iTunes in the Cloud preview

Apple has unveiled iCloud, due to launch in the autumn alongside iOS 5. In preparation, Apple has released a beta version of iTunes in the Cloud to US users.

The key components of iTunes in the Cloud are these: the ability for you to push new iTunes music purchases to your iOS devices and computer; the opportunity to re-download music that you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store; and (for an annual fee of $25, around £15) the option to have access to not only the music you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store, but any music stored in your iTunes library – including content ripped or purchased from another outlet. Unfortunately, this iTunes Match aspect will be US only at first, and Apple hasn’t announced when it plans to bring it to the UK. We assume that all the other iTunes Cloud services will be available here in the autumn. In real-world use, the three main features break down in the following way…

Pushy music

Once the service is up and running, you will need to navigate to Settings > Store on your iOS device. There, you enable an Automatic Downloads option individually for Music, Apps, and Books (currently only Apps and Books show). Next time you purchase an album on your Mac, that album is automatically downloaded to your iPhone when it’s connected to the internet via WiFi or 3G. Similarly, iPhone purchases are downloaded to your computer and other devices.

With iTunes in the Cloud you will never be without your favourite tracks

Download music (again)

In the past, if you lost your purchased music because of a computer crash (and the lack of foresight to back up your purchases) you had to ask Apple if you could pretty-please download them again. Permission was invariably granted, but it was a pain. That roadblock is gone with iTunes in the Cloud. Now you can re-download the unprotected music you’ve purchased at a bit rate of 256Kbps AAC. If you bought DRM-protected 128Kbps AAC files and download them again, they’ll download in the original format. It costs around 20p per track or £2 per album to upgrade them to DRM-free 256Kbps AAC files.

You will be able to re-download your music on an iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod touch (3rd and 4th generation), iPad, or iPad 2 by launching the iTunes app, tapping the Purchased button, choosing the song or album you wish to download, and tapping the Cloud button. The music will then download to your device. You’ll similarly see Purchased buttons in the App Store and iBookstore apps – and they work the same way. Just choose content you’ve already bought and download it to your device.

iTunes will offer a similar scheme. When you click on the Purchased link on the iTunes Store’s Home page to visit the Purchased screen, you’ll see links to purchased music, apps and books. Select a category and the items you’ve purchased appear. Click the Cloud button next to the item you want to re-download and it is instantly downloaded to your computer.

iTunes Match and the active locker

There are two schemes for storing music you own in the cloud. The first is to place a copy of the music you own on a server and make only that copy available to you. This is a passive locker. Conversely, an active locker keeps only a record of the music you own and then makes a copy of that music available to multiple users.

Google’s Music Beta and Amazon’s Cloud Drive use a passive locker and require that you upload the music you own to their servers.

Apple’s $25-a-year iTunes Match (currently US only) uses an active locker. Much like with iTunes’ Genius feature, a database of the music you have in your iTunes library (purchased as well as ‘other music’) is uploaded to Apple. Once Apple has that record, you can treat that music just as you can purchased music. If you want to re-download it, you can. This is a big deal if you ripped your music as 128Kbps MP3 files and then ditched your CDs.

If tracks in your library aren’t available at the iTunes Store, you’re welcome to upload them to Apple’s servers. Also note that iTunes Match limits you to 25,000 tracks (although iTunes purchases are not counted against that limit).

OUR VERDICT

iTunes in the Cloud sounds very promising, however it looks like we UK users will be left up in the air until we get access to the whole solution.

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