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20.01.2012

Review: iTunes Match

It was just over a month ago that Apple launched iTunes Match in the UK. We were excited to hear that this service was coming to the UK and now it's here, here is our review.

Access via iTunes

Although iTunes Match is part of iCloud, you don't need to be an iCloud subscriber to use it: a current iTunes ID will suffice. For an annual subscription of £21.99, your entire music library (across multiple devices) will be backed up online, so that it is accessible on any device associated with your iTunes account.

Upgrade your music

Doesn't sound that amazing? Well, here's the feature we really, really like: for any song that Apple have in their existing catalogue (currently 20 million tracks) you have the option to download Apple's (high quality) copy of that song - AND keep that version of it even after your subscription has expired. The only thing you lose if you don't renew is access to the central hub that allows you to stream tracks on any connected device.

Quality recordings

All iTunes Match songs are encoded at 256kbps using the AAC file format, and it's widely accepted that this is equivalent to about 500kbps MP3. With most people unable to distinguish many 320kbps MP3 files from CD except on truly outstanding equipment, we're talking quality that will please all but the most demanding audiophiles. Not only that, but the Apple tracks are DRM (Digital Rights Management) free. Apple will allow up to 25,000 tracks not bought using your iTunes ID to be converted in this manner, which is about two thousand album's worth. Clearly only the most serious collectors could view this as a limitation.

How does it work?

Well, once you're logged in to iTunes, Apple scan your library and look to match tracks with those in their catalogue. This isn't a fast process but it runs in the background and shouldn't interfere with normal use of iTunes. Where Apple have the track, it's flagged to notify you that there's a high quality version available; where they don't, your version is uploaded to the central hub so that in future it can be accessed from other devices.

Setting up on a Mac

First, make sure that you have iTunes 10.5.1 or more recent. Once it is running, either go to 'Store' and select 'Turn On iTunes Match', or click the new icon in the sidebar to initiate the scanning process. PLEASE NOTE: you can only scan one device at a time.

When the scan is complete, a new 'Cloud' icon will appear in the iTunes sidebar, and you'll have a new column in your library with the same icon. Depending on what the scanner has found, you'll see one of the following status indications: - matched (Apple have a high quality version available) - duplicate (you already have a high quality version on that machine, or have purchased it from iTunes) - ineligible (Apple do not intend to offer matching on this song/track - it might be too large, too low quality etc) - error (there has been a problem identifying the track)

Where tracks are matched, you have the option to delete the track, then download Apple's version. You'll retain all your existing metadata (for instance tags used to categorise your music collection). You can also choose not to download your own version, although obviously we'd not recommend this. Backups are a sensible precaution, and by downloading the better version you're ensuring that you keep your music forever.

If Apple can't find a particular track, you can upload it to the iTunes Match server.

Once a song is stored online (whether uploaded or in Apple's catalogue) it will stream by default when played, with an option to download.

Setting up on iOS devices

Go to 'Settings' then 'Music' then 'Turn on iTunes Match'. Doing this on one iOS device enables all others with the same Apple ID.

One difference with iOS devices is that your music is not, strictly speaking, streamed. You have to download a track to listen to it. In practice, you can listen to a track as you're downloading it, so as long as your connection is good and the track buffers sufficiently, you should not notice any delay. Listening to a track once means that it's downloaded, and from then on you play it on the device.

You have the option to download either by WiFi (the standard setting) or via 3G. To enable 3G go to 'Settings' then 'Store' and select 'Use Mobile Data'.

Bear in mind that you don't have to treat the iOS device as part of your iTunes Match device 'pool' - in other words, leave iTunes Match turned off and just sync the iOS device with your Mac (which is running iTunes Match) under iTunes as you would normally.

Problems?

One restriction that might cause some difficulty is the fact that a Mac can only be associated with one Apple ID as far as iTunes Match is concerned. This will pose problems for households where there might be a shared iTunes library but different Apple IDs.

Supported formats include AAC, Protected AAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF, Lossless. Items barred from upload include files over 200MB, DRM-encumbered tracks that you aren't authorised to play, and any music encoded at less than 96kbps.

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