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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Here's How iTunes Match Works (And What It Does For You)

In just a few days, you’ll have instant access to every song you own, anywhere you are.
iTunes Match Upload CompleteBetter yet, you can replace all the tracks you have that came from scratched CDs or “suspicious sources” (ahem).
You can even take all the DRM restrictions out of those old iTunes purchases. Cool, huh?
It’s called iTunes Match, and it’s an atomic bomb moment for digital rights advocates.
iTunes Match isn’t a streaming service with ads like Pandora or Spotify, and it’s not a downloading service like eMusic or Napster. It’s something completely different.
So how does it work?

What Does iTunes Match Do?

The service costs just $25 a year — so laughably little that it’s as if Apple went over to the RIAA and twisted everyone’s arms continuously for six months. There is no way in the world to legally download music this cheaply, anywhere. I have no idea how they got anyone to agree to this.
Essentially, you’re paying $2 a month for the right to stream high-quality versions of music you bought (…or “found” somewhere) to all your iTunes Libraries, iPhones , and iPads.
iCloud icon in iTunes library
That $2 a month also gives you a permanent backup of all your music, so rain-soaked laptops, crushed iPhones, or freak accidents won’t stop Pink Floyd. (In fact, nothing can stop Pink Floyd– except for the members of Pink Floyd– but that’s a matter for another day.)

How Does iTunes Guess My Music?

Once you’ve paid for the service and signed in, Match looks through your iTunes Library and sends a list back to Apple. Then the long, slow (but one-time) process begins. Go get a coffee, or better yet, look at some awesome photos . It’ll be a while.
iTunes Match looking through an iTunes library
When iTunes Match looks at your songs, it takes an audio snapshot of each one so that it can compare them directly against the iTunes Store database. This way, even if you’ve mislabeled Brian Eno as The Beatles (“wow, their later work really pushed the envelope!”), iTunes will get you the right match.
The same goes for live concerts vs studio recordings: if it’s on the iTunes Store, it’ll figure it out. (A lot of people had trouble with this part initially, but as of now, it’s pretty flawless at picking the right version.)
There are something like 20 million songs on the iTunes Store, so chances are good that this will work for you.

Weird music tastes? Don’t worry.

But what about the songs that aren’t available on the iTunes Store? Surely we can’t confine our eclectic tastes to whatever pop garbage the kids are listening to, right? Well, iTunes has room for you, too. In fact, it lets you upload a staggering amount of your own tracks to the service (presumably 25,000), and doesn’t seem to care how much space that may take up.
My 16,000 tracks were mostly matched, but around 2100 needed to be uploaded. This process is, obviously, pretty slow, but you can keep using iTunes while it happens.

So, How Do I Make My Skipped CDs Sound Better?

Delete from iTunes/iCloud?
iCloud icon appears in the track listing
iTunes downloading a song from iCloudOnce you’ve uploaded everything to iTunes, you can delete files at will from any of your connected devices. Go ahead, get rid of them. If (when) you need them again, they’re just a quick download away– via the new “Cloud” button that comes up in their place. Just click the Cloud to have a high-quality, DRM-free, 256k AAC version slide into place right where the old one was. Your iTunes library keeps track of all the metadata– play counts, your rating, date last played, etc., so there’s no downside to “upgrading” your music.
I’ve been listening to music through fairly high-end equipment for years, and while I can still reliably tell the difference between a 128k AAC and the CD it came from, I can’t do the same with 256k. If anything, it sounds better. And if you happen to have ANY MP3s under 320k, replace ‘em right now. You’ll love the difference.

Problems with iTunes Match 

iTunes Match isn’t perfect. There are a few things about it that are downright irritating. Here are a few.
  • Your device’s library is either local or “cloud-based”. It can’t be both. This means you can’t sync a few songs to your phone from your laptop and then, while you’re out, opt to download a few more from the cloud.
  • Tracks you’ve chosen to download will stay on the device, though, so this isn’t insurmountable. It just means that if you’re going on a plane or area with no network connection, you’ll need to manually download the playlists, etc. you want beforehand. (And suffer through how amazingly slow this is.)
  • Audiophiles will complain. But then again, they do that a lot.
  • iTunes-Matched files are 256 AAC, which is nerd-speak for sounds incredible. But some people go to a lot of trouble to have collections at the highest-possible (even lossless) bitrates. iTunes Match simply won’t do what they need, if they really need Lossless files on their mobile device. Then again, many mobile devices aside from Apple’s won’t even play such files. In short, if you want your Lossless or 512k AACs on your iPod, you’ll need to put them there yourself.
  • It inevitably consumes a TON of cellular data .
  • I have no idea how anyone will handle this, especially when you must store your entire library remotely (see above). Most people, even those with broadband, don’t have the connection speeds to download thousands of their own songs when they’re already on the computer in the living room. Apple needs to integrate this with Home Sharing, or something: right now, this is a terrible flaw.
  • It takes up more space on your device.
  • Since most people don’t have 256k rips of everything, most people’s iPhones and iPods right now can hold a lot more music than they will if everything gets bumped up in size. Of course, the logical answer is that you’re less likely to have all your music on a device if you’re able to add or remove tracks at will. But who wants to go around deleting music they “don’t really need” to free up space? That’s the kind of housekeeping we shouldn’t have to do. It’d be nice if iOS asked you if you wanted to remove tracks matching a certain criteria– “downloaded >60 days ago, playcount=0 OR last played is not in the last 60 days”.
Then again, just make a smart playlist for that criteria and you’re good to go.

Does iTunes Match Encourage Piracy?

Not to be blunt about it, but yeah, it does. iTunes Match gives pirates access to high-quality replacement regardless of where the source files came from. But since pirates could easily download higher-quality versions of their music anyway, I’d argue that this isn’t (really) a big deal. Where this hits harder is in the area of “digital rights advocacy”. You’re essentially getting a free pass– and no more guilt in future–for all the music you’ve (allegedly) stolen. This may be an unpopular thing to say, but honestly, it’s about time. The music piracy issue got out of control long, long ago.

Is iTunes Match worth it?

The first time I heard the Matched version of a song from my childhood, when its atrocious staccato skips (all of which I’d memorized) were simply gone… well, it was quite a moment. You’re sure to find something to love when all your music gets the “cloud treatment”: whether it’s deciding to listen to a song you forgot to load on your iPod, or seeing a playlist appear instantly across your devices. Of course, the best thing about all this is that it’s a paid feature: it only happens for people who opt-in, so those who prefer the old method get to keep it.

Will you be using iTunes Match?

What do you think of its implementation? Are there features you wish it had that would compel you to sign up? Let me know in the comments!
Technorati Tags: app culture , apple , iTunes , iCloud , software , cloud computing , digital music

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