iTunes Match: another neglected Apple service

Kirk McElhearn
3 May, 2013
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As the iTunes Guy for Macworld, I get many emails about problems with iTunes Match. With iTunes Match nearly 18 months old, it surprises me that such problems are still so widespread. When Apple expanded iTunes Match in January 2013 to 112 countries, I was surprised it did so without fixing any of the bugs associated with the service. iTunes Match remains a source of consternation for many.

How it should work

The iTunes Match premise is pretty simple. As Apple says, “iTunes determines which songs in your collection are available in the iTunes Store. Any music with a match is automatically added to iCloud for you to listen to anytime, on any device.” Further, “Since there are more than 26 million songs in the iTunes Store, chances are your music is already in iCloud.”

But this is not the case. As Macworld’s Lex Friedman uncovered in The She Came In Through the Bathroom Window Incident, right after the launch of iTunes Match, many songs that should match simple don’t. And this is one of the biggest gripes of many users. Their computers spend a lot of time uploading songs that should match, because those songs are in the iTunes Store. With many albums, one or two tracks don’t match, while the others do. In some cases, this even happens with purchased tracks.

You can see here that iTunes shows some tracks in a purchased album as matched, not purchased. In some cases, even purchased tracks get uploaded rather than matched.

 

While iTunes Match is designed to store tracks that don’t match, the problem is that these tracks have to be uploaded, and when people with large music libraries (though smaller than Apple’s maximum eligible library size of 25,000 tracks, of course) try to set up iTunes Match, the time to upload unmatched files can be substantial. If you don’t have a very fast  internet connection, it can take days or weeks to upload thousands of files. And when you add new tracks to your iTunes library, you can wait a long time while iTunes scans your tunes, matches them and then uploads the new unmatched ones.

I recently emptied my iTunes Match library and rematched several thousand songs. But I’m still seeing unmatched songs, even among purchased albums, showing that Apple hasn’t fixed or tweaked the matching algorithm. This seems especially odd for music I purchased from iTunes, because Apple has my purchase history; all these tracks should be easily identified.

 

Here’s one Bob Dylan album where some tracks, at the bottom, are in my library, and the ones at the top are 'purchased' tracks, and iTunes sees them as different from the local copies.

 

One of the features of iTunes Match is to take low bit-rate songs – say 128 kbps MP3s that you downloaded years ago – and ‘upgrade’ them to better-quality 256 kbps AAC files. But since many songs don’t match, even though they’re in the iTunes Store, users are unable to get these upgrades. I’ve even seen some purchased tracks – bought before Apple removed DRM and upped the bit rate of files – not match, even though they are still in the iTunes Store.

Apple should offer a way to force a new match for older files, so users can try to get better quality versions, or simply so they can get all the files of an album to match, rather than having to upload some of them. Another great feature would be a way to tell Apple about the specific files that aren’t matching, so the company can fine-tune its matching algorithms. This could be as simple as a menu item in iTunes, under Store: Report Unmatched File.

Why we want iTunes Match

When iTunes Match works as it should, it’s a practical tool for anyone who works with multiple computers, such as one at home and one at work, or with a Mac and an iOS device or Apple TV. Since you can stream and download music from the cloud to your iPhone, you don’t need to sync music to it.

But if you’re an iTunes power user, you’ll find that iTunes Match still irks. If you use smart playlists with conditions such as Last Played, you’ll find that this metadata – the last time you played a song, or the number of times you’ve played it – doesn’t always update. In addition, smart playlists don’t display in the same order on an iOS device as they do on the computer containing the iTunes Match library. If you’ve created a smart playlist, and decided to sort it in a specific way – say chronologically, or by the order in which you’ve last listened to songs – you’ll find this to be frustrating.

iTunes Match should update quickly enough so that, at least once a day, it can get information about what you’ve played on different computers or devices, and then sync it to the main library. But this process, for many users, is time consuming, and several readers have written to me saying it sometimes simply doesn’t complete.

iTunes Match is no Genius

Another irksome feature is Genius. If you activate iTunes Match, then iTunes turns on Genius, which does two things. It allows you to create Genius playlists, which are based on a selected start song, which is an interesting feature. But it also creates a dozen Genius Mixes, based on different genres. Many people don’t want these Genius Mixes, especially because they show up on iOS devices, and you can’t turn Genius off if you use iTunes Match. And the Genius Mixes on my iPad are not even the same as the ones I see on my Mac. (And how did they determine that ‘The Who, Yes, Genesis and others’ should be in a Techno/House Mix?) And when you look at playlists on your iPad, you’ll see all the Genius Mixes are listed first, before the playlists you created yourself – the ones you’re genuinely interested in.

Who’s the genius who created this mix?

 

iTunes Match annoyances

Finally, there are a number of iTunes Match annoyances that still persist, and should have been fixed a long time ago. People matching ‘explicit’ songs often get ‘clean’ versions, or vocal versions of songs matching instrumental versions. Some tracks are truncated; they stop playing after a few seconds or a few minutes. Some users have also received  defective tracks from iTunes Match; they have noise or other glitches, even though the original files on their computers are fine. (In other words, the tracks with glitches are the ones from the iTunes Store.) And, if you change tags or album art on your computer, that  metadata doesn’t update consistently to iTunes Match.

I think most of the frustration users feel about iTunes Match is the fact that it’s opaque, and there’s no way to flag or fix errors. Apple is generally mum about such things, and Apple’s support forum for iTunes Match is filled with thousands of questions and gripes.

For a service that should ‘just work’, iTunes Match has disappointed many who hoped that their music would be transparently matched and synced. iTunes Match seems like another neglected Apple service. While it’s only US$25 a year, iTunes Match should work a lot better than it does.

 

By Kirk McElhearn, Macworld

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