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?
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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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.