Managing an iTunes library on an iPad and External Hard Drive

Q: My laptop died on the weekend and it had my iTunes library on it. I have an iPod and an iPad 2. My music library is on an external hard drive. Can I manage my iTunes with just the iPad and external hard drive, or will I need a new laptop? Also, what is the best source to learn how to manage my iTunes more efficiently? I am not too well versed on the technology but would be willing to work at it.

– Alan

A: Unfortunately, there is no practical way to manage an iTunes library without an actual computer running Windows PC or Mac OS X, as the iTunes desktop application is basically still required to handle most of your library management.

This is particularly true if you don’t already have all of your music synchronized onto your iPad or iPod and are instead relying on an external hard drive to store your content; the iPad has no way of directly connecting to media on an external hard drive without resorting to either jailbreaking your device or using third-party applications and a Wi-Fi network capable hard drive or NAS device. However, even if you were to take such an approach, you can’t really manage your iTunes library using these methods—they’re generally designed simply to allow you to stream content from the external drive.

If you had previously subscribed to iTunes Match, you can access your entire cloud-based iTunes library from any iOS device that shares the same iTunes account and download content to your device(s) using a Wi-Fi or 3G connection. iTunes Match—via the iOS “Music” app also provides a limited ability for creating and managing playlists, but does not allow you to do things like edit track information or create playlist folders or Smart Playlists. Further, you can’t actually add new music to iTunes Match from your iOS device from any source other than the iTunes Store, so you’ll still need a computer if you want to import CDs or digital music from other sources.

The bottom line is that despite all of Apple’s efforts to go “PC Free” with recent iOS versions, the truth is that if you intend to continue using your existing iTunes library, you are pretty much still required to have a computer in order to actually manage your music library and add new content from anywhere other than the iTunes Store.

Note that alternative services and applications are available that may work for you in place of iTunes and the iOS Music app, at least for music. However, these won’t necessarily provide all of the same features, and usually come at an additional price. One example is Amazon Cloud Player, which provides an iOS app and a cloud-based music library that can be managed from a web browser. Other more basic alternatives also exist, such as storing your music in a cloud file service like Dropbox, simply as a set of files, and then accessing your tracks through the Dropbox app or a third-party app such as McLoud designed to stream music from Dropbox.