I wrote earlier about the bomb that Amazon dropped on Apple in their surprise launch of Cloud Player and the Cloud Drive. I’ve been anxiously awaiting Apple’s entry into the cloud storage/streaming application, so I decided to give Amazon’s offering a spin to get a feel for what Amazon thinks we all want. How easy is it to get set up? Does it give me all the features I need in a streaming cloud player? And, by beating both Apple and Google to the market, does this early bird truly get the worm? Or will Apple and Google learn from Amazon’s missed opportunities with this service, and wind up being the second mouse that gets the cheese?
So let’s start with the basics. When you access Amazon Cloud Player for the first time, it’s going to be empty. Amazon wants you to upload your media, which it assumes you own legally (and is how they are trying to get around the licensing issue, but more on that later), or purchase new songs through the Amazon MP3 store to load automatically into your Amazon Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. In order to upload your songs, though, you must first download the Upload Tool – the first little bit that they left out in their “nothing to download” announcement. Technically, what they said first was true, you don’t need to download anything to get the Cloud Player working, but if you want to upload songs you have to go through this first step.
The Upload Tool is an Adobe AIR application, so based on that your mileage my vary on installation. Mine went fine on my home Macbook Pro, but it took a while on my older Windows laptop running XP. Once you’ve installed the tool and logged into your Amazon account, the tool will automatically search the Windows Media and/or iTunes directories to get a snapshot of your tunes and playlists. You can upload everything (if you have the Cloud Drive space, which starts at 5GB and goes up from there) or just upload what you can. I chose a good subset of songs from my 15GB library (I know, I’m I hoarder . . . I only listen to maybe 4GB of those songs anyway) and kicked off my 5GB upload.
You’ll also notice that from the picture there that there are a number of file types that aren’t supported, most notably anything with DRM. Only MP3 and AAC files are supported (so no lossless or OGG), and if you wanted to load other miscellaneous audio such as ringtones, podcasts, or audiobooks, you’re out of luck as well. So, pretty much the only things you can load are going to be MP3 or AAC files you’ve ripped yourself or purchased from either Amazon MP3 store or iTunes.
Now, I’ve got a pretty decent high-speed internet plan (~20Mbps down/~10Mbps up), so I’m not sure if Amazon was clogged with people uploading to the new service or what, but it took about 3 hours to upload my 5GB of songs, about twice as long as I would have anticipated. Once it was done, though, opening my Amazon Cloud Player in Safari showed all my songs ready and waiting for my listening pleasure.
So, now that I’ve got my files uploaded onto my Cloud Drive, this is what my Cloud Player now looks like. As you’d expect, you can sort the list by Song Title, Album Title, or Artist, and you have all of your songs in that scrollable frame within the browser window. On the left side, you can choose to display by songs (which is shown above), albums, artists, and genres. I’m going to show you how the Cloud Player shows the album view, because there is one important thing to note about album art.
See the album that’s right next to “…And Justice For All” by Metallica there? Second album from the left on the second row. That’s some of my music that I’ve recorded and edited within GarageBand, songs that I exported to iTunes along the way. I didn’t have any album art set up for those songs, but Amazon graciously went out and got some anyway . . . without asking . . . and with no way to turn that “feature” off or remove the new album art associated with the songs. So now, in my Cloud Player, my songs (which are decidedly “metal” in genre) have album art of a Christmas album. Isn’t that special? Anyway, clicking on the album brings you to a screen that lists all of the tracks on that specific album so you can play them all or individual tracks, works pretty much as you’d expect it to. Next, to Artist View.
Artist View is similar to the Album View, but there I am again with the Christmas Album cover on my recent songs. My older songs that I imported long ago at least have the album art that I had assigned to that old demo tape (yes, that’s me with the long hair, 3rd artist on the first row next to my Christmas Album…). From this screen you can drill down to each artist individually to just see their songs from all their albums in your library. As with the Album View, it works pretty much the way you’d expect it to.
With Genre View, this is where you’ll wish that you had tagged your library better . . . something that’s been on my list to clean up for a while, this exercise might actually motivate me to consolidate some of those. Again, it seems to take the first album that Cloud Player finds for that genre to use as the picture. Drilling down by clicking on a genre will bring you to a song list of all the songs within that genre. Now that we’ve gone through the interface, let’s walk through creating a playlist of songs.
In the far left frame, you’ll see the selection for “Create New Playlist”. Click that, enter in the name you’d like to use, click save, and you’re good to start filling it up with tunes. Which conveniently leads me to my next nit-pick gripe with the interface. The frame on the left where the playlists are listed? It can’t be resized. I like to create playlists of songs that pump me up during exercise, usually calling it my “High-Octane” playlist. Well, Amazon Cloud Player isn’t going to really like playlist names that are more than around 12 characters. Hovering over the truncated name with give you a tool-tip showing the full name, but I like being able to read them all right there without having to hover the mouse over it.
Putting songs in the playlist is pretty straight forward. You can either select individual songs and simply drag-and-drop to the playlist name on the left, or from the song view you can select multiple songs and click the Add to Playlist button. I went through the song list and selected the songs like I wanted to have in my “High-Octane” playlist and added them all in. Let’s take a look now at the playlist view and see what we can do from there.
You see all my songs are in alphabetical order, as that’s how I went through my song list to select them. The playlist will add the songs in the order you either select and click Add To Playlist or drag-and-drop to the playlist name on the left. If you want to change the order of the songs, you simply click the song and drag it to the new position you want it to be in. Say I wanted “Black the Sky” by King’s X as the first song, I would just drag it up above “2 Minutes to Midnight” and that would be that. That’s the only way to do it that I found, but it’s easy enough that it’s not really an issue. To play the songs, I can either press the big play button in the lower left corner and start from the first song, or I can select a song in the playlist to start from and it would continue down the list from there. To each side of the play button you see the previous track and next track buttons, as well as the mute button, shuffle button, and repeat button below.
Right above the play button, you see the QR Code for the Android App – just point the camera of your Android-based device, read the code, and bam, there’s your dedicated Android App so you don’t have to use the web player and interface. At this time, there is no app for iOS devices, and I would be very surprised if one gets approved anytime soon, to be honest. The iOS devices are also pretty severely gimped as the Amazon Cloud Player does not support Mobile Safari at this time. Sure, there are workarounds out there, but those require you to download the song before you can actually play it . . . which kind of defeats the whole purpose of having a streaming player, doesn’t it? I had issues scrolling the song list frame down to select any songs past the first page, so really it’s too much of a pain to try to use while on the go with any of my iOS devices at this point.
So, from a usability and feature standpoint, this is what you get from the Amazon Cloud Player. Nothing fancy, really, just playing the songs you want streaming through the network rather than locally stored on your computer or mobile device. No “Genius Mixes”, no recommendations for new music at this point, pretty much keeping it simple. Amazon beat everyone to the punch, but this product does feel a bit rushed to market, not fully polished. It’s still uncertain when Apple and Google will bring their respective services to market, so Amazon has an opportunity to give users a more polished and complete feeling experience. You can bet that developers at both Apple and Google are studying the weaknesses of Amazon’s Cloud Player and Cloud Drive offering, and will deliver a service that will more strongly resonate with consumers.
I will be following this post up with a deeper dive into how Amazon was able to overcome the hurdles that Apple has had bringing this service to market – specifically, content provider licensing and fair use agreements. Amazon took an interpretation to licensing that will most likely be contested by the music companies, so it’s possible they may see some difficulties in just keeping the Cloud Player up and running at all. Old-media still has a very short view of progress in the new world of digital media, and they are fighting the change with every step. But that’s a whole other story we’ll look at in my next post.
What do you think about Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Cloud Player? Have you been using it this week? What features would you like to see Amazon add or change to make it a better experience for you, or do you feel it’s perfect just how it is?