Hands On With iTunes Match: Review
Apple announced iTunes Match several months ago, and since that time I’ve been anxiously awaiting its arrival. Like most of us who began building a digital music collection pre-2007, much of my music was encoded in the low quality bitrate of 128 kbps, and iTunes Match promised to “upgrade” most of these files to a much more pleasant 256 kbps. When the service was finally released earlier this week (after missing it’s “end of October” launch date), I signed up immediately, crossed my fingers, and hoped that it would live up to my anticipation. After spending a couple of days tinkering around with it, I thought I would pass on my experience.
The Basics: When iTunes first debuted, Apple was encouraging consumers to look at their computers as their “digital hub.” Music, photos, and videos would essentially “live” on computers, where they could easily be transfered to iPods (and later iPhones and iPads). Apple is currently shifting that strategy away from a computer-based digital hub and toward a cloud-based digital hub. This cloud-based hub is coined “iCloud” by Apple, and iTunes Match is essentially a tool to transfer your music online. Once your music is online, you can access it from any computer or iDevice by entering your iTunes credentials.
The Specifics: iTunes Match is a subscription service that costs $24.99 per year. Once you sign-up and pay the money, iTunes Match begins scanning your music library. The amount of time that this scan can take depends on the size of the music library, the speed of your internet connection, and the number of people that are currently hammering Apple’s servers. My library is about 5,000 songs, and the scanning process took me about an hour and a half. I was surprised in the short amount of time that it took, considering that iTunes was performing the scan on the day that iTunes Match debuted. Once the scan is complete and iTunes “Delivers Your Results,” it will label every track in your library with an iTunes Match status. There are several different statuses, which are explained in this excellent MacWorld article, but the primary statuses that I saw were “Matched,” “Uploaded,” and “Error.” Matched means that the track was found on Apple’s servers, and that you can download the iTunes Music Store formatted version on the song on any computer that you log in on. Apple matches the songs based on the actual music (not what you’ve named the tracks). Uploaded means that the track wasn’t found on Apple’s servers, but that it was uploaded so that you can download that exact file on any computer that you log in to. Error obviously means there was a problem. Out of about 5,000 songs, iTunes Match “matched” around 4,300 tracks, uploaded around 700 tracks, and posted an error on about 40 tracks. These results seemed pretty good, as most of the songs that it was unable to match were definitely not on iTunes (live bootlegs and local independent bands).
Then What?: Good question. Once you have your results, what you do with iTunes Match is really up to you. I began finding which tracks were low quality, and upgrading them to the higher quality 256 kbps file. To do this, all you have to do is select the track and delete it. A pop-up window will appear asking if you’d like to delete the track from iCloud. Say no, and the track will be deleted from your library (it will remain listed, but will be greyed out). To re-download the track, either click the handy iCloud button next to the track name, or right-click and select download. Within seconds, the nice 256 kbps track will download. I’ve gone through my library and upgraded all the lower quality songs, which ended up being an astounding 2,000 or so tracks. Note that this quality upgrade process only works with songs identified as “Matched.” Also note that your tags (Album data, lyrics, notes, etc.) remain intact throughout the process.
Other Computers: Like I already said, one of the nicest parts of iTunes Match is the ability to download the tracks on multiple computers. If you buy a new computer (or heaven forbid have your hard drive die), you can now redownload your entire music library quite easily. This is also nice for multiple people using one iTunes account, as they can now keep their libraries synchronized with ease. iTunes Match also increases the value of my 16GB iPhone as a music listening device. With iTunes Match enabled, my iPhone displays a list of my entire library and allows me to select which songs I want to listen to, instead of having to pick and choose which songs to sync.
The Bad Stuff: My experience with iTunes Match thus far has not been without hiccups. When I initially signed up, Apple’s servers were getting hammered, and it took a while for my sign-up request to go through. Last night (as I was in the middle of downloading about 1,000 tracks in higher quality files), Apple’s servers apparently had another problem. I was unable to connect to iCloud, and the greyed-out songs in my library (that I had deleted to make room for the upgraded files) dissapeared. Needless to say, watching a third of my music library vanish freaked me out, but I noticed that iTunes was still saying that I had the full 5,000 songs in iCloud, so I figured it was a server problem. This morning I was relieved to see all the songs back in my library, available to download. Another weird thing about iTunes Match is the random tracks it didn’t match. While many of these tracks aren’t in iTunes, there were a few albums where only one track wasn’t matched. This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, because an iTunes-ripped CD should either be completely recognized or not recognized at all. Why would every track but track 8 be identified, when every track was imported at the same time and with the same ripping settings? Other people have expressed frustration that their iTunes library is over 25,000 songs (iTunes Match’s limit), though I highly doubt that a large percentage of consumers have over 25,000 songs in their library.
Conclusion: I’ve been pretty stoked with my iTunes Match experience thus far. One thing that people need to understand, however, is that this service isn’t as easy as an On/Off switch. In order to get the most from it, you will need to spend some time organizing, downloading, and replacing your music. This was something I was planning on (and honestly needed to do anyway), but if you don’t have the time to spend on your music library right now, maybe wait to sign-up for iTunes Match until you do have the time. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes with iTunes Match, and understanding exactly what’s happening is definitely a hurdle to overcome. Being able to upgraded 2,000 tracks to a much higher 256 kbps was easily worth the money for me, as is the knowledge that if my computer and Time Machine drive die, I’ll still be able to retrieve my music. Though I’ve encountered some frustrating elements to the service (why in the world is a single track of an album not matched?), I’m willing to bet that in a few months it will be more polished and useful than it is now.
If you have any questions about iTunes Match, check out this awesome guide on TheNextWeb.com, or drop me a comment.