I don’t wanna come back down from this cloud

Yes, I just used a Bush lyric as a title for a blog post on cloud storage. Stop shaking your head like that, you know it’s cool.

So Amazon.com just unveiled their cloud player, which is free to anyone with an Amazon account, along with 5GB of cloud drive space. They currently have a deal where if you buy an MP3 album, they’ll bump you up to 20GB for free for a year – after that it’s $20 a year if you want to keep it. Not a bad deal. And given that they have some pretty good deals on some albums I’ve been listening to lately, I’d recommend you give it a shot. The cloud player itself is easy to use, fairly well organized, and will even do things like add album art based on the nearest match it can find (which can be unintentionally hilarious if you upload stuff from smaller or local artists that Amazon doesn’t know about. Thanks, Flexstyle!) They seem to have borrowed a lot from the traditional music player layout you’d find in a program like iTunes, foobar2k, or Grooveshark, so the UI is pretty intuitive.

Now while it is good, it’s far from perfect, and there are a couple of potentially very irritating issues. For one, it doesn’t include any way to edit the ID3 tags for the MP3s you upload, so you should have that all in order before you upload or else you won’t have the easiest time finding your music – there’s no “folder view” or anything like that in the player. Additionally, the “now playing” interface is basically just that – it shows you only the current song, not the current list of songs it will play, and there doesn’t appear any way to go back to the “Now Playing” list once you’ve navigated away. This means that if you have an album playing, and you go browse your library and want to have it play another album when this one finishes… well, you can’t, at least not without creating a new playlist and adding both albums, then having it play that playlist. This seems to me to be the biggest failure with the UI; hopefully they’ll catch on and update this soon.

As for the cloud drive itself – well, it is what it says it is. It’s a place to upload files, and 5GB is a good amount of storage to start with. It’s pretty generous for a free service; compare that to Dropbox’s 2GB or Google Docs’ 1GB. I think I’d probably use this over Google Docs for storing files I don’t actually want to edit with docs; the interface is just as usable and the space is greater, so there’s no real downside. However, my current addiction for cloud storage is Dropbox, and Amazon won’t be replacing that just yet, for a few key reasons:

  1. Dropbox has an awesome client. This is where Dropbox really shines. You can install a client to your PC, Mac, or Linux machine and have it automatically sync all the contents from a given folder to your cloud storage. It’s incredibly simple and entirely hands-off – once setup, you don’t even notice it’s there. Amazon still sticks to the “upload via the browser” method for most files, though it does have a marginally better downloadable client for uploading music. Still, nothing remotely close to the ease and long-term convenience of Dropbox.
  2. Dropbox lets me share files easily. With Dropbox, I can drop some files in my public folder on the local computer, then create a public link for anyone to access that file. It’s a thousand times easier than the old method of uploading a file via FTP to my webhost and then sharing that link; Dropbox even puts a way to copy the link in the file’s context menu in your operating system. I use this particular feature almost daily and consider it one of the best lesser-known features of Dropbox.
  3. Dropbox can create linked folders. Let’s say you’re another Dropbox user and you want to be able to easily collaborate with me on some project we’re working on. I can share a folder with your account, and anything I put in that folder will also show up in your Dropbox folder as well. You can then update the file, save it back to the folder, and I’ve got the updated copy. Just like that. It’s an elegantly simple solution and it works wonderfully. I used this quite a bit when working on the radio show with my friend Tim. It’s also good for creating a “drop off point” for things that aren’t easy to email – for instance, I had a friend who would drop videos and replays from his Starcraft games into the folder so I could watch them later.

Dropbox remains the best implementation of cloud storage that I’ve found, while keeping a sane and simple interface. Don’t have one? Go get one. It’s free and easy to use, and the higher storage plans are reasonably priced, though Amazon manages to cut their price basically in half, and offers up to a terabyte where Dropbox only will go up to 100GB. However, should you need a ton of storage, Google Docs actually has the cheapest solution by a large margin – you can get a terabyte of storage for $256/year, and up to 16 terabytes of space. That’s about a quarter of what Amazon charges, or an eighth of what Dropbox does, with a much higher potential capacity.

Obviously few people will need this much space, and the free space I’ve gotten from the services has covered everything I need so far – but I may end up subscribing to the $20/year Cloud Player service when my trial is up. Fortunately, I’ve got a year to decide whether it will be worth it.