We're living in the Internet Age, so what good is a music collection that's trapped inside your home PC? Your songs should be able to go where you go, be it the office, a friend's house, an airport lounge, or even the backseat of a taxi.
Fortunately, liberating your song library is easier than you might think, so you can stream it from your PC or the Web to just about anyplace. Better still, unlike a new iPod, it won't cost you a cent.
There are lots of ways to get to your music via the Net, but I'm going to show you two distinct methods using fantastic freebies. MP3tunes, a Web-based service, houses your music collection online. Meanwhile, Orb streams songs straight from your PC to nearly any Internet-connected device--including some cell phones. Which one is the better choice for you? As it turns out, you might want to tap both. Read on, and I'll explain why.
Store Your Music Online with MP3tunes
MP3tunes makes a mighty generous offer: The service will store up to 25 gigabytes of your music files free of charge. Once you've uploaded your collection, you can sign in to your account from any Web-connected PC and stream to your heart's content--complete with playlists and auto-generated mixes. What's more, MP3tunes effectively doubles as an online backup for your collection, a great insurance policy against hard-drive disaster.
Start by signing up for an account, which gives you an MP3tunes "locker." (If your collection exceeds 25GB or you want advertising-free access, a 50GB premium account will run you $40 annually. Other plans are available if you need even more storage.) Next, download LockerSync 3.0 from MP3tunes' Downloads section. This utility keeps your local music library in sync with your online music locker. It's available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.
You can let LockerSync scan your entire system for music or set it to monitor and sync specific folders. Then it's just a matter of waiting while the software copies your tunes to MP3tunes' servers. And there's the rub: Depending on the size of your collection, it can take a few days of 24/7 uploading to finish the job. That's not MP3tunes' fault: Internet service providers typically throttle upstream performance, devoting most of the available bandwidth to downloads.
Fortunately, once you've completed the initial upload, subsequent syncs should go much faster (assuming you add only a few songs or albums at a time). And you can start streaming music from your locker even while uploads are underway. The MP3tunes player runs in a browser window and offers familiar controls, including shuffle and repeat modes and a playlist builder. Mouse over any song in the track list to play, download, or trash it, or to add it to a playlist. You can even edit a song's metadata.
Its name notwithstanding, MP3tunes doesn't limit you to MP3s: It can stream most unprotected audio formats, including AAC, Ogg, and WMA. Of course, that leaves out DRM-laden songs purchased from iTunes and other stores, but that's to be expected. To avoid the hassles of DRM--on MP3tunes and throughout your digital life--I recommend either buying CDs or purchasing from DRM-free online stores such as Amazon. (For more on DRM-free music, see Dan Tynan's "Four Ways to Reclaim Your Digital Rights".)
On the plus side, MP3tunes offers a browser plug-in that lets you add songs straight to your locker from any site that hosts MP3s (or from the company's own Sideload site, which aggregates songs from around the Web).
Stream Music From Your PC With Orb
While you're waiting for MP3tunes to upload all your music, consider installing Orb. This free service turns your PC into a media server, streaming not only songs, but also video, photos, and even TV, to just about any Web-connected device. That means you can tap your music library from your work PC, your Palm Centro, your Nintendo Wii, or your iPhone--to name just a few of the supported gadgets.
The Orb software client requires Windows XP or later and a broadband Internet connection. (If you want to add TV to the streaming mix, you'll need a TV tuner as well--check Orb's FAQ page for a list of supported models.) Once Orb is installed, configure the software to monitor the system folders containing your music (and, if desired, photos and videos). The software will also help you sign up for an Orb account, which requires nothing more than a user name, a password, and an e-mail address.
With the Orb client up and running, you're ready to stream. The hitch, of course, is that you'll need to leave your computer on at all times. If it's configured to go into power-saving sleep mode, no problem: Orb can transmit a "wake-up" command that should get your machine out of bed. (You may need to tweak the BIOS and/or ethernet adapter settings to enable the Wake on LAN option, which makes this kind of remote control possible.)
To listen to your tunes, fire up the Web browser on the device you're using--a PC, your smart phone, a game console, or whatever--and then head over to mycast.orb.com. The Orb interface varies depending on the device you use to access it; a PC affords the richest experience, a customizable portal where you can access not just music, but also weather, news, games, and RSS feeds. Click Audio-Random if you just want to shuffle-play your song library, or click the Open Application button, and then Audio, for a familiar media-player interface.
Orb is by no means the only option for streaming music from your PC; others include JukeFly, SqueezeCenter, and Vibe Streamer. Like Orb, these services cost nothing to use, but they stream only music--no video or photos--and their support for mobile devices is limited, or zero. Plus, Orb is a snap to set up and use, making it the obvious choice if you want anytime, anywhere access to your tunes.