Hands On with mSpot, an iTunes in the Cloud

mSpot, a new music streaming service for your own audio collection, launched for devices running Android 2.0 and better, earlier this week. As a self-proclaimed “music in the cloud guy,” I took mSpot for a spin on my Google Nexus One (s goog) using a free 2 GB account that’s available to anyone in the U.S. mSpot says that’s enough room for users to store approximately 1,500 tunes in the cloud — additional storage is offered for a fee ranging from $2.99/month for 10 GB to $13.99/month for a 100 GB music collection.

So how does mSpot compare to the three options I highlighted in May, namely mp3Tunes, ZumoDrive and SugarSync? Overall, mSpot is potentially a better solution to stream your own music to an Android handset, but the low quality bit rate for streaming is sure to disappoint audiophiles — more on that later.

Installing mSpot on my Mac (s aapl) and Nexus One was simple, as was registering for a new account. Like other similar services, the mSpot desktop client can be configured to copy your entire iTunes library (DRM-free only) to the mSpot servers, or the software can monitor music folders of your choosing. As you purchase new tunes for your personal collection or add/modify playlists, mSpot can automatically find the changes and sync them up to the cloud, provided you have enough free space on the mSpot servers. You can also play your tunes from a desktop browser, but I focused on the mobile software.

The Android client is clean and intuitive with four main tabs: Playlist, Album, Artists, Songs. From a player standpoint, the mSpot software is comparable to any third-party media player, and better than the native Android player. Simply tap a song or playlist to get the music started, use the scrubber bar to move through a song or press the buttons to rewind or skip to the next track. I like how you can swipe the album art to navigate through tracks, and there’s an mSpot widget you can add to your Android home screen.

mSpot’s greatest strength is the ability to play tunes from the cloud even when you have no data connection, a shortcoming of nearly all other similar services. Users can configure how much of their cloud music they’d like to store locally — based on 10 percent increments of total available memory — and mSpot can top off your handset with music for offline playback. Indeed, when viewing your phone’s mSpot music library, local tunes appear in white, while cloud titles show in a gray color. A dynamic playlist called “On My Phone” quickly shows which music is available without a web connection. Any tune can be added to a “Quick Playlist” with a button tap, as well.

Even though the offline playback is a desirable feature, I can’t give a Grammy to this software for one key reason — the sound quality is sub-par. Whether streaming or listening to locally stored tunes, the audio range is lacking. A little digging exposed the culprit: the files appear to use a low-quality 48 kbps bit rate, which makes music sound like it’s on an 8-track player. My source music uses a much higher, albeit variable bit rate, so mSpot is clearly compressing the audio data.

On one hand, that makes sense for a mobile streaming application, in order to keep users from going over their monthly data limits, but even the locally stored tunes use the low bit rate. I hope that in the future, mSpot improves the sound quality through a better compression algorithm, or provides a way to stream higher quality versions of source music from the cloud.

My overall verdict? mSpot is worth watching, but not quite ready for prime-time due to the low-quality music playback. For now, I’m sticking with prior solutions such as mp3Tunes. If mSpot address the quality issue, the software will find a permanent home on my Google Nexus One. And if you don’t need to listen to your own music collection, I’d recommend a Slacker subscription, since it too offers cached playback.

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