In recent weeks, Apple, Google and Amazon have each launched the missing puzzle piece in their wireless mobile music systems.
Apple enabled storage and delivery of your songs over the Internet through iTunes Match. Google started selling music digitally, while Amazon shipped an electronic-books device, the Kindle Fire. With those additions, each system now lets you buy songs, store them on faraway computers called the cloud and retrieve them wirelessly on devices connected to the Internet.
But which system do you want to live with? It’s a choice you can’t make lightly: Once you’ve adopted one, it’s hard to switch. If this were the Music Cloud Wars, then Apple’s iTunes Match would be winning, but not by much. Here’s a quick primer, and a few ways to get in and around their digital barriers.
ITunes software is on millions of computers, and the pervasive iPods, iPhones and iPads let users consume content bought through the iTunes online store.
ITunes Match is a $25-a-year service on top of that. It sees everything you have in iTunes and matches it to copies Apple already has stored in the cloud. Songs not already there will be uploaded from your computer to a personal locker in the cloud.
It’s alone among the three models to let you download songs to iPhones and iPads wirelessly. A full copy of the song is stored for listening anytime, rather than streamed on demand over wireless networks, which can be spotty. You can have up to 25,000 songs on the service, plus an unlimited number bought through iTunes. Streaming is also an option for songs you haven’t downloaded yet. If there’s a tune you want to listen to offline, just tap an icon. It takes only a few seconds, and you can start listening before it’s done.
One major caveat: You need an Apple device to use this, and specifically a newer one with Apple’s iOS 5 mobile software. You’re out of luck if you have a phone running Google’s Android system.
Using Google’s free Music Manager program, you upload music you own into Google’s cloud. Unlike Apple, Google doesn’t have songs preloaded, so this can take hours or days.
Google Music works best with an Android phone or tablet computer.Just download the Google Music app to your device, and your songs will be available for streaming. You can save songs for offline playback by “pinning” them with a digital push pin icon.
The service stores up to 20,000 songs, not including those bought through a companion music store run by Google. That’s not as many as iTunes Match, but it’s free.
I like Google’s music store because it offers plenty of bargains. I found Coldplay’s latest album, “Mylo Xyloto,” for $5, half the price on iTunes.
If you buy from Google’s music store, you can share the songs with friends on its Google Plus social network, and they get one full listen for free. That’s something not available anywhere else.
But Google’s store isn’t as extensive as Apple’s or Amazon’s. For instance, it’s missing songs from Warner Music Group, which accounts for about 20 percent of music sold in the United States.
Google Music also isn’t a great option for users of Apple devices, and you won’t be able to store songs on your phone for offline use (but Google did find a way to make the system work on iPhones and iPads through Apple’s Safari Web browser).
There’s also a trick for Apple users to take advantage of deals: Download the songs onto a computer, put the music in iTunes and upload the songs into Apple’s cloud through iTunes Match. It’s not pretty, but it works.
Amazon Cloud Drive
The new Kindle Fire completed Amazon’s music system, but it works fine on Android devices through the Amazon MP3 app, and offers storage for about 5,000 songs.
Amazon’s cloud storage system is free for up to roughly 1,250 songs, and the uploader works about the same as Google’s. It can take hours or days to get your songs into the cloud. Once there, you can stream or download songs to the Kindle Fire, or to Android devices. Amazon’s music store has a selection comparable to iTunes.
But the iTunes store is set up better, showing what’s new and acting as a barometer of popular culture, while Google promotes what’s free and Amazon emphasizes its bargains. A downside to Amazon’s service is that you’ll likely have to pay for extra cloud storage (about $20 a year), as you do with iTunes Match. Further, Google’s and Amazon’s systems both favor streaming, which again, can be spotty. But ultimately, it’s great to have cloud services to organize music collections.