iTunes Match: Thousands Of Songs, With A Couple Of Hitches

Apple's cloud-based streaming service debuted last week.
Courtesy of Apple

When I leave my house, I carry a lot of music around with me. Even so, it's always been such a challenge to curate my 32gB iPhone. I sync a number of playlists: my top rated songs (I star-rate my songs) and songs ripped today, this week or in the last three months. I keep some "genius" playlists, one based on Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" for my British folk mood, another based on Pink Floyd's song "If" and my Ramones playlist.

Still, there are so many tunes I have to leave behind. And that makes iTunes Match, which promises access to all of my music, wherever I am, a big deal.

The program, which the company released last week, scans your iTunes library and then automatically gives you access to anything that Apple offers in the iTunes store, on your computer iPad or iPhone. The sound quality of these files — 256 kB AAC, about the same as 320 kB mp3s — is pretty good. And everything that you listen to streams at this rate, even if the version on your computer is a lower-quality mp3 that you downloaded eight years ago. The "match" feature is what separates this service from similar cloud storage services on Amazon and Google. If the songs in your library are also in the iTunes store, you won't have to spend hours — or in my case, weeks — uploading your tunes to the cloud. iTunes simply scans your library and your songs are ready in pretty short order. The only time it needs to upload a song is if you have something that isn't carried in the iTunes Store.

The good news is that the service is pretty amazing. Hit play on a song in the cloud, and it plays pretty quickly. It's not instant, but in most cases you've got music in under five seconds, though there were times while on the road that it took around 15 seconds. The delay only seems to happen when you play the first song on an album or playlist — there's no hesitation from song to song. Another nice trick: the songs don't stream, but download to a cache on your device, so if they're playing and you go into a tunnel or down into your apartment's garage, the song won't stop. You always have the option to download anything from your iCloud library to your iPhone or iPod.

What doesn't work? Well, for starters, the service doesn't work on mobile devices not made by Apple. Also there's a limit on the number of songs you can have in the cloud. That number is 25,000, not including anything purchased in the iTunes store. This may not be a problem for most people, but this was where I ran into trouble. Because I had over 30,000 songs, I actually had to remove thousands of songs from my library before iTunes Match would work.

Too many songs.
screen shot/bob boilen

I was also surprised that enabling iTunes Match erased all the music that I had loaded onto my iPhone and iPad. You are warned about this, but if you want to use iTunes Match there's no choice: all your music on mobile devices will come from the cloud. So if you hop on an airplane or you're otherwise offline, you can't hear your music, unless you remember to download entire playlists or albums to your device. Once those songs are downloaded, they stay put, but that's a conscious decision you have to make ahead of time. I'm not sure why this makes sense from Apple's point of view. Why would they want me to hit their server every time I want to hear one of my songs? It seems odd and inefficient, but that's how it works.

Despite these downsides, I love having access to (almost) all of my songs on all my devices. I can listen to a Beatles bootleg or a song I wrote and recorded myself, or that 8th song on the second Galaxie 500 record anywhere I want to, and that's pretty amazing. The only thing better would be to have every song ever recorded available to you anywhere. That's something that you can get a little closer to with something like Rdio or Spotify, at a cost of 10 bucks a month. Access to millions of songs, as well as my friends' playlists, is an attractive feature. But at $25 for iTunes Match vs. $120 for a year of access to Rdio or Spotify on a mobile device, one decision seemed easy and the other a commitment I'm still thinking about.

Have you tried iTunes Match? How's it working for you?

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