Music Spotlight Special Series: Amazon vs. Apple, Devices

October 11, 2012
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So far in this series, I’ve covered:

Digital Music – Amazon vs. Apple, Introduction

iTunes vs. Amazon MP3 Store

Digital Music Library Management

Music File Functionality

So far the series has been about digital music software and services offered by Apple and Amazon. Today, we’re talking hardware: how do the digital music players you can use with Amazon’s Cloud Player compare to those you can use with iTunes?

 

Stream vs. “Push”

Let’s address this item right up front, because it’s pretty important for users who have mobility and memory concerns. While stream vs. push is a software/service thing, it’s the foundation on which your portable media device usage will be built. Recall that “streaming” is playing your media in real time across a network (generally, a wifi network or 3G/4G connection), as opposed to downloading the media to the device and playing it from the device’s own memory.

Apple’s streaming technology is called “Airplay”, and it only works on AirPlay-supported Apple devices within an individual home or office wifi network—basically, when you’re on the same network as wherever your iTunes library is stored. This means Apple can’t stream your library content when you’re away from that network, regardless of whether or not you have wifi/internet connectivity.  It’s a little confusing, because you might think that since, with iCloud, your library is stored on Apple’s servers it shouldn’t matter whether or not you’re within range of your home network since iCloud’s servers aren’t on your home network anyway. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Apple’s setup currently only allows for streaming within range of the network where your main iTunes installation exists.

Apple’s answer to customers who want access to their media away from their home networks is to make your entire iCloud library accessible with wifi/internet connectivity, and then “push” any content you want to use to the device. This means that so long as you have internet connectivity you can see the entire contents of your library through your various touchscreen Apple devices and Apple computers when you’re away from your home network, but if you want to play any of your iTunes library media you must download it to the device over that internet/wifi connection first. Suddenly, if you want to have access to play your entire music or media library away from home, memory capacity of your portable devices becomes very important.

Apple assumes users will only have a portion of their library downloaded to portable devices at any given time, and this may well be true for many users. But for anyone who wants the convenience of access to their entire music library on-the-go without having to download each song before listening to it, this is not a workable solution. We want true streaming, and that’s one area where Amazon’s Cloud Player has Apple beat.

Cloud Player does work in that way you’d think Apple’s iCloud should: your media library is stored on Amazon’s servers and you can access it AND use it over a wifi connection to that library—not just while you’re within range of your home network. You still have the option to download individual items to your devices if you wish, but you don’t have to do so. You can stream your music and other media anytime you have wifi/internet connectivity. This makes your device’s on-board memory less of a barrier to getting full use and enjoyment from your media.

 

Pocket-Sized Portable Music/Media Players

For many digital music users the device is just as important, if not MORE important, than everything discussed in this series to date. I’ll cover Amazon’s Fire tablet compared to Apple’s iPad with respect to digital music functionality, since it’s the closest device comparison that can be made between the two companies. But what about dedicated, portable music players, like the iPod? This is an important issue: if you’ve been using an iPod up till now, what happens if you make the switch to Amazon’s Cloud Player for digital music library management? And if you would rather be able to stream your media than rely on Apple’s “push” solution, does that mean you have to give up your iPod? Let’s begin there.

iPod Touch Can Run Amazon’s Cloud Player App

If you’ve got, or intend to buy, an iPod Touch, you can download the Amazon Cloud Player app to it and you’re all set to stream from your Amazon Cloud Player music library whenever you have an internet connection. However, if you’re like me, you also want the flexibility of carrying your entire music library around with you at ALL times, downloaded to the device, so you have access to all of your music regardless of whether or not you’re within wifi range. When you’re on a long road trip that takes you off the beaten path, or in a location where wifi is only available for a fee, having access to a large library right on the device may be important.

The 4th Generation iPod Touch has a maximum capacity of 32 gigbytes, not large enough for my entire music library (about 37GB so far), and none of the Apple portable music players accept memory cards. The newly-released 5th Generation iPod Touch is available in a 64GB model, but it’s also unable to accept memory cards and is (currently) priced at $399. There’s also a 32GB model, currently priced at $299, but again: 32GB isn’t enough space to contain my entire library.

The 5th Generation Touch wasn’t available when I had to replace my iPod last year, and I’m not sure I would’ve been willing to pay so much for it anyway. I stuck with the iPod Classic: the one with the smaller, non-touch screen and click wheel controller. It was the only iPod model available at the time with more than 32GB of memory.

iPod Classic Lacks A Touchscreen And Wifi

The iPod Classic model is less expensive than the Touch and is available with much more on-board memory, but since it doesn’t have a touchscreen or wifi capabilities, it can’t run the Cloud Player app and it can’t stream media. That means it only works with iTunes and will only show and play media I’ve already downloaded to the device.

While I love my Kindle Fire and Fire HD devices, as I’ve admitted on this site before, my iPod Classic is still my digital music workhorse. When I bought a new car in February of this year, the availability of iPod connectivity was on my “must have” list of features because I never drive anywhere that will take me longer than 10 minutes on the road without plugging in my iPod for music and podcasts. EDITED TO ADD: Nowadays, an ‘audio in’ port is pretty standard in most car dashboards and only requires a standard cable you can buy for $10 or less, though it won’t charge your device while you’re using it.

However, that doesn’t mean I absolutely LOVE my iPod Classic. It’s more a case of sticking with what I’ve always done and with what I know has always worked.

I don’t like having to pay more for Apple devices and accessories, for one thing. I’ve tried non-Apple brand accessories many times, hoping to escape from the Apple shackles (“it costs more because WE made it”), but they never work as well or last as long as the Apple items. Whether that means the Apple items are of a quality so superior that they’re worth the higher price, or that Apple has seen to it that no competitor product can ever work flawlessly with an Apple device, I can’t say—but I (and most people I know) suspect the latter.

I would also like the option to either download or stream my media, and for my device to automatically “know” when I’ve added new music to my library. I could have most of this functionality with the latest 64GB iPod Touch, but the lack of a memory card slot, the lack of streaming capability and that $399 pricetag give me pause.

Samsung Galaxy 5.0 Android MP3 Player: An Excellent Alternative To iPod Touch

For people who want a device that’s comparable to an iPod Touch, plus a memory card slot, true streaming capability and lower purchase price, the Samsung Galaxy 5.0 Android MP3 Player is the answer. It’s very much like the iPod Touch: music player, video player, runs apps, has wifi/internet connectivity, has a built-in camera and microphone for video chat, etc., but it runs on the more open Android platform. The Samsung also has a built-in radio feature that the iPod Touch lacks, and while the Samsung can’t record HD video, like the 5th Generation Touch, that’s not a feature I’m looking for in a portable music player anyway.

The top-of-the-line model, with a 5″ touchscreen, is currently priced at $196.99 on Amazon. Add a 32GB SanDisk SD card for under $20, and you’re still getting all the features of the 32 GB 5th Generation iPod Touch (except HD video recording), plus more memory and access to all Android apps (including Amazon’s Cloud Player) for much less money. The Samsung player is also available in smaller screen sizes at lower prices, so if your primary use for the device would be as an iPod replacement, you’re probably fine going with the 3.5″ screen model, which is currently priced at $149.99 on Amazon—but like all models in the line, it still comes with 8GB memory onboard and an SD card slot that can accomodate SD cards with a capacity up to 32GB.

Since, based on the size of my music library, the 64GB iPod Touch would be my only option, I’d be paying just a little over half of what I’d pay for the iPod Touch if I opt for this Samsung player instead—even less if I go for the Samsung with the smaller screen.

Samsung Galaxy 5 vs. iPod Touch

I was going to do a more thorough side-by-side comparison here, but Amazon reviewer Snowdance already did it even better than I could, since the review includes real-life experience with both the Samsung and the iPod Touch 4th Generation:

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My son got iPod Touch 8G (4th Gen) last Christmas and he likes it overall, but there were several issues that we are not so happy about. So, I’ve decided to try out the Galaxy Player for my daughter. I preordered it through Amazon and, with Amazon Prime, the Galaxy was delivered on Mon, Oct. 17, which was two full days earlier than promised. 🙂 So, here’s what our family’s experience has been over last two weeks.

– Galaxy 4.0 vs. 5.0: I settled on 4.0 since it is mainly used as a music player and a hand-held game machine for my daughter and, thus, the smaller size makes it more convenient for her to carry it around. I did try out Dell with a 5-inch screen at BestBuy to get the feel for larger 5″ screen, and, although I liked it better for web surfing and videos, I felt the 4″ would be just fine for her. So, if you are going to use the Galaxy to stream shows over NetFlix or consume media on the web, then you might be better off with 5.0.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – Screen: There’s only an half inch difference between them, however Galaxy looks much larger and much, much brighter than iPod. Although iPod has slightly higher mechanical resolution at 960×640 than Galaxy’s at 800×480, I like the Galaxy’s screen better and find it to be easier to look at than iPod’s.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – Sound:

(1) For both machines, sounds coming out of earphones are nothing special. Some earlier post mentioned that the Galaxy’s earphones are ‘crappy/horrible’, but in my opinion, they are pretty much dead even; iPod’s earphones are equally ‘crappy/horrible’. So, if you want much better sound quality, I recommend you to buy a set of more expensive earphones. For non-audiophile, both of them are adequate and serviceable.

(2) For sounds from built in speakers, Galaxy is much better than iPod. Galaxy produces clearer and more crisp stereo sounds than iPod does.

(3) For in-car sounds, they are comparable. They both generate much better sounds than through earphones.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – Web surfing: For Youtube videos, Galaxy performs faster than iPod. For other general websites, iPod tend to be slightly faster, but it is because many websites have flash contents and Galaxy loads all of them. Actually, I do like the fact that you can view all the videos on the regular Youtube site with Galaxy; it’s not limited to just Youtube Mobile videos. Also, that small difference in screen size makes a big difference in viewing web pages, so Galaxy shines here.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – Apps/Games: It depends on whichever app/game you prefer. For my daughter, Galaxy has a full range of free games/apps that she can play, including Angry Birds, so it’s a non-issue.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – Battery: Yes, we all could use longer lasting batteries. But we found Galaxy’s battery to be excellent for music listening and video playing. However, if you play games all the time, then you’ll find both Galaxy and iPod batteries to be inadequate.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – File Management: If you’re married to iTunes, you are going to like iPod better, but I found iTunes to be extremely buggy and slow, not to mention very limiting. So, it felt very refreshing not to have to be tied to iTunes to manage my files. In addition, I didn’t have to convert videos to play on Galaxy since it plays most of the known video types. Again, if you’re tied to iTunes and don’t know what else to do, go with iPod. But if you want flexibility and know what you’re doing, Galaxy is better.

– Galaxy vs. iPod – Camera: This is one of main gripes that I’ve had with iPod. Galaxy’s camera wins, hands down. Also, Galaxy handled Skype video chat with ease and we didn’t have any issues with casual picture taking. However, if you want to take really high quality pictures, buy a separate digital camera.

In summary, my son likes his iPod and my daughter is happy with her Galaxy. However, if I’m interested in a media player/mobile internet device and wouldn’t want a phone/data contract, I’ll definitely pick Galaxy over iPod Touch. I’m actually considering buying Galaxy 5.0 myself this Christmas. 🙂

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Kindle Fire HD vs. iPad – Music Functionality

The differences here really come down to the music player app on the device, not the device itself. Both the Kindle Fire HD and iPad have high-quality, stereo speakers and both will have even better sound when you’re using quality headphones.

iTunes Match vs. Cloud Player Premium and Streaming vs. Push Are The Major Differences Here

Both devices run a more compact version of their respective digital music management programs (iTunes for Apple, Cloud Player for Amazon), and both compact programs run very well on their respective devices. Both devices allow you to stream (with Amazon’s Cloud Player) or push (with Apple’s iCloud and/or iTunes Match) music and media from your library when you have wifi/internet connectivity, but with this important caveat:

Cloud storage on either Apple’s iCloud or Amazon’s Cloud is only free of charge for purchases you’ve made from those respective vendors. In other words, if you want all your non-Apple music purchases to be available in your iCloud library, or all your non-Amazon music purchases to be available in Amazon’s Cloud Player, you have to pay for the cloud storage space. Both Apple and Amazon offer the first 5GB of space for free, but that’s not nearly enough space for even a moderately-sized digital music library.

Furthermore, both vendors treat music very differently than other types of files and media you might store in their respective clouds. Both vendors supply a special, fee-based service just for accessing and using your cloud-stored digital music: Cloud Player Premium for Amazon, and iTunes Match for Apple. While it’s true that you could theoretically bypass either of these services by keeping your cloud storage under 5GB in either vendor’s cloud, since it doesn’t take too long to burn through a 5GB allowance when you’ve got a decent-sized music library, if you intend to use cloud storage for your digital music library it’s pretty certain that at some point, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and sign up for one or the other service. Also, if your media library consists of a mixture of files purchased from different sources, the only way you can store and use all of it in a single cloud library (either iCloud or Amazon’s Cloud) is to sign up for iTunes Match or Cloud Player Premium.

Once you’ve decided to make that commitment (and payment), choosing between the two services may come down to your need or desire for true streaming vs. push. I compared iTunes Match to Cloud Player Premium earlier in this series, so you may want to review that post before deciding as well.

Bottom Line: Apple and Amazon -Compatible Digital Media Devices Are Comparable, But Software And Services Aren’t

Since you now have non-Apple options for portable music players that can equal Apple’s devices in most areas, and even surpass them in others (like memory card slots, streaming vs. push, and pricing), your choice of which digital music vendor solution is best for you has less to do with the hardware and more to do with the software and services Amazon and Apple provide for digital media shopping, management and use.

 

Next In The Series: In the final post in this series, I’ll give a bottom-line wrap up that condenses the most important comparison points from the entire series into a single post.

 

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