There’s been a lot of talk about storing our media in “the cloud” over the past few years, but not a lot of action. We’ve seen start-ups such as mSpot and MP3tunes tackle the music locker idea while options like SugarSync and Dropbox lure people looking for more general file backup solutions. Still, no one yet has been able to push a cloud storage service into the mainstream. With Cloud Drive, is hoping to change that.

The online megastore’s Cloud Drive online storage service starts with a free 5GB base plan that can be increased to 20GB, 50GB, 100GB, 200GB, 500GB, and 1,000GB, priced at $1 per gigabyte, per year (so that a 100GB plan costs $100 per year). For a limited time, customers who purchase an album from Amazon’s MP3 store are automatically upgraded to a 20GB trial account for one year.

What do you get?

The promise of a product like Amazon’s Cloud Drive is that you can upload all of the precious media files from all of your computers and devices (home, work, phone) to one common place, so that you’re never stranded without access to your digital media.

Aside from Amazon’s handy cross-platform uploader and downloader utilities and its browser-based tools for viewing, downloading, and streaming your stuff, Amazon is also throwing in a Cloud Player feature within the Amazon MP3 application for Android. Using the free app, you can stream all the music you have stored in the cloud, or download your tracks on the fly for offline playback.

How does it work?

Once you’ve chosen your plan on Amazon’s site, you’ll be prompted to download and install an MP3 Uploader tool that runs within the Mac- and PC-compatible Adobe Air platform (a separate download if you don’t already have it). After Amazon’s software is installed, it will run a quick scan of your drive, report on how many music files you have available to upload, and show you how much storage is available with your current plan.

If you don’t have room for your whole collection, you can use the software to manually select which artists, songs, or playlists you’d like to upload.

After uploading, you can navigate through your music collection using Amazon’s browser-based Cloud Player. Similar to the music locker interfaces we’ve seen from mSpot and MP3tunes, the Amazon Cloud Player allows you to sort your collection by song, artist, album, or genre by selecting from the intuitive sorting options in the left column. A listing of uploaded playlists is also displayed below the main sorting options. We were happy to see that the Amazon uploader tool was able to digest our iTunes playlists, including Smart Playlists and Genius Playlists.

A big play/pause button and track skip, shuffle, loop, and volume controls are lined up across the bottom of the player, proving easy, friendly controls for playback.

To get your music back down from the cloud and onto a computer, you have two options. One way is to manually select any Cloud Drive file or folder and click the download button located above the file list. If the file you’re downloading is music, you may be prompted to download Amazon’s Adobe Air-based MP3 Downloader app, although you probably already have this if you’ve downloaded music from Amazon before.

The second way to retrieve your music is to set it up automatically under the Cloud Player’s settings menu. Here you’ll find a check box that will direct the MP3 Downloader tool to automatically download any new music in your Cloud Drive to your computer. The setting is computer-specific, so it’s possible to set things so that only your home computer will download new Cloud Drive music, leaving your work computer uncluttered, for example. It’s a useful feature, and we’re glad to see that Amazon included it.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t handle other types of files as elegantly as music. When you back out of the Cloud Player into the general Cloud Drive browser, you’ll find folders for documents, pictures, and videos, in addition to music. Non-music files must be selected and uploaded through a browser pop-up window, instead of using the more elegant and automatic MP3 Uploader tool. Once uploaded, your files are organized generically as a hierarchical tree of files and folders. You have the option to copy, move, download, and delete these files–but that’s it.

There are no options to share content, and no pretty photo views, and video playback is handled by your browser. Common cloud backup features such as folder monitoring and background uploading are also absent. In short, Amazon has a ways to go before Cloud Drive is a full-featured online backup solution.

Why is this important?

First and foremost, Cloud Drive is a free method for consolidating music collections that have been strewn across multiple computers and devices. There are similar products out there, but Amazon’s scale, the breadth of its storage plans, and the popularity of its MP3 store will make Cloud Drive the service to beat in the music space.

From an industry perspective, the introduction of Cloud Drive and its ties into the Amazon MP3 store amount to a big competitive advantage over other music download stores, most notably Apple’s iTunes store. Amazon is effectively guaranteeing a backup of your MP3 purchases at no cost, which is a big incentive to go with Amazon over Apple.

What’s missing?

As a music storage and management package, Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Cloud Player combination is easy to use and easy to recommend. There are some holes in the music service, such as limited format support (strictly unprotected MP3 and AAC), the somewhat dry user interface, a reliance on the Adobe Air platform, and the lack of an iOS app. If and when Apple comes out with something similar, it will likely run within iTunes, dovetail with iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, and support Apple’s lossless audio format.

The biggest disappointment is how Amazon handles storage of non-music files. There are dozens of services out there that are more adept at intelligently archiving and organizing photos, documents, and videos. The uptime reliability of Amazon’s servers is nice, and the plan pricing is competitive, but services such as SugarSync and Dropbox are better tools when it comes to routinely backing up critical files and folders.

Final thoughts

For music fans, Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Cloud Player get an unqualified thumbs-up from us. The price is right, the interface is simple, and if you’re already a fan of Amazon and its MP3 store, then it’s a slam dunk. If what you want to do is automatically back up files other than your music collection, there are better products and services for that out there.