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Wouldn’t it be great if you had access to your entire music library at all times? And what if you could share that library amongst all your Macs and iOS devices? iTunes Match is an optional paid iCloud component that offers exactly that, and while it’s charms are obvious, there are some limitations and usability issues that make Match’s forecast a little cloudy.
While iTunes in the Cloud gives you the opportunity to re-download purchased tracks, and automatically sync new purchases to multiple devices, iTunes Match extends those powers to your entire music library, including tracks you’ve ripped from CDs or purchased from other digital music stores. And yes, iTunes Match will even work with those crappy low–bit rate tracks you downloaded from Napster in 2001. In a cruel twist of fate, people with large libraries will probably be most interested in the service, but if you’ve got more than 25,000 tracks, iTunes Match is a no go. On the other hand, if you buy all your tunes from Apple, you’re in the clear—purchases direct from iTunes don’t count against the 25K limit. It’s a not-so-subtle ploy to keep you dependent on the mothership, for sure.
Download tracks to your iOS device from anywhere.
Anything in your library that’s also in the iTunes Store becomes available for download on any of your devices. Tracks that don’t match—because of different metadata, or albums iTunes doesn’t offer—will be uploaded to your account. iTunes Match works well, but there are a few potential gotchas to look out for. Matched tracks will download in 256Kbps AAC, so if you regularly use higher–bit rate files, your downloads will be lower quality. Turning on iTunes Match on a mobile device will delete the music on that device, and you’ll have to re-download them via iTunes Match. And perhaps most perplexingly, iTunes Match couldn’t, uh, match several albums in my collection, even with proper metadata. It’s too bad there’s no option to manually match tracks to their iTunes Store counterparts in these cases, which would save unnecessary uploading.
There are also weird quirks that make iTunes Match more difficult to use than it should be. There’s no simple way to find matched tracks that you can replace with better-quality versions—although building a Smart Playlist can help. And a button to download an entire album from iCloud would be nice on the Mac, too. iTunes 10.5.1 adds an iCloud Status attribute to each track, but search options for that attribute leave out a couple of important statuses like Duplicate and Error.
iCloud may have just fulfilled its ultimate destiny.
If your library isn’t gargantuan, and you use multiple devices to play music, the benefits of iTunes Match are pretty awesome. You can easily grab tracks from your home library on your office machine, or your iPhone. And if you’ve got lots of low-quality rips, you can use Match to re-download 256Kbps versions that are yours to keep even after you stop paying. But if you’ve got a large library, the 25K limit is a bit of a deal killer. Here’s hoping Apple announces tiered pricing; otherwise I’ll be over the limit by the time I need to renew.
The bottom line. iTunes Match works as advertised, but the limits on library size—rather than number of tracks uploaded—and usability quirks leave us hoping that Apple keeps refining the service.
iPhone 3GS or later, third-gen iPod touch or later, iPad, or iPad 2 running iOS 5.0.1; or Mac with iTunes 10.5.1
Gives you access to your entire library from multiple devices. Can upgrade many of your low-quality files to 256Kbps AAC.
25K limit excludes lots of hardcore music fans. Downloading multiple tracks or albums is more complicated than it should be. Needs more complete search options. Misidentified lots of files that are in fact in the iTunes Store.