updated 01:50 pm EST, Mon December 26, 2011
Includes complete setup guide
Apple's iTunes Match, an add-on service that makes most users' entire iTunes music library available to their other devices for an annual $25 fee, now has its own dedicated website that includes a walk-through video, setup guide, product description and Frequently Asked Questions column. The site may be part of an effort to combat user confusion over what exactly the service offers and to more formally separate it from the company's free iCloud service.
The idea behind iTunes Match is two-fold: it solves the problem of making ever-increasing music libraries available in full on portable devices, and it also offers the option for users to upgrade the quality of songs purchased or ripped at lower MP3 qualities up to 256kbit AAC format (which includes the ability to store artwork and lyrics inside the music file) as part of the annual fee. The service will upgrade songs regardless of where the original song comes from, given those who have some pirated music in their collection an opportunity to "get legal" and upgrade the quality at the same time.
The $25 annual fee allows for up to 25,000 non-iTunes-purchased songs to be available "in the cloud," which can be downloaded on demand to any mobile device using the same iTunes account via Wi-Fi or 3G. The process of making the music available in the cloud generally only takes a few minutes, since iTunes Match (unlike other services from Google and Amazon the offer a similar service) doesn't require much if any uploading: songs are identified through a scan of the users' library and instantly "credited" if iTunes has the same song. Only those songs that iTunes doesn't already have or can't identify are uploaded, potentially saving many days of time and bandwidth in the case of large collections.
User confusion seems to center around the idea that iCloud -- which is free -- keep backup copies of songs purchased by users from the iTunes Store, and those songs are available for re-downloading at any time. But the iTunes Match service goes beyond that by matching the entire iTunes library, and having a built-in facility within iTunes on mobile devices or other computers for instantly adding any song not already present to the library.
Because the song is downloaded to the device rather than streamed, the song can be re-played without re-downloading, saving data charges for 3G users (3G users can turn off the "download over 3G" option if they wish). Songs purchased through iTunes do not count against the 25,000-song limit, meaning collections available in via iCloud could be virtually unlimited in size.
The FAQ on the page clarifies some finer points, such that up to 10 devices are supported on any one iTunes account, and that music playlists are synced across devices. The column addresses one of the most common questions by explaining that iCloud will stream songs or download them depending on which button users press, but that mobile devices will download only (and start playing almost instantly). Apple TV of course can only stream music. The company also advises that while users do not have to use their iCloud account with iTunes Match, in order for the service to work properly they should use whichever AppleID is associated with the majority of their music purchases.
The video walkthrough can be seen on the iTunes Match website.