iTunes Match review

On 16 December Apple’s service that lets you access all your iTunes music from all your devices was launched in the UK. So now that iTunes Match is finally here, what can you expect? We’ve taken iTunes Match for a spin, evaluating how easy it is to get it up and running and looking at the pros and the pitfalls.  

What exactly is iTunes Match?

iTunes Match is part of Apple’s iCloud and iTunes in the Cloud service (you don’t need an iCloud account to use it, just an Apple ID associated with iTunes). For £21.99 a year, iTunes Match does two things: match and upload your music library to a server, and let you download (or stream if you’re on a computer) those tunes to Apple devices you own.

The service works by scanning your library and matching tracks with songs from iTunes’ 20 million-strong catalogue. This can take a while, but it’s done in the background so you can continue listening to your music. If iTunes can’t find a match, it will upload the unmatched tracks to its central server so that you can stream or download them to other devices associated with your Apple ID. (You can’t run the Match process on multiple computers simultaneously, so don’t start matching tracks on a second computer until the first match has finished.)

iTunes Match will match and upload your music library to a central server, and let you download (or stream on a computer) those tunes on any Apple device you own

This benefits you in two ways: you don’t have to manually upload every song in your library, and – for songs that iTunes matches with its catalogue – you can redownload high-quality versions without any extra cost involved. If you don’t renew your subscription to iTunes Match at the end of the 12 months you won’t lose these tracks, just the central storage that allows access from multiple devices.

So, if you have a poorly encoded (or DRM-encumbered) copy of a song – and that song exists in iTunes’ catalogue – you can redownload it as an 256kbps DRM-free AAC files. iTunes Match will provide this service for up to 25,000 tracks not originally purchased with your Apple ID; if you have more than that, you’re currently unable to sign up for the service without employing a trick or two (see the ‘Tricking iTunes Match’ boxout).

Getting started: Mac setup

The initial setup of iTunes Match takes place on your Mac – you’ll need iTunes 10.5.1 or later. Click on the iTunes Match icon in the iTunes sidebar (or go to Store > Turn On iTunes Match) and follow the onscreen instructions.

Once iTunes has finished its scanning and uploading process, a cloud icon will appear next to the Music icon in your iTunes sidebar, and a column heading with the same icon will be added to your library. You can also enable an iCloud Status column by right-clicking on the column header or by going to View > View Options and selecting iCloud Status. That column will tell you whether a track has been matched, is waiting for a match, is a duplicate of a matched song, is ineligible (digital booklets, for example), had been removed from one of your devices, or is a track that has been purchased from the iTunes Store.

If a song returns as Matched, this means that iTunes has a high-quality version available in its track catalogue, and you won’t have to upload your current version. Even better, you can now download this better-quality version. It won’t automatically delete your current, low-quality file though; to replace that song you’ll need to delete it from your library and redownload. The need to delete your matched music may be slightly concerning but you won’t lose your music when you delete it. In fact, if you delete a file from iTunes in order to download the higher-quality version from iTunes Match, iTunes will remember your metadata – ratings, play counts, custom tags and the like – when the new version is added.

To replace your matched low-quality songs with iTunes 256kbps AAC tracks you need to highlight songs you wish to replace, delete them, and redownload them by clicking the iCloud download icon. You can tell iTunes Match not to sync some songs, although it’s complicated.

Once you’ve uploaded and matched everything, you might want to delete everything off your computer and just use the Match collection from iCloud. Apple doesn’t require you to have a local copy of your files, so you can theoretically match and upload everything to the cloud, and then delete all those files from your computer. We will say, however, that while the iTunes Match servers are probably ironclad, and there’s little risk of losing the data, living with no backup is not something we recommend.

When iTunes Match is unable to reconcile music with its catalogue, the service will upload the track, as is, to its server for playback. We found a few odd cases where iTunes wouldn’t match music that’s on the iTunes Store. There were also cases where iTunes Match matched, and offered for download, music that isn’t for sale on iTunes.   

Since iTunes Match is not directly associated with iCloud, it uses separate storage for all those tracks you upload, and therefore doesn’t take up any of the 5GB of storage iCloud provides to every user for free. Those storage costs are part of the reason you have to pay for a subscription to the service. We also think that Apple has probably worked out a deal with record companies to let you redownload iTunes-encoded copies of your music (even if you didn’t originally purchase them from the iTunes Store). The £21.99 fee probably helps cover that deal.

Apple says that access to some services within iTunes Match (uploading and matching libraries, streaming music) is limited to 10 devices. However, your Mac can only be associated with one Apple ID for iTunes Match. If you want to change to another Apple ID you can, but you won’t be able to switch back for 90 days. This makes it a tad difficult for families who share an iTunes library, but not an Apple ID. However, you can get around this by making separate user accounts on your computer, each with their own library, or option-clicking iTunes and creating a new library for each member of the family.

You can match or upload any music format that’s compatible with iTunes (that includes AAC, Protected AAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF, Lossless, and more). You can also redownload music videos that you originally purchased from the iTunes Store, but the service will not match video content, or any other iTunes file types (PDF booklets, Voice Memos). You’re also unable to upload certain types of music files: files over 200MB, DRM-encumbered tracks that you aren’t authorised to play, and any music encoded at less than 96kbps.

iTunes Match has thrown up some queries about illegally downloaded music, since the service can replace pirate copies of songs with good-quality versions. (It’s unlikely that Apple can know if music has been illegally downloaded when iTunes matches it.) A word of warning here, if you click on an iCloud downloaded track and chose File > Get Info you will see your name and iTunes email address in the song’s metadata. So if you share your new, better-quality version of the track, should it end up on a torrent site so will your details.

iOS setup

To set up iTunes Match on an iOS device, go to Settings > Music > Turn on iTunes Match. After you have enabled iTunes Match your music will be available on all your devices.

On a Mac, any cloud-stored songs will, by default, stream over the air when played, though you can download them at any time by clicking the iCloud download button. On an iOS device, though, you’re required to download the track in full – possibly so you’ll be able to listen to that song even if your network connection shorts out. However, the track will start to play before it finishes downloading, so you’ll be able to listen to any track you pick almost immediately. The other benefit of downloading the track is that next time you want to play it it will be available without requiring a download.

iTunes Match songs can be download over 3G on iOS devices, but only if you allow them to. Navigate to Settings > Store on your device. The Use Mobile Data switch will enable you to download content over 3G; turn it off it you’d rather download over WiFi (if you have a data cap, for example).

In cases where you know you won’t have access to your online music library for a while – on a plane, or travelling on the underground, you can make your iOS device show only those tracks stored on it by going to Settings > Music and switching the Show All Music option to Off. On your Mac go to View > Hide Music Not On This Computer for the same effect.

If your iOS device was synced to a music library you’ve connected to iTunes Match, when you sync it will only supplement your currently synced content, leaving already-synced songs alone and adding iCloud download icons for those that haven’t been added to your device. If it’s synced with music not in your iTunes Match collection, however, all of that will be replaced.

You don’t have to have iTunes Match running on your iOS device. Just leave the iTunes Match toggle flipped off. The device will continue to sync normally with your Mac – even if that computer is using iTunes Match. iTunes Match will rescan for content every so often, so if you add new music to your library, you won’t have to manually tell iTunes to rescan.  

OUR VERDICT

If you have more than one computer, and several iOS devices – say, an iMac, a MacBook Air, an iPhone and an iPad – iTunes Match makes accessing music from any of these devices easy. You could completely delete your iTunes music library on your main computer and reconstitute it from the cloud, playlists included. Despite its many perks, though, the iTunes Match experience on iOS devices isn’t good enough yet. Songs you download will sometimes disappear, for example. And we’re still unsure about what we’ll find on our iPhone’s Music app – what’s available to play, and what will require a download over a WiFi or 3G connection? However, getting high-quality versions of your CD rips without having to dig out the entire CD collection and rip them again manually is great.

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