Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other. ~C.P. Snow, New York Times, 15 March 1971

Friday, December 6, 2013

To Match or Not To Match: A look at moving from iTunes Match to Google Play Music or Amazon Cloud Player

I'm contemplating a move away from iTunes Match.

I have had it for the last year, and have been very happy with it.  I have an iPhone 5c at this point, and used it on my iPhone 4 previous to that, and it worked very well on both.  Importing was easy, one step, just drop a CD into the drive while iTunes was running, and it would rip them locally, then match or upload the songs.  Easy to use on the iPhone as well.  If I want to stream it, I can play it the same way I would songs synced to my iPhone before the days of Match.  If I want it available offline (which is important with the phone service in parts of the Rocky Mountains, and having moved from unlimited data to limited where I have to pay for the extra), all I do is hit the download icon, and the phone does the rest.  Perfect.  Almost.

The limitation comes in the form of iTunes itself.  Despite Apple having made almost everything available without having to have Windows or a Mac, a few things require the iTunes application itself, which won't run easily in Linux, nor on tablets or Chromebooks or anything else not running Windows or MacOS.  And the application continues to grow in size and overhead, making it unusable on older computers.  Everything else has now moved to be available online or straight from the phone, but two things, to my knowledge, remain.

There is no way to put ringtones on the iPhone that aren't purchased through an app without a computer, and very difficult without using iTunes itself.  This requires the iPhone to be synced to that specific installation of iTunes.  Using another computer later, even with the same Apple ID, requires syncing the iPhone before ringtones can be added.  And syncing it will wipe any existing ringtones.  A minor thing, and not too important, but it's odd that with everything tied to the Apple ID, Apple still requires a one-to-one iTunes installation to iPhone link, and can't sync what's on the phone to a different installation under the same ID.  But this is not the topic of this post.

The bigger concern is that iTunes Match requires an iTunes installation.  Now, to import music, this makes some sense.  But I discovered today that if your iTunes Match subscription expires, and you don't update billing soon, there is no option to renew it on the iPhone.  It tells you you don't have a subscription, please use iTunes on a PC or a Mac.  And there is no way to update it through the Apple website.  I called the Apple tech support, and they confirmed this.  There is no way through Apple, whether on the phone, through their website, or from the iPhone itself.  This is true for iPods and iPads as well.  It is not possible to renew your subscription if you don't have a Mac or Windows machine that can run iTunes.  In a world where more and more people are moving to cloud based computing, and moving away from traditional computers to tablets and Chromebooks and similar devices, this seems very odd.

Apple is doing nothing to keep my business.  If it wasn't for my dislike of Android, the limitations of the Blackberry, and my dislike of the Windows mobile platforms, I would move away from the iPhone completely in favour of something I can actually use as a true mobile devise without depending on a traditional computer.

I have just under 8000 songs in my iTunes library, 33GB of data.  These are all in iTunes Match.  I am very mobile, as I work in Colorado and own a house in Wyoming where my wife is.  I have imported songs into iTunes Match from a number of computers, and in most cases I have removed the local copy, as I don't listen to music from that device, as I always have my iPhone with me.  My computer here in Colorado has iTunes on it, but is old enough that it is barely usable.  I am contemplating if it is worth the time and effort it will take to get the application loaded up, get logged in, and resubscribe.  The issue being, I don't have that music in one place to import into a different service.

If I move, my main options are Google Play Music and Amazon Cloud Player.  There are pluses and minuses to both, as there will always be.

Both allow playback online, which allows their use on MacOS, Windows, Linux, ChromeOS, and most other platforms without installation of an application.  In addition, there are apps in both iOS, and, Android, and likely other mobile platforms.  Amazon Cloud Player is also available on the Roku, and has a native Windows app.  This means any music in them is available in many places.  Amazon Cloud Player also makes the music available on my Kindle Fire.  In contrast, iTunes Match is available on Macs and Windows machines that have iTunes, and on iOS devices.  Much more limited.

One of the big advantages of iTunes Match is that if you have a low quality, low bitrate, or poor rip (for instance, if your CD is too scratched for a good rip of it), iTunes Match makes the high quality version available in most cases.  This has been a plus for me.  Both Google Play Music or Amazon Cloud Player have added this feature since my initial iTunes Match subscription last November.

Library size can be an issue.  Apple will match up to 25,000 songs, not including those purchased from iTunes, and has no limit on what you can upload, for $24.99 a month.  Google Play Music will allow 20,000 songs to be uploaded, for free.  Their pay service, $9.99 a month, gives access to streaming of music you don't own, which can't be downloaded, but does not increase your song limit, more a service competing with things like iHeartRadio custom stations, Spotify, iTunes Radio, and Pandora than with Amazon Cloud Player or iTunes Match.  Amazon Cloud Player only allows 250 imported songs on their free service, but 250,000 for the $24.99 premium version.

Not all my music is in iTunes currently.  I have CDs I never ripped because I haven't had the desire to listen to them.  I have ones I ripped before my iPod days that are in MP3 format and I haven't imported because I haven't had the desire to listen to them.  And I have music I bought from iTunes or ripped from my CDs that are only in iTunes.  For a long time, I ripped both a copy into iTunes and a separate MP3, in case I ever moved away from Apple, but I stopped doing these when I got iTunes Match.

When Google Music first came out (before the change in branding and name), I was an early adopter.  I started the process of importing my MP3 music, and have 16,000 songs in it.  This puts me close to the limit, and I'm unsure what is and isn't there of the music I'd specifically want.

On the web app, both Google and Amazon have a limitation that is of note.  Google only allows one song downloaded at a time.  This means if you ever want to download your entire library, it will be infeasible.  The Download Manager, which installs on MacOS or Windows, might have an option to do this now, I haven't used it for a few years.  Amazon allows multiple downloads on MacOS and Windows but not on Linux or any derivative of it, including ChromeOS.

The iPhone apps are of course the most important for someone looking at moving away from iTunes Match.  Both allow streaming of music just as iTunes Match does.  And both allow downloading of albums or songs.  The only real significant feature difference is that music downloaded from Google Play Music is available in the native iPhone Music app and Amazon songs are only available to their player.  On the other hand, music in the built in iPhone Music app are not available within the Google Play Music app, but are in the Amazon app.

Google is of course the best cost point, free.  But the limit of 20,000 songs might or might not prove an issue unless I delete the entire Google library and start over with only the songs in iTunes.  iTunes Match and Amazon Cloud Player are the same cost, but the Amazon limit is high enough that I'd never hit it.  Being able to manage my subscription online without needing iTunes is a big plus for Amazon, and Google doesn't require managing it at all.

The availability on the Kindle Fire is a big plus for Amazon, for my situation, and both Amazon and Google are far more accessible across all my devices that Apple.  Being able to import from anywhere without an application is a big plus for both over iTunes, it allows a moving away from a dependency on a traditional computer, as I can use shared computers to rip the songs and upload them.  The ripping is a bit more complex, and Apple does so in one step, but the Windows apps for the other two may be able to do this as well.  The Amazon one appears to.  It appears Google may be able to import AAC files, the format Apple uses.  Amazon does not.

The biggest show stopper is getting music into either of the other two services.  I would need to renew my iTunes Match subscription for another year, download my entire library, convert the AAC files to MP3, then import them into whichever service I went with.  With 33GB of music, this would take a very long time, and require over 70GB of free disk space on a machine able to run iTunes.  A daunting task for sure.

Bethany Kennedy
IT Professional

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