Running two weeks behind its original release schedule, Apple this week took the wraps off its anticipated iTunes Match service, the latest Internet-based extension of its popular iTunes media managements software. Like the previously-debuted iCloud and iTunes in the Cloud, iTunes Match creates an Internet server-dependent mirror of certain computer content; for an annual fee of $25 (U.S.), users can place a 25,000-song iTunes music library in the cloud and access it from any iOS 5 device, second-generation Apple TV, or Mac/PC running iTunes 10.5.1 or later.


The premise behind iTunes Match is relatively simple: after paying the fee and uploading your music to Apple, you get unlimited online access to all of the music in your iTunes library via iCloud, regardless of where that music came from—purchased or free. iTunes Match includes not only access to content purchased from the iTunes Store, but also any music that you’ve acquired from other sources. iTunes Match further differs from the free “iTunes in the Cloud” service in effectively becoming your music library, rather than merely allowing you to go back to the iTunes Store and re-download your prior purchases.

When you subscribe to and enable iTunes Match, all of the music you’ve previously purchased from Apple becomes available automatically to your iOS 5/iTunes 10.5.1 devices, and then analyzes the rest of the music in your library to attempt to match it to tracks sold in the iTunes Store. Anything that matches is added to your “collection” and anything that can’t be matched is uploaded directly from your iTunes library to iCloud.

iTunes Match also takes the process a step further, not only providing access to your music, but effectively replicating your entire iTunes music library—complete with meta details you’ve saved over the years. Your playlists and track information are also synced to iCloud via iTunes Match, and will appear on any other iOS 5 device or iTunes library that you have enabled iTunes Match on. This includes track information that you have customized—even the changes you make to tracks after iTunes Match is enabled will sync to all other devices using iTunes Match. Similarly, rating and play count data is also synced between all devices, allowing Smart Playlists to work.

Although the process seems pretty straightforward on the surface, there are some important points to be aware of before you begin. We’ll go through all of them below.

It’s only about the music. iTunes Match currently only supports music, not other types of content. Even audio content such as podcasts and audiobooks are excluded from iTunes Match, and must still be synchronized to your device from iTunes in the traditional manner. If you have a podcast or audiobook in your Music section of iTunes, there’s a good chance that iTunes Match will attempt to exclude it from being synchronized to the cloud—see “Not all (music) tracks are eligible,” below. Note that Music Videos are supported, provided they were originally purchased from the iTunes Store; iTunes Match will not attempt to match or upload Music Videos in your library that came from other sources.

There is a 25,000 track limit. Tracks purchased from the iTunes Store with the account you’re using to set up iTunes Match don’t count against this limit, but if you have more than 25,000 non-purchased tracks in your library, you will not even be able to subscribe to iTunes Match. You can’t select what gets uploaded, so rather than trying to make decisions for you, Apple simply forces you to whittle down your library.

Not all (music) tracks are eligible. MP3 or AAC tracks over 200MB in size or encoded at bit-rates lower than 96kbps are not eligible to be uploaded using iTunes Match, though these tracks will be matched against existing songs on the iTunes Store if possible. This limitation prevents low-bitrate podcasts and audiobooks from being transferred, as well as full, unsplit albums. ALAC, WAV or AIFF tracks will be converted by iTunes on your computer to 256kbps AAC before uploading, but will still only be uploaded if the resulting AAC file is less than 200MB in size. DRM-protected tracks purchased from outside of the U.S. iTunes Store are also not eligible to be uploaded, although contrary to Apple’s Support documents, it appears that they will be matched if they are available on the U.S. iTunes Store.

You can’t choose what to upload. iTunes Match uploads every eligible track that it finds in the current iTunes library. If you don’t want something uploaded to iCloud, you need to delete it entirely from your library or tag it as something that iTunes Match won’t process, such as an audiobook.

The matching algorithm isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s something of a black art; Apple doesn’t provide any real details on exactly how iTunes Match works when it comes to identifying tracks in your library and attempting to match them to the iTunes Store catalog, but from our own experience and testing, the process isn’t completely flawless, nor does it seem at all dependent on tagging. iTunes also matches based on individual songs and not albums, creating odd situations where it may appear that only half an album was matched to the iTunes Store. The most common reason for this is that iTunes may not have the same album as you do, but it can still match your track with the appropriate songs from other albums by the same artist. The good news is that unmatched content will still be uploaded, but this will take both time and bandwidth.


iTunes Match on iOS replaces your Music Library. Once you enable iTunes Match on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, Apple says that any music that you have previously synced to your device from iTunes will be erased in favor of the cloud-based iTunes library—even if music already on your device matches what’s in iCloud. Our editors have had somewhat mixed experiences with this in practice: one of us saw what appeared to be complete removals of existing content from our iOS devices as soon as iTunes Match was turned on, another saw what appeared to be preservation of the content along with addition of iTunes Match links to everything else.

Assuming that Apple will generally start by deleting your iPod touch-, iPhone-, or iPad-synced content, your entire music library will still be available on your iOS device, however none of it gets downloaded immediately—it all remains in the cloud until you request it. Consequently, you’ll still need to download individual tracks, playlists and albums yourself if you want to keep music for offline listening, such as before you travel on an airplane or go outside of a location with Wi-Fi or cellular access. Any track you play will be downloaded in the background as you play it, and then retained on the device. However, unless you regularly listen to music on Wi-Fi or a fast, unlimited 3G connection, we’d advise you to take some time to manually download your favorite playlists and other content after activating iTunes Match on a given device. If you’re worried about losing your iPhone’s, iPad’s, or iPod touch’s library, creating a playlist with your device’s content before enabling iTunes Match, then synchronizing it with iTunes, is the best way to handle this. It’s also worth noting that once you’ve enabled iTunes Match on an iOS device, the option to sync music to that device from iTunes effectively disappears, replaced with a note that you’re syncing via iCloud.


iTunes Match can be enabled on up to 10 devices, up to five of which can be computers running iTunes. The five-computer authorization limit for an iTunes Store account is nothing new, however iTunes in the Cloud and iTunes Match extends this to allow access from five additional iOS devices.

You must wait 90 days before switching iTunes Store accounts. This limitation began with the introduction of iTunes in the Cloud this past June, but bears repeating here. Once you’ve enabled iTunes Match on a given iOS device or computer, you cannot switch to a different iTunes Store account for automatic downloads or re-downloading of past purchases for 90 days. Further, if after 90 days you re-download content from a different iTunes Store account, you will be unable to use iTunes Match on that computer or device for another 90 days. The good news, however, is that iTunes Match can effectively consolidate content from more than one iTunes Store account, provided the computer you’re running it from is authorized for the additional accounts; iTunes Match subscribers should therefore have little reason to enable iTunes in the Cloud features on other iTunes Store accounts. Note that this does not prevent you from simply purchasing content with other iTunes Store accounts; the restriction is purely on using other accounts to re-download previously purchased content or enable automatic downloading of new content purchased on other devices.


iTunes Match effectively replaces “iTunes Plus.” Tracks that are matched to the iTunes Store are made available to other devices in a DRM-free 256kbps format. The original tracks are not removed from your library, but if you delete them from your library manually and re-download them from the iCloud servers, you will get DRM-free 256kbps versions. Note that if a DRM-protected purchased track is not available on the iTunes Store, it will still be uploaded in its original form, complete with DRM. Tracks purchased from outside of the U.S. iTunes Store are considered ineligible.

Playlists sync in both directions. iTunes Match not only syncs your music content, but also all of your standard playlists and playlist folders and most of your Smart Playlists. Changes to playlists from another iTunes library or on an iOS device will also automatically sync back to your computer’s iTunes library.

Nested Smart Playlists are excluded. Smart Playlists that use the “Playlist” criteria to determine if a track is in another playlist will not be uploaded to iCloud and shared with other computers. These will be indicated with the standard “Not Eligible” symbol beside the playlist in your iTunes library, and attempting to create a new Smart Playlist that includes the “Playlist” criteria will present a warning dialog box advising you of this. This dialog box is also a bit confusing: “Remove Playlist and Continue” refers to removing the Smart Playlist from iCloud, not your local iTunes library, effectively ignoring the warning and allowing you to save changes to a local-only Smart Playlist.


Enabling iTunes Match on your Computer

You must enable iTunes Match from your computer before you can use it on an iOS device. iTunes Match will only match songs in your computer’s iTunes library, not on your iOS device, so you need to start by enabling it from your computer. To enable iTunes Match, you must have a U.S. iTunes Store account with an associated credit card. You can pay for your initial iTunes Match subscription with a gift card credit balance, but will still need a credit card on file in order to subscribe.

There are several ways to begin the process, with the most consistent being to simply go to the Store menu in iTunes and choose “Turn on iTunes Match.”  You’ll be presented with the iTunes Match info screen and can purchase your first-year subscription for $24.99 by clicking on the appropriate button.


iTunes will then begin a three-stage process of gathering information about your iTunes library, matching what it can with the iTunes Store and then uploading any unmatched tracks along with artwork, track metadata and playlists. This process can take anywhere from an hour to overnight—or longer—depending on the size of your iTunes library, how much needs to get uploaded, and what your upload speeds are like. Note that you can continue using iTunes while iTunes Match is in progress and even shut down iTunes or reboot your computer if necessary—iTunes Match will pick up where it left off when you restart iTunes. Our editors have experienced upload times ranging from 1 to 3 days with their libraries, depending on how many titles iTunes properly matched, and how many it didn’t.


Once iTunes Match has finished the uploading process, you should see a small iCloud icon appearing beside your Music section at the top of your library, indicating that your music is now in the cloud. This icon appears with moving diagonal lines while the iTunes Match process is still ongoing.

You can add additional iTunes libraries by following the same steps. Once you’ve paid for the iTunes Match subscription, the button on the main startup screen changes to “Add Computer” to allow you to register an additional iTunes library. The additional computer will gain access to all of the content from the first iTunes library and also match and add any additional content found in the new library. iTunes Match will provide you with an up-to-date tally of how many songs are currently in your library: “XXXXX songs are now available in iCloud.”

Enabling iTunes Match on your iOS Device

Once you have subscribed to iTunes Match and gone through the initial matching process, you can enable iTunes Match on your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. Note that you can do this once the matching process itself has completed—you don’t need to wait for everything to finish uploading from your iTunes library. The option to enable iTunes Match can be found under Settings, Music; note that this option currently only appears if you are logged into a U.S. iTunes Store account on your iOS device. It will presumably extend to other countries in the near future.


Enabling the option generally reminds you that doing so will remove all music from your device in favor of the iCloud library. An additional option also appears once you have enabled iTunes Match allowing you to hide any content that has not been downloaded locally to your device. There’s little point in turning this on right away, however, as you won’t have any locally stored content until you either play some individual tracks or manually select one or more tracks, playlists or albums for downloading. Once you’ve done this, however, activating the feature enables you to effectively reduce the massive collection of music you’ve accumulated in iTunes to the shorter list you were previously comfortable with storing and scrolling through on your device.


Enabling iTunes Match on your Apple TV

iTunes Match is also available on the second-generation Apple TV with Software Update 4.4 or later. A new Music heading should automatically appear on the Apple TV for users in the U.S.; as with content such as TV Shows, the option will be hidden unless your country is set to the U.S. under the iTunes Store settings.


From here you can read more about iTunes Match or choose to enable it. If you’re already signed into your iTunes Store account when enabling iTunes Match and have chosen to save your password, no additional steps are required—the Apple TV simply begins downloading your catalog of iTunes Match content to your Apple TV.


Once complete, the option under the Music menu changes to “iCloud Library.”  Selecting the option presents a menu of options virtually identical to the Music settings for a Home Sharing iTunes Library and you can browse and play content in much the same manner, except that songs are streamed from iCloud rather than your local iTunes library, eliminating the need to keep a Mac or PC running on your network.


The iTunes Store settings menu provides an option to turn iTunes Match off, which will cause the option on the main menu will revert back to the initial iTunes Match setup screens.


A new parental control option allows you to hide iTunes Match which will remove the Music menu from the main Apple TV screen entirely—a feature that can also be useful if you’re not using iTunes Match at all and don’t want it cluttering up your Apple TV menus.


Using iTunes Match

For the most part, using iTunes Match is as simple as selecting a track and playing it. In both iTunes and on an iOS device, your iCloud library appears in much the same way as any other music content, with the only difference being the appearance of an iCloud status icon beside any tracks that are not stored locally.


When playing an iCloud-based track from iTunes on a computer, the track is streamed from iCloud and no local copy is retained. If you want to download a local copy of the track, you can do so by clicking on the iCloud icon that appears to the right of the track name. You can also download all tracks in a given playlist by selecting the playlist and clicking on the iCloud icon to the right of the playlist name.


Tracks that you choose to download are stored in the iTunes library in the same manner as any other track, although matched tracks will be assigned a kind of “Matched AAC Audio File” to indicate that they are not necessarily identical to the original. Purchased and uploaded tracks retain their original properties.


On an iOS device, tapping on an iCloud-based track begins downloading the track to the device and starts playing it shortly after the download begins. The time it takes to do this can vary anywhere from two to several seconds depending on the speed of your Internet connection and other factors, such as delays in Apple’s servers—we have seen an initial delay of nine seconds, followed by much shorter delays when starting additional songs. However, once the track has been downloaded, it remains on the device; the next time you attempt to play it, it should start immediately. As with iTunes, you can also download tracks manually by tapping on the iCloud icon to the right of the track name, or download entire playlists or albums by scrolling to the bottom of the track listing and tapping the “Download All” button.


Tracks downloaded to the device, either automatically or manually, are normally kept on the device so that you can listen to them without having to stream them from iCloud each time. You can delete tracks manually from your device using normal iOS swipe-to-delete gestures.

Identifying iCloud Status

Once iTunes Match has been enabled, a new iCloud column will appear in your iTunes library providing information on the status of each track relative to iCloud. This enables you to see working and problematic tracks.


Clicking on an icon will provide a brief summary of the problem with the current track. Unfortunately, these error messages are not particularly helpful in most cases. For example, an ineligible track will simply tell you that the track is “not eligible for iCloud” without telling you why, and a track that shows a status of error expands to a completely unhelpful dialog box telling you that “an error occurred.”


Clicking on Duplicate tracks, however, will provide you with options to remove or keep the duplicates. It’s important to note here, however, that iTunes Match considers a track a duplicate with no regard to album information, so legitimate tracks that appear in more than one album will be marked as duplicates. Purist collectors interested in keeping complete albums may want to avoid deleting these duplicates, although it appears that iTunes Match does keep the iCloud version linked to both albums with the appropriate artwork and other metadata intact.


If there is no icon in the iCloud column, this indicates that the track is stored in the local iTunes library and has been successfully matched, uploaded or identified as previously purchased. You can also add an additional column to the track listing that provides a more descriptive status by selecting View, View Options and adding the “iCloud Status” column.


Using Smart Playlists for tracking iCloud Status

iTunes 10.5.1 adds a new Smart Playlist criteria for iTunes Match subscribers for filtering tracks with the four main iCloud status types: Matched, Purchased, Uploaded or Ineligible.


While this can help you easily identify which tracks fit into each category, the Smart Playlist criteria is missing some of the other important criteria such as Removed, Duplicate and Error. Fortunately, you can still easily group these by building a Smart Playlist that excludes the other four criteria individually.


Removing Tracks from iCloud

Once you have enabled iTunes Match, removing a track from your iTunes library will include a checkbox to indicate whether you also want to remove the track from iCloud as well. As the description implies, selecting this checkbox will remove the track from iCloud, but will not remove any local copies that have already been downloaded to other iTunes libraries.


You can also remove a non-downloaded track from iCloud in the same manner, with only a single option since there is no local copy to worry about.


Removed tracks that have already been downloaded to other iTunes libraries will show a “Removed” status. Clicking on the iCloud status icon will provide options to keep the local copy of the track (i.e. do nothing), delete the local copy, or re-upload it to iCloud.


Using iTunes Match to upgrade your library to DRM-free 256kbps AAC

As noted earlier, iTunes Match stores any matched tracks as 256kbps AAC regardless of their original format. This includes DRM-protected purchased tracks—even those from other iTunes Store accounts, provided they can be matched with the corresponding content on the U.S. iTunes Store. This can allow you to upgrade your older DRM-protected tracks to DRM-free 256kbps AAC files.

However, iTunes doesn’t automatically re-download your tracks from iCloud once they’re matched; the originals remain in your iTunes library unchanged. If you delete the local copy of the track from your iTunes library, being sure that the option to “also delete items from iCloud” is not selected, you will revert to using the iCloud version, which you can then re-download.

This can easily be done on a track-by-track basis, but if you’re feeling confident in iTunes Match you can actually do it for ALL of your matched tracks. Start by creating a Smart Playlist with criteria of “iCloud Status is Matched” and “Kind contains Protected” to gather them all into one place.


The “Protected” criteria ensures your list contains only those DRM-protected tracks that were purchased from the iTunes Store—there’s no point in doing this with tracks that are already in a DRM-free 256kbps AAC format, although you could use similar criteria if you also wanted to “convert” lower-bitrate versions of tracks that you acquired from other sources.


Once your Smart Playlist includes the tracks that you want to replace with the iTunes Store versions, select them all using Edit, Select All and then use OPT+DELETE (Mac) or SHIFT+DELETE (Windows) to remove them all from your iTunes library. The standard dialog box will confirm that you want to delete them, with the option to also remove them from iCloud, which you should ensure is not selected.


Once the process completes, you’ll notice that the tracks do not actually disappear from the smart playlist; they instead revert to showing the iCloud “Download” icon, since they are now stored only in iCloud—as unprotected 256kbps AAC files that you can now re-download.


Simply select all of the tracks again using Edit, Select All and then right-click on the list and choose “Download” to re-download all of the selected tracks from iCloud back to your computer. Note that the tracks will also retain any custom tags that you’ve added as well as ratings, play counts and playlist positions since this information has already been synced to iCloud.

Obviously, you should always make a backup of your tracks before doing anything like this, just in case. Alternatively, if you’re feeling less confident about doing this with your primary iTunes library, you can much more easily perform the same steps with a new iTunes library. Create and associate the new library with iCloud, build the Smart Playlist as above, select all the tracks in the Smart Playlist and right-click and choose “Download” to copy them down to your new computer.


iTunes Match provides an approach to “cloud music” services that is very intuitive and seamless for iTunes users, effectively replacing the need to sync music directly with an iTunes library—it moves one step closer to replacing the traditional iTunes dependence, using iCloud as the new “hub.” While the iTunes Match service had some significant issues when it was in beta form, Apple has addressed most of them for the general release, and thereby provided a service to users that appears to be stable and reliable for transferring music to and from the cloud. The result is much broader access to large music libraries than was previously available on iOS devices, particularly including low-capacity ones.

Of course, there are consequences: to use iTunes Match, you need to pay the $25 annual fee, and even after doing so, iTunes Match’s matching service still appears to have hiccups that will lead to unnecessarily long uploading times—better than competing services that require you to just upload everything without matching, but worse than a service that makes superior matches, or gives users greater control over what does and doesn’t get manually uploaded. Occasional extended delays in playing back tracks combine with limitations on cellular data access to make purely iTunes Match-based content playback somewhat less appealing than just keeping most of your favorite music on your device in the old-fashioned way; iTunes Match really needn’t delete all of your previously-synced content upon initial iOS activation. Additionally, since other content such as podcasts, audiobooks, movies and TV shows remain out of the equation for the time being, many users will still find the traditional syncing process to be at least somewhat necessary.

So, while the current implementation is not without its limitations, it’s definitely a good start, and expands iOS device users’ ability to access tons of their music from almost anywhere they can access the Internet. Hopefully, Apple will continue to expand iTunes Match to include other types of content and services, as well as improving the matching algorithms and expanding the service internationally.