Weekend Project: Streaming iTunes From Cloud to Phone

I’ve long wanted to be able to store music from my iTunes collection in the cloud and then stream it on demand. I have the bandwidth — a Verizon MiFi (s vz) that creates a 3G mobile hotspot, a Google Nexus One (s goog) with 3G, and a monthly subscription to Boingo’s Wi-Fi network — I just needed to find the right cloud solution. So I did a little digging and uncovered several options.

One is MP3Tunes. The web service scans a PC or Mac for music and then uploads the audio files to a digital music locker on the MP3Tunes servers. The client software will even monitor my computer for when I add new music — something I’m apt to do a few times a week thanks to Amazon’s MP3 (s amzn) deal of the day, which offers albums for $3.99 or less. MP3Tunes supplies a 2 GB account for free, so anyone can try it, but a 50 GB locker sets you back $39.95 a year.

I like the flexibility that MP3Tunes provides because my music is available on practically any device I own, no matter where I am. There’s support for both the Android and iPhone operating systems, so I can enjoy the Beatles on my phone when on a run and later kick back to some Enya on my iPad after cooling down. During the day, I often stream music on a Mac or PC while working — great when evaluating a loaner laptop that doesn’t have my music on it. A web interface provides streaming capability from practically any computer. The only downside I’ve noticed is that the Android client isn’t quite stable on my Nexus One, but I’m using a custom, or hacked ROM, on my phone, so that could be causing incompatibility issues. Aside from that, the software offers many features you’d expect in a media player: sorting by album, artist, or playlist; shuffle play; and full album art. Another handy feature is how the player integrates local music files with those stored in the cloud, so you can also enjoy any tunes physically on your device.

A second option, which I’ve used over the past year to stream music from cloud to a handset, is ZumoDrive. Like MP3Tunes, ZumoDrive stores files in the cloud and the corresponding handset client plays them back on demand. The service supports a wider range of mobile phone platforms than MP3Tunes, however: iPhone, Android and webOS all work. And unlike MP3Tunes, ZumoDrive is a full file synchronization solution in that it doesn’t just work with audio files; I routinely use it to store documents, photos and various other files in the cloud. That advantage comes at a price, though. The same 50 GB of storage offered by MP3Tunes costs $9.99 per month with ZumoDrive. If you’re just looking to stream music and have a relatively smaller music collection, I recommend the free 2 GB account or a 10 GB plan at $2.99 a month. Even though ZumoDrive isn’t a cloud service dedicated to music, the player software is much like any other audio client and rivals MP3Tunes in terms of features and usability.

Similar to ZumoDrive is SugarSync’s cloud solution. In my last Weekend Project, I used SugarSync with a third-party document editor to create and edit documents in the cloud on my iPad. It turns out that SugarSync works acceptably as a music player when combined with audio files stored online. I say “acceptably” because while you can navigate to and play music files on a phone with SugarSync, the client software doesn’t yet provide the full experience of a dedicated music player like MP3Tunes — album art doesn’t show and there’s no way to shuffle through various tracks. So it’s a bare-bones solution, but if you’re already using SugarSync to store other files and don’t want to pay for a second service, a workable one. And there’s one more advantage to using SugarSync: Aside from support on Android and the iPhone, there are client applications for Windows Mobile (s msft) and BlackBerry (s rimm) devices, too. A 2 GB trial account for SugarSync is free while $49.99 per year nabs you 30 GB of storage for music and other data.

There are plenty of other ways to enable remote handset access to a music collection, but those are my picks. And I do anticipate that Apple will provide cloud-based iTunes solution in the future, I’m just not one to wait around. I have solid connectivity most everywhere I go and I don’t feel like synchronizing and schlepping gigs of music on my many devices. Using a cloud streaming solution allows me to keep music in one centralized place and access it on nearly any connected device I use — hopefully, we’ll hear about other similar options at our upcoming Structure event.

There’s a bit of a trade-off with my cloud approach worth noting, however, in the form a of a second or two of “dead air” between songs as they load up in the client buffer, but for me that’s far outweighed by the ability to break free from the physical storage limits of a device. The capacity of my Android handset might be limited by the 16 GB microSD card inside it, but with a cloud solution I can “tote around” and enjoy 30 GB or more of music.

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