So I took the plunge this week and purchased iTunes Match. After using it for a bit, I thought I'd make a quick post about it.
iTunes Match is a cloud based music system built into iTunes and iOS devices that allow you to upload your music to iTunes servers and lets you download it to up to 10 iOS and OS X devices. It’s primarily a music storage service, rather than a streaming service like Spotify as when you listen to the song on an iOS device, it downloads the music to the device, whilst playing it as it downloads (streaming would then wipe it from the device to clear space, this doesn’t). It also only lets you access music you already own, not letting you stream different music from a catalogue, so it’s useful for those with an already large library. In the UK, the services costs £21.99 a year and you get unlimited use over that period. Note, iTunes automatically sets itself up as recurring, yearly, payment.
How it works
As mentioned above, it only works with music you already own and have in your iTunes library. If you don’t use iTunes, iTunes Match isn’t for you. When you sign up, iTunes match analyses your library and matches all the songs you own to those in iTunes database. These songs are then instantly “uploaded” to your account (in theory, they're already in the cloud, iTunes just let your AppleID access them). Those tracks that aren’t in the iTunes library (I have some obscure Russian rock in my collection for example…), iTunes then uploads them to it’s servers to allow you download them to your other devices.
Overall, the system is fairly quick – I did have to leave it going over night but then with 7,532 songs to analyse, it'll take a while. iTunes managed to find ~5,000 of my songs in it’s database so I did have to upload 2,000 but it seemed to go quite quickly and when I woke, it was all complete. Enabling Match on my iPad was a simple case of enabling it in the Settings > Music. It then deletes all music off the device and lets you see all the stored music in the cloud (though you can set the device to only display local songs if you don’t want to browse your entire library all the time).
I must admit, the main reason for me upgrading to Match was not the fact I could have instant access to my music wherever I was (though it’s nice to see the iPad being even less reliant on syncing with a PC) but the fact I now have a cloud backup of my music. If I delete it off my hard drive or I have a hard drive failure, I load up iTunes and re-download. Boom. Simple. And for £22 a year (for upto 25,000 non iTunes songs!) It sort of blows the cloud backup services out of the water (in terms of pricing and ease of use.) Considering I was only paying for backup space to backup my music, it no longer makes sense for me to keep paying for a cloud backup solution for my media files.
Another benefit it that some of music is 192kbps MP3 (or less) files. iTunes lets you download the better sounding 256kbps versions to replace them. Macworld have a fantastic guide on how to accomplish that here. It may take me some time though as iTunes finds over 4,000 songs under 256kbps! This does replace your MP3 files with Apple .aac files. However, these are DRM free and should play in most desktop players and non Apple portable music players, even if you decide to not continue with iTunes match next year.
Unfortunately, there are some disadvantages to iTunes Match – the big one I've found is that some songs wont upload because they're under 96kbps which is what iTunes limit to be uploaded to it’s servers. I think the most annoying thing about this is that some albums I have are VBR encodings and one or two tracks won’t upload from that album. However, according to my install, I have 35 songs that either aren’t eligible or there are errors uploading to iCloud in some way (it turns out the main reason for this was that the files were no longer on my computer but iTunes hadn’t detected them as missing). I found this by creating a smart playlist using the criteria in the image below.
That’s less than 1% of my songs so I must admit, I'm pretty impressed overall. And to be fair, most of the songs that are below the threshold bitrate are songs I've ripped from Youtube videos (or acquired from disreputable means, which thanks to an eMusic subscription, no longer occurs) in the past so it’s a good way for me to either delete them or go back and purchase the songs.
For those that use non Apple phones or tablets, you're out of luck – you can’t use iCloud on it (though if you use iTunes on different computers, you can use it in iTunes). This obviously restricts the users to those of Apple’s products but this is a very much a business move that Apple are used to taking so should come as no surprise.
Overall, the iTunes Match experience is pretty damn good. The ease at which it searches through your library and finds the tracks you already have and then matches these to the iTunes catalogue is amazing. As I said, the amount of songs I have which were picked up was staggering – a 99.5% success rate. By any stretch of the imagination, that’s a resounding success.
I know it’s not marketed as a music backup service (as Apple reserve the right to remove any items from the iTunes store at any time), but it it makes a really cheap service that'll allow you to re-download your music, should a disaster occur and your hard drive die/wiped/eaten.
If you are fully entrenched in the Apple eco system (like I am), then the £22 for the year is an easy choice to make – it’s reduced my offsite backup cost by 50% this year as I no longer have to spend so much on space for my music collection – I'm trusting it to Apple’s servers and my ability to store it on a portable drive at work. The ability to change the tracks on my iPad without being near my PC is also a good point (as you can now delete tracks from iPod and iPads in iOS 5). £22 for these benefits, to me is a price worth paying. And don’t forget, I can update those old sounding tracks up to the newer, better 256kbps tracks. Which is worth £22 alone!