August 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Ubuntu One Offers Open-Source ‘iTunes in the Cloud’ for Linux, Windows

ubuntu oneWith new personal cloud music services cropping up like mushrooms in a cow pie, no one should be left out of the game. That includes the Linux-heads, you rebels.

It’s only fair — after all, a Linux server most likely babysits your music on other services anyway; Google’s Music Beta, iTunes, and even Apple’s iCloud are all said to use them. So why shouldn’t you be able to use a music locker and buy music for it if you run Linux on your desktop?

If you’ve tried Ubuntu, you know Linux has come a long from its l33t nerd status, so now, it attracts bargain-hunters and freedom-lovers in general. They expect consumer-friendly features, like the ability to purchase music and store it in the cloud, just like people who use iTunes and other mainstream software on Windows and Mac desktops.

(Despite its Linux-centric name, this do-it-yourself cloud music system works for Windows too, using a beta Windows client that worked fine for us — just don’t tell the Linux people or they’ll freak.)

The Ubuntu One do-it-yourself music cloud service, the Ubuntu One Music Store, and mobile apps for Apple iOS and Google Android offer an integrated environment for buying, storing, and streaming music in the cloud.

Ubuntu One offers 5GB of storage for free with a registration, but that doesn’t include the music option. The Ubuntu One Music upgrade costs $4 per month (or $40 annually), and adds the ability to stream up to 20GB of music to your Apple or Android smartphone. (Spending $0 on the operating system, syncing client, and smartphone app: priceless.)

Until recently, only the Android app offered playlist support and caching for offline playback, but these features are now available for Apple iOS as well.

ubuntu one web service

Ubuntu One Web Service

Anyone can register for the online service to access their music collection from any computer, because you can upload music via the web as well. But that requires selecting songs to upload one by one, so you’re much better off with desktop client, which requires the Ubuntu operating system — or Windows, if you don’t mind using the beta. Mac users are left out in the cold.

Somewhat encouraging for non-Linux users, our man on the inside (we’ll call him “Bob” at tech support) hinted at a forthcoming “major update” to its Windows client, so Windows users may soon have a readier-for-primetime solution as well.

Without the client installed, you’re limited to uploading files one at a time through the website if you want to play them on your phone, but that’s so five years ago. So at this point, this is mostly for Ubuntu Linux users…

ubuntu one music store

Ubuntu One Music Store

… which we are not. The lazy route would have been to throw in the towel, but that’s just not how we roll. So I installed Ubuntu on my Mac by creating a virtual machine on a partition of my hard drive with VMWare Fusion. Then it was just a matter of installing the new OS, transferring my entire music collection to the Ubuntu machine, uploading all of that music to the cloud, and beaming it back down to Android.

The Windows uploader worked great for us, other than the fact that you have to move or copy your music into the sync folder, rather than selecting the folder where you already store your tunes.

So yeah, practically speaking, if you don’t have Ubuntu installed on your computer, it’s not worth trying to use the Ubuntu desktop client.

We tested the Windows client as well, and while Ubuntu One lists several bugs, it worked fine for us. However, to sync music, you need to copy it into the “sync” folder, which is a pain for people who want to leave their music where it is. We tried moving a Shortcut of our music folder into the sync folder, but that didn’t do it, so you really do need to copy or move up to 20GB of music into that folder to sync it. Hopefully the full release version will fix that issue.

ubuntu one music folder sync

Selecting files to sync via the Ubuntu desktop client

For those of you who use Ubuntu or are considering a switch: Ubuntu One integrates rather nicely with your file system. Selecting music folders to sync to the cloud is as easy as checking a box.

There’s no iCloud-style mirroring going on here, so upload speed depends on your internet connection and the amount of music you’re uploading.

If you pay nothing, the mobile app lets you stream that music for 30 days free of charge, although you will have to provide a credit card to try it. Up until recently, the Android app was way better, but now that the Apple version also includes playlists and offline music playback, Apple’s recent update might take the cake, because it allows you to play your music on anything that supports AirPlay (Airport Express, Apple TV, and certain recently-released home entertainment systems).

Pro Tip: Before you attempt to log in from an Android phone, clear out your browser cache and cookies (under the “browser app settings” menu.) We stress this because it can trigger a largely-undocumented login issue, as it did with us, where you’re greeted with “Credentials Not Satisfied” upon launching the  app – and are subsequently unable to load the Ubuntu One login page from either the app or the browser. If that doesn’t happen, the rest is all gravy.

The Android app’s interface defines “no frills.” The features are standard: no sorting music by genre, smart playlist buttons, or snazzy “mood” or “genius” features. All you get is Select, for streaming or playing offline music, Shuffle, and Settings, where you can enable Last.fm scrobbling and change the number of tracks the app caches for offline playback and how many songs to pre-load in streaming mode, to avoid gaps when you lose coverage. Nice!

ubuntu settings

The Android app's Settings menu

The app’s home screen offers two viewing options for albums you’ve uploaded to the cloud: Newest, or Random. I don’t think we have to explain how those work. The Music Library tab also sorts by artist and album, but if you don’t feel like clicking through you can always use the search bar.

When we set the Android app to preload an “unlimited” number of tracks, we noticed we could fast forward and rewind with zero lag, which is nice, but you’ll need to leave some room free on your device if you want to do that. Otherwise you’ll have to wait a second (or less) for a track to skip.

Streaming was pretty smooth, with the added bonus of preserving the original bit rate — a huge plus for someone like me whose collection would see a quality downgrade if mirrored at the 256 kbps promised by Apples’ iTunes Match. However, if you’re on a limited data plan, this also means you’ll want to take advantage of the caching feature to load songs via WiFi, because streaming at 320 Kbps can really kill your data plan.

When all is said and done, if you don’t have Ubuntu, don’t bother with this — at least until that major Windows update comes out. But if you’re a music fan running Ubuntu because you like the idea of a free operating system that’s fairly easy to use, Ubuntu One’s simple desktop client, integrated music store and companion apps are your best bet, offering reliable operation and a few extra elements we’d like to see from Mac and Windows music lockers too.