I consider myself quite a bit of an Apple nerd at this point, I'll admit. I have a large number of Apple devices in my house and a couple of them that I carry around with me all day long.
I have come to know "how their stuff works" in that way where, despite something being completely baffling to you six years ago, it just makes sense as to why something is the way it is.
I have lots of examples of this. The "active app" dots under icons disappeared -- I got used to it. The trackpad scrolling direction changed in Lion -- I got used to that too. Sure enough, I think they were right... it seems pretty damn intuitive at this point.
I like the way the iPhone alarm system works, despite some very vocal detractors (with whom I couldn't disagree more).
I realize they change things for a reason and their interfaces are sometimes seen as obtuse at first but, in the end, I feel the choices they make fit the greatest swath of users and, in the end, it is all about pleasing the people who pay for their hardware (and, less so, their software).
But, despite understanding Apple's design decisions on most things, where they leave me baffled is iTunes Match.
What Is iTunes Match?
I used to be really fastidious with my music collection. Everything was immaculately tagged and stored in organized folders, backed up to multiple sites (all 90GB of it at the time, but that was years ago and it has shrunk considerably since then) and kept in the best shape possible with album art and high bitrates.
With the advent of the streaming, all-you-can-eat services, it became a lot less necessary to keep up with that stuff. I also moved to using laptops for most of my computing and keeping a 36GB set of files was untenable. I tried some home streaming options but I found I had less and less time to track down albums I was interested in and Spotify's selection at the time was pretty good.
With Spotify getting more entwined with Facebook (the Sean Parker connection, no doubt) and lots of the bands I like pulling their catalogs, I moved over to Rdio and I've been pretty happy with it. But these streaming services don't have everything. Some inexplicable exceptions do occur and, when they do, I want to be able to listen to music I own in the iPhone Music app.
That presents quite a problem due to the limited space on the iPhone. Having just the song you want from your collection on your phone when you want it is a very hit-or-miss affair and often you end up having to wait until you get to a computer and the ubiquitous iTunes. Hardly a great solution.
Enter iTunes Match.
You pay Apple a nominal fee of around $25 a year and it will upload or match up to 25,000 of your songs and store them in the cloud -- iCloud in fact. When people first hear about this, understandably, it's not an easy "sell".
"If I have these songs locally, why would I want to upload them to Apple for $25 a year? What does this get me besides backup?"
Well the answer isn't as clear as Apple would like it to be but here's the deal:
- The songs in your iTunes collection will be upgraded to 256k bitrate if they are matched to the version in Apple's cloud.
- Once a song has been uploaded to iCloud, you can delete the song from your local collection and still have access to it.
- You can stream your music collection to Apple TV (including playlists, etc.)
- You can stream your music to any of your computers.
As you can see, that's probably enough of a benefit to shell out the money since $25 a year is a little over $2/month. That's a small price to pay for a full backup (if you have less than the allotted number of songs) of your music collection. Needless to say, the space in ITM doesn't count towards your free iCloud 5GB.
Hits and Misses
There are a number of great features that become apparent after you use the service for a while. They aren't well documented and they don't always work as you'd expect. Overall, the entire service gives the impression that it was rushed out the door to meet an arbitrary deadline so hopefully some of the rough edges noted below will be smoothed over in the coming months.
So what are some of the more esoteric features that make the hit parade?
First, you can upload all of your music and then delete it from your computer to save space. When you have a MacBook Air as your main machine, this is a pretty important "plus". If I happen to download any actual music to the MacBook Air, I just add it to iTunes, make sure it syncs to iCloud, and then delete the local copy.
What? Then how, pray tell, can I play this music? Well, the second great part of the service (that no one seems to talk about) is that ITM will stream your music to your computer.* I have no music on my MacBook Air right now. You can see how this is a real plus when you're sporting a 128GB solid state drive.
The other Apple device that benefits from streaming is my Apple TV.
When you set up the Apple TV to recognize your ITM database, it instantly gives you access to stream all of your music and playlists and even lets you use the Genius to build a smart playlist based on the currently-playing song. It works just like it does in the iTunes client but having that type of feature on your Apple TV ends up being pretty great.
But all is not sunshine, moonbeams and Gillian Anderson JPGs in the land of iTunes Match. There are some strange and glaring bugs that crop up from time to time. Some are merely annoying, some detract from the service's utility and others are downright baffling.
The one that bothers me the most is that there are times when you open up iTunes to play some music and every song is grayed out. No songs can be clicked or activated, nothing will play and you're basically screwed.
The only workaround I've found for this is to sign out of your Apple account, sign in again, and then restart iTunes. Once you do that, it will refresh your iTunes Match account and the ability to play songs is restored. Pretty annoying when all you want to do is listen to Katrina and the Waves...
Also, there are times when iTunes inexplicably refuses to either upload (or let you know it uploaded) a song to iCloud. This has gotten rarer and rarer as the service has matured but I still see it from time to time.
Overall the iTunes Match experience on the Mac is pretty well done. They've made a lot of progress with maintaining stability and speed and the bugs are getting more difficult to find.
iTunes Match on the iPhone
By far the most baffling implementation of iTunes Match is found on the iPhone.
Controls for the service are found scattered throughout the device and some of the controls do some pretty bizarre things when you interact with them.
The basic gist of the service is that the Music app on the phone is a reflection of your ITM account. Every band, album and song appears in your music collection. If the music is on iCloud, it appears with a cloud outline next to the song (or album, depending on the view you are in).
When you go into Album view, each song is listed with a small download icon next to it. Clicking on the icon will initiate a download to the device. Usually you can start playing the song immediately, while the song is still downloading. At the bottom of the album listing, there is a button for "Download all" which is a handy tap-saver.
So far so good, I guess, but this is the point where things start going off the rails.
At this point the songs are on your device which is great if you're in an area where you have spotty coverage. You obviously don't want to eat up your monthly data plan downloading 256k bitrate songs so caching the data seems like a good idea -- except when your cached songs inexplicably disappear from your phone.
I assume it is because the phone became tight on space for some reason, but you really should be informed if the music you just spent hours downloading is about to be wiped out. I had several occasions when I would open the app to play some music and find it was all in a non-cached state but still showing as "downloaded". I'd have to go through multiple gyrations to get to the point where I could download music again.
Another rather bizarre omission (which would probably go a long way to fixing the issue above) is that there is no easy way to delete music from your phone.
If you want to delete music, you have to swipe on every song and tap delete to make the "download cloud" appear. Alternatively, you have to go into the Settings app and turn OFF iTunes Match, which will clear your cache completely. This is what we would call the "Nuclear Winter" option. It is also about as elegant as ... well something really inelegant. It sucks, in fact.
Why I'm Keeping iTunes Match
Complaints aside, I'm keeping iTunes Match. There are simply too many things that are good about it. The price makes it a no-brainer if you need a good backup solution. Having Time Machine track my 31GB of music seems like a waste to me.
Having my music collection available legally and seamlessly on all of my machines and devices is a pretty attractive offer as well. For now I'll just deal with the service's little idiosyncracies and hope Apple finds the time to fix them.
- The music does seem to go to "Playcache" directory during this streaming process, but it still works really well. My cache is only 350MB, which isn't large at all, given that my music collection is many gigabytes in size.