It seems that there’s a large variation in people’s experience with iCloud and iTunes Match, Apple’s recently introduced service for making your entire music collection available across all your devices. At the risk of making things worse — since I have nothing conclusive to add — I thought that I’d add my anecdote to the collection.
Like most software — and especially Apples — it works best when you work in a particular way. It’s often difficult to tell how close your expectations are to the real thing until after you’ve handed over your credit card. But what I will say is that iTunes Match works pretty well if you want to do what I do. So if you read nothing else in this post, you should look at the next few paragraphs.
What do I want to use it for?
I have about six hundred albums, comprising over six thousand tracks. I mostly listen to a smaller subset but I often get an ear-worm and want to listen to a random track that I may not have heard for years. So on my iPhone I have a lot of music, but not all of it. Use case one for iTunes Match was therefore to be able to access all my music on my iPhone even though I don’t have the space for everything.
I typically don’t put any music at all on my iPad, since I use it more for movies than music. But when I’m travelling it’s occasionally nice to be able to rely on my iPads battery as well as my iPhones! So use case two is playing music on my iPad without explicitly copying any onto it.
(These last two are clearly variations on a theme, but the key point is that I don’t want to have to stream everything. When I’m at work I don’t always have internet access, but I can probably get WiFi access for a few minutes at lunchtime.)
Ten years ago I spent a lot of time ripping my CD collection. Most is in MP3 format at 160kbps, some is at 128kbps; the newer ones are reasonable quality AAC but, if I’m honest, there’s little consistency. Additionally, many tracks are of dubious quality, with dust and scratches contributing most of the glitches. So, use case three is upgrading my library to clean, high bit rate copies.
How does it work in practice?
The process is typically Apple, by which I mean works without very much user intervention and pretty smoothly.
It first scans your library, sees what’s already in the iTunes Store and then uploads any gaps. The scanning and matching is really quick. The upload depends on the speed of your broadband.
It matched around 5000 of my 6000 tracks, which is not bad going. However there were some oddities:
- It was very inconsistent with spoken word tracks. I have a number of radio series — the Hitchhikers Guide and a bunch of Douglas Adams interviews, the Mighty Boosh — and some tracks were flagged as “Ineligible” while others were going to be uploaded
- Some tracks that I purchased from iTunes a while ago were not matched
- Some albums were only partially matched, despite the full album being available to purchase
The common element is that it’s not at all clear what criteria are used to make the match. Either Lala wasn’t quite as sophisticated as I thought or Apple have not fully integrated their software yet.
Whether these are problems or not depends entirely on what you want to do with the tracks. That the spoken word albums are (mostly) unavailable is slightly disappointing but not really a problem.
The iTunes tracks not being matched is, frankly, bizarre. Here you can see one track from an album “Purchased,” one “Duplicate” (it isn’t) and the rest were uploaded (i.e., not matched and a copy from my library uploaded to iCloud).
Still, neither of these issues stops all my music being available on all my devices — use cases one and two.
However the last point above is disappointing. Some albums match every track bar one or two. This means that it’s not possible for me to upgrade the whole album to a 256kbps AAC file. Not the end of the world but not exactly what I was promised.
iTunes Match is mostly pretty seamless. You see all your music on all your devices. If the track hasn’t been downloaded, it appears with a cloud symbol next to the name. Click or press on the track and it plays, albeit with a short delay. iOS clients download rather than stream the content. The Apple TV just streams the music and videos.
Two surprisingly un-Apple-like glitches take the edge off the whole thing.
Firstly, not all the album art work makes it from my iTunes library to my iPad and iPhone. It’s a small point, but for a company that places so much emphasis on the aesthetics it’s unexpected.
Secondly, while it is possible to upgrade your low quality MP3 files it’s not entirely clear how to go about it. I guess I expected to see an “Upgrade track” or “Upgrade Library” or even a “Update to iTunes Match” menu option, but no.
I couldn’t see anything in the documentation either. I had to fall back on Google. The trick, it turns out, is to delete the file. Obvious, no? Then iTunes will show the same track but with a cloud icon to the right. Then you can download it.
So, overall, I like iTunes Match. It’s not without flaws, it’s undoubtedly a 1.0 release, but it’s already useful to me and I think it’s only going to get better. I guess the big question comes at the time next year. Will I renew the service?