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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.