Usefulness of 'Cloud' is a little hazy

"The Cloud," which is also simply known as online storage, got a bit more crowded recently with the launch of a new Internet locker from Amazon.

The service lets users stash their documents, video and music files online. In the case of music, subscribers can listen to their tunes from any computer with a Web connection or using an Android smart phone.

The idea is to offer digital music fans a spot to store their songs and an incentive to buy digital albums from Amazon. Both Google and are interested in launching similar online music systems, but Amazon's new Cloud Drive and Cloud Player are the first on the market. It's a solid, if simple, offering that's easy to use and worth considering if you don't have a lot of data to store.

Anyone with an Amazon account could try the service with 5GB of free online storage - which is a bit lean considering the locker can be used for big-file media like video.

Being first to market, Amazon had a chance to get people hooked early and probably would have with a more generous initial offering of space. But it's painfully clear after using the service that Amazon is looking to quickly upsell its cloud users to paid packages that make the service more useful.

And I can't help but expect that when Apple and Google join the fray, their storage options will be more spacious.

For example, 20GB of extra online storage for a Google account - which can store images, video, documents and other files - costs $5 a year. That same amount of storage on Amazon's new cloud drive costs $20 a year. Amazon is offering 20GB for free if you buy an album from its online store, but I think that "deal" just highlights the Cloud Drive's poor pricing.

Linking up to Amazon's cloud begins by visiting the site and installing a small program that scans your Windows PC or Mac for music. The software is pretty smart and automatically excludes music protected by digital rights management technology or incompatible file formats. And the process is transparent: It tells you what didn't make the cut and why.

Then it's a simple matter of a program automatically uploading to Amazon. This is just about the time you go do something else, like taking out the trash, changing the laundry or walking the dog. Depending on the speed of your connection and how your Internet service provider throttles its upload speed, filling a cloud account could take quite a while.

Thankfully, the software also lets you pause uploads and checks the music on your computer vs. what is already online to determine what still needs to go online.

The program also highlights any extra storage you might need to fit your entire music collection in the cloud, linking to packages that include $50 a year for 50GB, $100 for 100GB or even $1,000 a year for a terabyte of storage.

Just in case you're curious, a terabyte of online storage from Google costs $256 a year.

After all the music is online, listening in is as simple as logging in to Browsing your online collection is similar to clicking through iTunes, with songs organized by categories such as albums, artists and genres. Playlists from iTunes and Windows Media Player are copied up to the cloud, too, so you don't have to go through all the extra work re-creating them.

The features and functionality of Amazon's Web-based music player - and the Android app that plays your cloud music on a phone - are adequate but not awe-inspiring. Playing, pausing, advancing and rewinding are all there, as well as the art for each album. It's basic, and it's what consumers would expect.

Amazon's Cloud Player for Android performed up to par, but there were subtle reminders that the music was streaming from the Internet and not stored on the device. Getting songs started took a few seconds over a Wi-Fi connection, and the delay was slightly more pronounced on Verizon's 3G.

However, after the music started, the stream of songs was steady and consistent. The Cloud Player app lets you download songs from Amazon's cloud directly to the phone, which, frankly, I'd expect many people will prefer.

It is quite surprising that Amazon didn't include any social networking features in the Cloud Player similar to Ping in iTunes. There also aren't any easy tools for showing off the pictures you've uploaded to the Cloud Drive ( as you can in Google's Picasa Web albums) or files you might want to share with others ( as you can in Docs).

Such glaring omissions make me wonder why Amazon is charging such a premium for just hosting online.

Explore further

Amazon puts music in the 'cloud' (Update)

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