iTunes Match: What It Is and Why You Need It

Since the dawn of portable Apple devices, the personal computer has always been the hub we’ve used to manage and sync our media. We are accustomed to our iPods, iPhones, and iPads being bound to our computers by white cables. But when Steve announced iCloud last summer, he declared, “We’re going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.” His vision was that the personal computer would no longer be the middle man between your media and your devices.

Of all of the digital media that accumulates on our hard drives, our music collections are often guilty of robbing us of significant hard drive space. This is even more of a problem when it comes to the smaller storage space of our portable devices. Most of us have spent time trying to narrow down our music to fit on these devices, only to be away from home and crave a song or album that missed the cut. This is where iTunes Match comes in. Read on to learn what Match is all about, and find out if it’s right for you.

What Exactly Is It?

After Apple’s acquisition of streaming service Lala in late 2009, many thought that it would provide a streaming service tied to the iTunes Music Store. While streaming services like Spotify are certainly taking off, Apple’s vision with iCloud is to provide something different: the ability to download, not stream, your content to whatever device you need it on. Since the Internet is not yet ubiquitous, with WiFi only available in specific places and 3G bandwidth a costly commodity, this is probably a more practical solution than streaming for the time being.

Currently, Apple provides two ways of getting your music into the cloud. The first way, dubbed “iTunes in the Cloud”, is for music purchased in the iTunes Music Store. Whenever you purchase music from iTunes, Apple gives you the option to have your purchases automatically downloaded to other devices. You can also manually access them from the new “Purchased” tab in the iTunes Store. iTunes in the Cloud is perfect for users who buy all of their music from iTunes.

Go to the Purchased tab to download any songs you've bought through iTunes.

Go to the Purchased tab to download any songs you've bought through iTunes.

For those of us who have music in our libraries from CDs, other digital stores, friends, or perhaps more questionable locations, Apple makes us pay the fare to get our music into the cloud. For a yearly fee of $24.99, iTunes Match will scan your library, matching any music that is available in the iTunes Music Store, and uploading anything that the Store doesn’t have. From there, you have the ability to download your library from any Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad, and stream from an Apple TV.

Getting Started

You can sign up for Match from any computer running the latest version of iTunes. Once you have purchased a yearly subscription, Match scans your library to see what songs it can match, and uploads any unmatched tracks.

This 3-step process takes place every time you match your library.

This 3-step process takes place every time you match your library.

I have a library of around 15,000 songs, and it was able to match over 11,000. The entire process took several hours to complete, but it is certainly faster than using competing services such as Google’s or Amazon’s, where every single song in your library has to get beamed up to the cloud. Once complete, all of your music, including playlists, will be instantly available for download on your other devices.

If you remove any music from iTunes, you will be given the option to remove the songs from iCloud as well. If you choose to keep them in iCloud, the songs will still show up in your library and you’ll be able to redownload them at will.

Add the “iCloud Status” column so you can see whether a song has been matched, uploaded, or is waiting to be processed.

Add the “iCloud Status” column so you can see whether a song has been matched, uploaded, or is waiting to be processed.

On a computer, it’s actually possible to stream a song from iCloud by double-clicking it. In order to keep a song permanently, you have to either click the Download button or right-click and select Download. This works differently on an iPad or iPhone, where there is no streaming functionality; tapping a song stored in iCloud will download it automatically.

iTunes Match on the iPad

iTunes Match on the iPad.

Selling Points

Keep Everything In Sync

Match’s main attraction is keeping your library in sync across devices such as your iPhone or iPad, which have more limited hard drive space. But another benefit of using Match is that you are easily able to keep computers’ libraries synced through your iTunes Account. Use Match between home and work, for two home computers, or even to sync with family and friends–if you trust them with your iTunes account name and password (which is linked to your credit card information). I am sure that Apple frowns upon people using Match to share music, but some people will inevitably use it for that.

Match works seamlessly across all of your devices.

Match works seamlessly across all of your devices.

DRM-Free Downloads

If you ever decide to stop subscribing to Match, you will of course no longer have access to the files stored in iCloud. But since Apple’s files are DRM-free, any music that you downloaded to your hard drive will remain, so you don’t have to worry about the files disappearing from your devices or turning into duds as soon as your subscription expires.

Improve Your Music Quality

After years of getting digital music files from a variety of sources, many people find themselves with an assortment of file formats and bit rates. Match will let you download your matched files in iTunes-Store quality 256-kbps AAC files, letting you standardize much of your library.

Downsides

No Automatic File Upgrading

Unfortunately, upgrading files to iTunes-Store quality isn’t automatic, and there is no menu or right-click option that says “Upgrade File Quality”. In order to get those improved files, you will actually need to delete the original files from your hard drive and then redownload them from iCloud. If you want to upgrade the quality of as many of your songs as possible, I recommend sorting your library by the “iCloud Status” column so that you can easily see what files have been matched, and then only redownload those.

Stragglers

Shortly after matching my library, I began to come across albums where every song matched except for one or two–even when they came from the same CD rip, and were named identically to songs in the iTunes Music Store. Of course, Match automatically uploads those unmatched stragglers, so it isn’t the end of the world. But you aren’t able to upgrade the quality of these songs, and will have to waste time uploading them, which is annoying when they are clearly legitimate copies.

An example of an album that had one oddly unmatched song.

An example of an album that had one oddly unmatched song.

25,000 Song Limit

Most people don’t have libraries this massive, but if you do, you’re out of luck. iTunes will show you a warning and prevent you from even purchasing Match if your library is over the limit. If you are determined to use Match, check out this post at MacWorld for a possible workaround.

It Can’t Easily Be Fooled

It is clear that Match does not just look at the metadata of your songs to match them; if that were the case, you could just rename a dummy file to whatever song you want, match it, and then download the real thing from Apple.

However, some people have wondered if you could simply download the audio of songs from YouTube and match those. In my tests, Match is pretty picky, especially when it comes to lower quality files. I tested 5 different songs–all ones that I owned and iTunes was able to match based on my CD rips–and downloaded the audio from Youtube. After adding them to my library and giving them correct metadata, iTunes could only match 2 of the 5, which means Match is probably not a solution for people looking to turn their sketchy YouTube audio files into beautiful copies.

Pricing

Match comes in at $24.99 per year, which is reasonable considering the complete integration with Apple’s apps, the speed at which it gets your library into the cloud, upgrading of your music quality, and access of your music from any of your devices.

For comparison, Google Music allows you to upload up to 20,000 songs for free, and Amazon’s Cloud Drive gives you 5GB for free, after which you must pay for an amount of storage space. Amazon is currently offering a deal where you will get unlimited music storage if you purchase the cheapest plan, which is $20 a year, but it is yet to be seen if this offer will remain. Regardless, with either of these services you must upload every single song in your library since Google and Amazon were not able to make deals with record companies as Apple did to match your music. And without integration with Apple’s apps, these services will probably not be viable options for most users.

Conclusion

You may still wonder if iTunes Match is a service that you really need. After all, people have been syncing music to devices for years through cables, and it has not been that painful. Match isn’t a necessity, but I find myself using it quite often, and I believe that I will renew my subscription when the time comes. I enjoy putting very little music on my iPad and being able to download what I am in the mood for on demand. I don’t own an iPhone, but I am sure that if I did I would use Match to download songs while on the road, even though 3G limits could get in the way of doing this too much. And if you have an Apple TV, this could be the best way to stream your music collection.

In the end, Match is a nice convenience in an age where we have an increasing number of devices that require syncing. It is certainly a good step toward a future in which we no longer need white cables or USB sticks for transferring music between devices.


Summary

iTunes Match makes syncing music between devices simple, and upgrades the quality of a lot of your music in the process. At just $25 a year, Match is a solid, convenient service that transitions us into a completely wireless future.

9
  • Graeme Simpson

    I took the plunge as soon as it came out in the UK and its been brilliant.

    i had all my music on a drive at work and on my ipod classic. Recently I moved onto an iPhone and got an apple tv for xmas and then i treated myself to an ipad 2 so being able to have my music where ever i am or whatever device i use is just awesome.

  • Alexei

    I’m thinking about subscribing so I can “upgrade” my library (+7k songs) which is 99% downloaded from the internet (for free).
    Mostly of my albums are from 192kbps to 320kbps mp3s. Hopefully I’ll be able to save some space and get better quality rips.

  • Connor Stuart

    I went for it when it came out in the UK, and overall I’m happy. I wish the interface was better (like, iOS and iTunes only showed what was on the device but you’d still be able to see matched songs on a separate screen) and some of my artwork’s gone missing (I am obsessive over this, and had it all correct), but the music quality is good, it’s convenient, it works and it is one less headache when it comes to a backup strategy.

  • Stepa Mitaki

    As a downside you should also add turning off Genius playlists on iOS devices. You can’t use this feature if you use iTunes Match :(

  • J

    Not sure I would credit apple for “making deals with record companies”. Lala had this service running at full speed until apple bought them out and turned it into a paid service.

    • J

      (lala’s version was free btw)

    • http://twitter.com/pilaika Anna Victoria

      Lala did have deals in place with record labels, but they did not provide the functionality Match does where it will let you download store-quality upgrades to your existing files. Since many people will use this to basically get iTunes Store quality versions of files they illegally downloaded, I’m sure this was somewhat of a new hurdle, and required a lot of negotiation on Apple’s part.

      This might have entailed Apple giving record companies as much as $150 million: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110606/12570414567/apples-music-match-innovation-record-label-committee.shtml

  • http://monstr.me Ryan C.

    Match is so buggy. I wouldn’t quite recommend this yet. Because of Match my once perfect Artwork Collection is now to the point where less than 25% of the artwork can be seen on my iPhone or iPad. Also, many of my songs were explicit then once added to match, it has now distributed clean music which is annoying. Give it 2-3 months and it should be flawless.

  • alex
  • Tim

    Music files are not that big. I don’t care if I have to keep them on my devices. The problem is movies. I want to be able to stream them from my iTunes account.

  • http://cameraguyzack.blogspot.com Zack Jones

    What happens with the stragglers? Will they eventually be matched or are they forever going to be treated as outcasts?

    • http://twitter.com/pilaika Anna Victoria

      You can still access the unmatched files from iCloud, but they don’t get upgraded to Store-quality. Hopefully Apple will improve the matching process in the future, and it will eventually match those songs too.

  • Jordi

    Great review, Anna Victoria! I searched for a clear review, based on a real use, to clarify all my questions and this is the one who did it.

  • http://www.tamilsexcity.com tamildirt

    Very interesting topic, appreciate it for putting up.

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