by Pete Mazzaccaro

The second of four Summer Technology stories. Yesterday, we posted a piece by Hugh Gilmore on using a Kindle on vacation. Tomorrow, we’ll feature a piece on cutting cable.

You’ve probably heard a lot about “cloud” computing lately and are left wondering. What is “the cloud” anyway? And why do I want to compute with it?”

Cloud is really just a new way of talking about computing that’s been around at least as long as webmail. It’s performing functions – computing – online instead of on your desktop. Files are stored on Google, Yahoo, AOL or Facebook’s servers, not your hard drive.

In the last five years or so, as high speed Internet has become more and more available, cloud services have caught on like crazy. Two great examples are Netflix streaming video and Facebook.

This year, there’s been a lot of movement on cloud music services that allow you to get a lot more out of your Internet connection than Pandora’s random playlist. My two favorites are Spotify and Google Music.

Spotify

So, I managed to grab an “exclusive” invite to Spotify two days after it launched this month. Those invites were so “exclusive” that music and tech blogs were posting links to what might best be described as mass invite engines.

What is Spotify? After Google music, which also launched this summer, Spotify is the most buzzed about music service since Pandora. It started in Europe, where it gained a ton of users, and had been gearing up for a U.S. launch for the better part of the last year.

Does it live up to the hype? I think so. I’ve never been a big Pandora fan. I’ve found it really hard to plug in an artist and not land on a song I really didn’t want to hear within 15 minutes. I think I’ve been around for Pandora hitting that sweet spot for a good hour only two or three times. Generally, a good old-fashioned iTunes genius playlist is better. And the new   Google Music instant playlist is even better than that.

But with those options, I don’t get to hear music I don’t have (even though I have a lot). Spotify solves that problem by giving even free accounts access to a huge library of music – some 15 million songs. And you can listen to whole, unabridged albums.

I started off by plugging in Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and listened to his latest Matador record “The Brutalist Bricks” in its entirety. Every so often, Spotify will queue up a 30-second commercial. I heard several pitches to buy Amos Lee records during my first day of testing the service.

Other benefits to Spotify include the fact that you can sync the service with Facebook, where you can find your Facebook friends who have the service in a little window on the right, look at their public playlists and even recommend artists and albums.

Now there are many services that you’ll need to pay to unlock. The free account gives you an amazing access to music, but it’s limited to 20 hours a month of listening. Going up to $4.99 a month gives you unlimited music streaming and no commercials, and $9.99 a month gives you the ability to download tracks to your computer, smartphone or iPod touch.

Some of those features are pretty compelling, but I think that even the free service, as a means of discovering and listening to new music, is pretty valuable, too. There’s a “what’s new” tab in the player window that gives you the most recent releases and singles.

So you won’t be able to rock Spotify day and night with a free account, but you could definitely use it to preview music you’re thinking of picking up to own.

I’m going to keep the free account for now. Twenty hours a month will probably be plenty for me to try out new music. Though I can see some pretty good arguments for the paid service. With the sync-to-phone option, it’s conceivable that $9.99 a month is all you’d ever have to pay to listen to what you want to listen to again. It’s pretty amazing, really.

Google Music

For anyone who doesn’t know, Google Music is Google’s entre into mp3 storage and playback, but it’s all “in the cloud.” In other words, it’s entirely Web based. You upload your music to Google’s servers and play it on anything that can browse the Web.

I got my official invite about two weeks after the service launched and uploaded my entire library, a trimmed-down 7,000 songs (just the necessities). The set up was quick and easy. The Mac OSX version adds a music manager application to the OSX system preferences. From there you point the music manager at the file in which you store your music, and it does the rest. Any time I add music to the folder, it’s automatically uploaded to Google music in the background. I don’t even see it happening.

The initial upload lasted approximately 36 hours, but now my entire mp3 collection is on Google’s server. So why would you need this?

The benefit is simple. Anything that has a browser can access my whole collection, a collection that is much too large to be really portable. I can stream anything I want on any computer. If I had an Android device, I’d be able to stream and cache songs for offline listening.  But the service also works on my iPad where I can stream music right through the iPad’s mobile browser. The interface is a bit buggy – for example you have to play, pause and then play to get an album started. But it works. It’s a real convenience to be able to stream my music to anything that can get online.

But Google Music also has a few other benefits. I’ve used iTunes since it came out, but Apple’s great little music player has become a bloated do-everything syncing service that just does too much.

Google Music is simple to use. It has a great search bar to pull up artists and albums. It creates playlists as easily and automatically as iTunes does. In fact its instant mix might be better than Apple’s. Also, managing important info and cover art for each album is easier than iTunes. It’s a streamlined, easy and intuitive interface, something Google seems to do really well. And it’s free.

In two weeks since my invite, I’ve been using the service nonstop. I prefer it to iTunes simply because I like the interface better.

The only caveat for anyone considering using Google Music is that you can upload your music, but you cannot download (at least not yet — this is beta software). So far it’s worked without a hiccup. I can stream music in a browser with a dozen other tabs open, including gmail and Tweetdeck.

I’ve read other reviewers say they wish Google had a service to buy music. I bought an album on Amazon a week ago, and it not only downloaded to my music folder locally, but uploaded right away.

So far, Google Music is terrific. If you’re tired of swapping song files from one device to another, Google Music is a great way to get around that. If I had to choose between an iPhone and an Android phone (I like Apple hardware and Goolge software) Google Music just might be the killer app that would decide the whole thing for me in Android’s favor.

 

Parts of this piece originally appeared in Pete Mazzaccaro’s music blog Liner Notes, linernotes1.blogspot.com