iTunes Match Reviewed

itunes-match-logoJust recently I had the chance to sit down and use iTunes Match, Apple’s cloud-based music service that was launched a little over a year ago. The concept behind iTunes Match is pretty simple, for $25 per year iTunes will scan your entire music library (up to 25,000 songs), allow you to download high-quality versions of any music it matches to the iTunes store and upload your anything it can’t match for your listening pleasure on other devices. Yes, that’s right – your CD rips and Napster collection from 2000 can be converted to high-quality 256 kbit/s DRM-free AAC audio and you can even keep anything you’ve downloaded once the subscription expires.

match-runningThe sign-up process for iTunes match is very simple, assuming you have an Apple ID and have purchased from iTunes before. Sign-up can be done right from the iTunes Store’s homepage and it only takes a few clicks. Once the sign-up is complete (and your wallet is $25 lighter), iTunes will immediately begin to scan, match and upload your music. Depending on your Internet connection and size of your music library, this process can take a while. Adding additional computers to iTunes match is also done the same way and the service allows for up to 5 computers, just like the iTunes store itself.

Once iTunes Match has finished working its magic, what happens next is, well, nothing. Matched tracks don’t automatically download and replace your original music nor does iTunes Match really have any user interface to speak of. The reason for not automatically replacing your music makes sense, for example, what if a mismatch happens? In my case though, I wanted to replace my crusty old 128 kbit/s or less CD rips with their higher quality matches.

downloading-itunesI decided to take the scorched earth approach so I created a new library and re-download everything. What I found after this was quite peculiar – music stored in iTunes match only streams to your computer, which means without Internet you won’t have access to your music. Tracks can be downloaded one-by-one by clicking on the Cloud icon next to the track. To download everything, the process is less than intuitive, you will need to select everything then right click and choose the Download option. Worse yet, music that is added later won’t automatically download to other devices, it will need to be manually downloaded using the same process. For Apple, this entire process seems strangely unintuitive.

The way iTunes Match works on iOS devices, such as the iPhone and iPad, is a little different. Like on the desktop version of iTunes, music isn’t automatically downloaded. As tracks are played, they are downloaded and stored on the device for offline listening later. What if you want to download your entire collection, though? Again, the process is less than intuitive. The easiest method is to add all of your music to a new playlist and then choose the download option at the bottom of that playlist. The lack of automatic downloads on iTunes and iOS is one of the biggest oversights of the service, in my opinion.

Reports from other users of the service seem to be mixed. While my slightly small collection of about 400 songs (200 of which were matched) didn’t have any mismatches, other users have reported some issues. One of the most common issues seems to be mismatching songs with explicit lyrics to the clean versions. Other users have also pointed out that any music that isn’t matched is re-encoded in AAC before being uploaded, since AAC is still a lossy codec, this means there is a very slight loss in quality from the original music. For these reasons and more, it’s very important to backup the original copies of your music even if you choose to download all of the matches as I did.

The main purpose of iTunes Match in my case is to unify my music library across 3 computers, and iPhone and an iPad. With some slight legwork on my part, it achieved that goal.  I only wish Apple could have provided, if nothing else, a true automatic download option on both platforms to make iTunes Match a true, simple cloud solution. A better interface for managing cloud music would also be a big step in the right direction but with a little digging in iTunes, it’s still manageable. Despite the shortcomings I still think that iTunes Match is a great service for a very reasonable price.

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