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Amazon Cloud Player review: functional, not mind blowing, and still US-only

Amazon Android Cloud Player appIt's hard to believe: our world-spanning network, our Internet, which is the cornerstone of free speech and free society -- which, on a good day, is capable of causing populist revolutions -- is still crippled by banal geolocation restrictions. We are, of course, talking about Amazon's two latest offerings, both of which are only available in the United States. Last week it was the excellent Android Appstore for Android, and today it's the Amazon Cloud Player for Web and Android.

Along with Cloud Player, Amazon also launched Cloud Drive, which is basically just like any other cloud storage digital locker. It's not particularly feature rich, and there's no real reason to use it over something like SugarSync or SkyDrive -- it does work outside the US, however.

Its primary purpose, as far as we're concerned, is that it stores your your Cloud Player music in a subdirectory. You get 5GB of Cloud Drive storage for free, and then it's $1 per gigabyte per year if you need more space.

The Amazon Cloud Player itself will not, to put it bluntly, blow your mind. It works, but it's very much an early, and possibly rushed, release. Let's dive in to the Web and Android players for a closer look.

Amazon Cloud Player and Cloud Drive: on Web and Android

Amazon Cloud Player for Web

The Web Cloud Player lets you upload, download, and play music from your Cloud Drive. The interface is nice enough, you can search by genre and create playlists, but that's about it.

If you want to upload music, you need to grab the Amazon MP3 Uploader, which is a simple Adobe AIR program. As soon as you open it, it starts scanning your entire hard drive for music -- but you can stop it with a click and specify which directories you want to upload. The uploader is simple, but very easy to use.

Beyond streaming music from your Web browser, you can also download songs from Cloud Player for local playing. To download more than one song at a time, you need to grab the Amazon MP3 Downloader -- and when that runs, it automatically opens Windows Media Player or iTunes, and imports your downloaded music.

In essence, you can log into Cloud Player from any Web-connected PC and download your DRM-free MP3s -- cool.

Amazon Cloud Player for Android

Here's where things get a little interesting (if you're in the US, anyway). Cloud Player for Android is bundled with the Amazon MP3 Android app. Open the app, and you're prompted to sign in to access music in your Cloud Drive. You can also use the Amazon MP3 app to buy music, if you want to listen to music that you don't already own.

Unfortunately, the Android player itself is lackluster. If you're used to Winamp, you'll find Amazon's offering eunuch-like in its functionality. That's not to say Cloud Player for Android sucks -- it works just fine -- but it only plays music. It doesn't scrobble to, and there's no way to make a playlist that mixes both on-device and in-the-cloud music, nor can you search both storage locations at the same time. There is a simple home screen widget, though -- and it looks like the player automatically downloads album art, too.

The most annoying feature is that the Android player automatically fades in and out when you start/stop songs, and when switching between tracks -- and there's no way to disable it! The overall feeling is that Cloud Player for Android is most definitely 1.0, or even beta, software.

Fortunately, Cloud Player does one thing very well: it lets you download single MP3s or entire albums directly to your phone. You could do this while sitting at home on a high-speed Wi-Fi link, or over 3G/4G if you have the traffic allowance. Once the MP3s are on your phone, you can of course use a proper player like Winamp.

Circumventing the US geolocation restriction

Getting the Web player to work is pretty easy: you just need to set your billing address to somewhere in the US. Coercing the Android player into working outside the US is seemingly impossible, though -- or it defeated our best attempts, anyway. In the end, we had to load the Amazon MP3 APK into the Android SDK -- but of course, that's no good if you want to actually stream to your phone while on the move. We used ES File Explorer to extract the APK, if you want to try it out yourself.

Hopefully, in the next few months, Amazon will simply enable Cloud Player for those unfortunate souls that aren't lucky enough to live in the US.

A strong gambit

With the Android Appstore, and now the Cloud Drive and Cloud Player, Amazon has finally fired its first non-Kindle salvo at Google and Apple. If you had any doubt about Amazon getting into the digital services market, here's your illuminated-with-neon-lights proof.

While none of Amazon's new cloud-based smartphone-oriented services are earth shatteringly awesome, there's no avoiding the fact that they're polished, easy to use, and free. It now becomes a question of whether Amazon's consumer might will be enough to take a bite out of the entrenched Android Market -- and more importantly, whether Amazon's early launch will be enough to stymie the growth of Apple's upcoming MobileMe and Google Music.

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