June 7, 2011

∴ iCloud Feature: Scan and Match

Or, in simpler terms, iTunes in the sky with diamonds. The diamonds are high-quality song file replacements, courtesy of Apple and their new agreements with major record labels and publishers.

This iCloud feature will scan your music library as it exists in your desktop copy of iTunes, and try to match each file with a known, published song. If a match can be made (a good bet for all music published by the major record labels), a high-quality version will be put into your iCloud library, automatically. No upload of your version is necessary, and you get a better-than-CD-quality copy, to boot. Apple claims this process takes minutes, unlike competing products from Google and Amazon, which can take hours or even days for large libraries.

If a match can't be made, perhaps because the song in question is published by an independent label, or because it's ripped from a bootleg CD, your version of the song file will be uploaded to your iCloud library.

Either way, all of your music will appear in your iCloud library and will be available for automatic download to all of your devices, without your intervention. This process even legitimizes music you've downloaded via bit torrent or other shady means. Once the music is in your iCloud library, you fully own it, no matter where you got it. Very handy, and all for $25 per year.

That price is cheap for what you're getting, but it got me wondering what would happen if I didn't want to pay the fee. Would iCloud upload all of my songs without scanning and matching, since I didn't pay? Would it do anything at all? I haven't been able to find a definitive answer to that question, but here's what makes sense to me: in the absence of a paid Scan and Match subscription, iCloud will place into my account only those songs I've purchased through iTunes.

Keep in mind that iCloud is, in part, a replacement for your PC- or Mac-based iTunes library. The only action necessary for keeping your music library up-to-date going forward is to keep a copy of your new music purchases in your iCloud library. Since Apple already tracks what you've previously purchased from the iTunes store, those songs come along for the ride, too. But in order to get your personal music files, ripped from your own sources or otherwise, into your iCloud library, you must pay the yearly fee.

(The alternative isn't bad, though. Leaving your music in a PC or Mac iTunes library will be easier to deal with going forward, too, because iOS 5 brings WiFi sync to your Apple mobile devices. You'll probably have to go the extra step of tapping a button on your iPhone or iPad screen, but beyond that your device will sync content with your desktop or laptop machine over your household network just fine.)

So you'll have a choice: manually synchronize your music files over WiFi free, or have it handled automatically for $25 per year.