web connection. So the cloud becomes less useful if you’re in a area with patchy 3G or you’re underground.

One of the areas where we think the cloud benefits phones the most is in terms of music. We love being able to carry hundreds of playlists around in our pockets, but realise that it’s not feasible to expect to be able to carry around our entire CD collection.

Luckily for us, there’s a plethora of cloud-based services that allow us to access our playlists on the go. Here’s the best of them for our money…


Spotify – iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian S60 (BlackBerry coming soon)

Spotify has been around on phones for a while now, but it’s only recently made the leap to Windows Phone 7. Now owners of iPhones, Android and Windows Phone-phones like the HTC Titan can access Spotify’s millions of tracks on the go.

There’s also an app for Symbian S60-based smartphones and version of Spotify for BlackBerry is in the pipeline too.

Better still, you can also sync playlists for playing offline, i.e. when you can’t access the web. Though this will see the internal storage of your phone being eaten into and this aspect of the Spotify service doesn’t strictly use the cloud, we like being able to queue up essential playlists for long train journeys and the like.

The upshot of all this great functionality is that you can only use the mobile apps if you’re committed to paying £9.99 a month for Spotify Premium.


Deezer – iOS and Android

Deezer recently partnered with Orange for it’s big UK launch. This sees new and upgrading subscribers who take out an Orange Panther tariff able to opt for an exclusive Deezer Premium Mobile contract, as an Orange Swapable.

This will allow you to access Deezer playlists on your phone, something that would normally cost you £9.99 a month with the regular Premium+ subscription.

The Deezer Premium+ subscription, like Spotify, gives you access to playlists on your iOS or Android device. The Deezer catalogue is some 13-million strong and tracks can be streamed over EDGE, 3G or Wi-Fi. Both the iOS and Android apps allow for playlist syncing/downloading over Wi-Fi for offline play as well.


Sony Music Unlimited – Android

Another potential rival to Spotify is Sony’s Music Unlimited service. Powered by the Qriocity, Music Unlimited allows you to access a huge catalogue of songs on your Android phone.

Playlists can be managed either on the desktop or on the app itself, with changes made on either syncing quickly.

There’s also the option to install Sony’s Music Sync software on your dekstop. This basically scans the music folders of your computer and attempts to match them with songs in Sony’s own library. This virtual mirroring of your own tracks is a neat idea as it saves you having to upload the songs yourself, so so speak.

As with Spotify and Deezer, there’s a £9.99 monthly ask in order for you to access Sony Music Unlimited. There’s a 30-day free trial mode of the Premium version though, so you can get a feel for how it all works.

At the time of writing, there’s still no support for offline playlists, something that could sway you to give Spotify or Deezer your £9.99 a month instead. Once Sony Music Unlimited enables this, it could level the playing field somewhat.


Apple iCloud – iOS

Launched in tandem with the iOS 5 update, Apple’s iCloud might be later to the cloud locker party but it’s been worth the wait.

The best thing about iCloud is that as soon as you buy something on iTunes – apps and music – it’s automatically synced to your iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. This is a real time saver that prevents you from having to constantly sync devices to get all of your musical ducks in a row, so to speak.

iCloud doesn’t stream music though. So while you’ve got the option to easily arrange everything, you can’t stream thousands of songs on the move from a cloud player of any sort.

A neat feature that’s sadly US-only for now, is iTunes Match. Like Sony’s Music Unlimited service, there’s the option to match songs in your collection that you’ve previously bought (i.e. outside of iTunes).

iTunes Match will then pair these songs with their iTunes counterparts and have them synced to your iDevices. “Even better, all the music iTunes matches plays back from iCloud at 256-Kbps AAC DRM-free quality – even if your original copy was of lower quality,” says Apple.

A nice way to update all those tinny Green Day songs you ripped all those years ago. The catch? This costs $24.99 a year whereas the Sony Music Manager is free to download.

Google Music – Android, iOS (beta only)

Having (finally) come out of its long beta phase, Google Music’s big draw is that you’ve got the freedom to upload up to 20,000 songs.

That’s 20,000 songs, i.e. not a set GB limit. So if you’ve a collection bulging with high-bitrate rips of 20 minute-plus Yes songs, you needn’t worry so about space.

The other great thing about Google Music is that you’ve got the option of streaming tracks from the and syncing tracks for offline play. So you’ve effectively got the best of both worlds, and on top of that, there’s a built in store to buy more music too.

Sadly for us Brits it still a US-only thing (for now), but those of you who did sign up for the beta should already be benefiting from the streaming and syncing features on your Android phone and on iPhones running iOS 4.0+ through Safari as well.


7digital – Android, BlackBerry, all phones (mobile web store)

7digital has a pretty unique offering in that it’s music store is accessible from virtually any phone with a web browser.

While there are only dedicated apps for Android and BlackBerry phones, any phone that can access the internet can head on over to m.7digital.com and buy music from its 14-million strong library.

There’s no option to stream music from the cloud but once you’ve signed up for a 7digital account, there is a cloud locker which keeps a note of your purchase history.

So if for example you’ve got a BlackBerry Bold 9900 and a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, you’ll be able to download the 7digital Android app and start downloading any songs you’d previously purchased on your BlackBerry on there.

In a sense, it’s like a platform-agnostic version of iCloud; a way of syncing all of your 7digital purchases across devices.

You can upload tracks that you’ve previously bought from your desktop as well, so it’s not just a repository for stuff you’ve bought via 7digital. There’s theoretically no limit to the amount of songs you can store in the 7digital locker either.

We’re told that the ability to stream songs from the locker, while not available now, is a feature that’s most definitely in the pipeline, so one to keep an eye on.


Amazon Cloud Drive – iOS, Android, web

Amazon famously beat Apple and Google to the finish line with the launch of its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player – welcome additions to its Amazon MP3 Android app and web service.

As it says in the screengrab above, 5GB are free! This equates to 1,000 songs. If you want a bit more room for your tunes, you’ve the option of accessing storing an unlimited amount of songs in the Cloud Drive for a $20 annual subscription.

As well as giving you ample cloud space for your songs, the Cloud Player allows you to stream music on your phone over 3G or Wi-Fi.

Again, as with Google Music and iTunes Match, this is another US-specific thing for now. In the UK the Amazon MP3 Android app amounts to basically a big MP3 store with a pretty decent music player (complete with lock screen widget) bolted on. Nice, but we’d like the cloud space as well Amazon.

 


Microsoft SkyDrive – Windows Phone

Access to SkyDrive comes built into the Windows Phone OS and gives you some 25GB of storage to play with. So while you don’t get the option to expand the memory of Windows Phone devices like the HTC Titan – owing to the strict no microSD card policy – SkyDrive at least gives you a cloud storage solution. The idea is that you can use this for slinging your pictures, documents and whatever else you want in there – including music.

A feature of Windows Phone 7.5/Mango is the ability to stream music – albeit one song at a time – from your SkyDrive folder. So while the music player isn’t totally seamless (Microsoft has even said that it’s not supported) it is a built-in streaming solution.

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