For those who haven’t heard, tomorrow marks the next big announcement from Apple about the iPhone. There are many expectations for what we will see. It is almost certain the iPhone 5 will be shown and possibly a new iPhone 4S, though reports on that are conflicting. What is also widely suspected is that tomorrow will be the official launch of iTunes Match, the new Apple service that will store your entire music collection (whether you bought the songs from iTunes or not) and give you access across all your computers and devices for $24.99 per year.
That’s a pretty big deal. Not only does that give you legitimate copies of songs you may have obtained from Napster, BitTorrent, a friend, what-have-you, but it also means you don’t have to shell out big bucks for the largest hard drive inside of the device just to access songs you rarely listen to anyway. Coming from the biggest retailer of music, that’s a really big deal. In fact, some might say it is a game-changer… But is it?
Yes. Any time a company that makes consuming media as easy as Apple does makes an offering like this, it sets the standard. People will hear about it. They will understand it. They will use it.
So, the question is, “Should you?”
The short answer (as I always promise to get to right away): No, iTunes Match isn’t worth $24.99 per year today; there are too many other services with great features at competitive prices, but stay tuned as that could change.
The longer explanation:
iTunes Match is sure to be a good service, and at roughly $2.00 a month, you can’t go wrong, but there are other, better services that offer you more that are worth using instead. Principally, if you use an Android phone, you’re going to want a different solution. The problem is there are so many, it is tough to know where to begin. I’ll provide the breakdown.
Apple does something I’ve not seen them do before, and actually compares its upcoming offering to those of Amazon and Google, so let’s start there.
Amazon’s Cloud Drive Music Service and Amazon Cloud Player
Amazon’s offering (actually a pairing of Amazon MP3, Amazon’s Cloud Drive Music Service and Amazon Cloud Player) has been available for a while. Right now, they are offering unlimited storage under any paid plan or for having taken advantage of some special offers around the launch, and they’re accessible from any computer as well as Android and your iPhone/iPad (via an HTML5 site you access from Safari, rather than a native app, which isn’t a big obstacle). Also, like iTunes Match, anything you purchase directly from the Amazon store becomes immediately available in your account, and Amazon pricing is often $0.10 less per song and up to a dollar less for an album, so that’s a plus.
At first blush, this is a great option, but that free service is set to expire. Amazon has already published their pricing plans for when it does, and as Apple points out, it will be more expensive than Match. Also, while having directly purchased songs available immediately is great, most of us have a large collection already on our computers; Amazon’s MP3 Uploader takes weeks or longer to upload large libraries of files to the Amazon Cloud. Moreover, you have to initiate the uploads manually, rather than being able to run a system service to monitor your music folders for changes, so it is non-trivial to keep your Cloud organized. The player experience (especially on Android) is slick, but doesn’t support your old playlists and just generally feels a bit slow.
Given last week’s Kindle announcements, and the likelihood that Amazon could do much more with this service in the near future, you can’t rule Amazon out, but if you have an iPhone, you’re going to prefer iTunes Match right now.
Google also has a service that allows users to upload their entire libraries to the cloud aptly named Google Music. Unlike iTunes and Amazon, Google doesn’t currently offer a store to purchase new music, but their program is in early beta and they’ve already started making songs available to those who are in the beta program for free with a service they are calling Magnifier. Unlike Amazon, Google has created a system tray service to monitor your music, which can upload new tracks automatically. It is called Google Music Manager, and works well, but also takes weeks to process a large local library. With a 20,000 song cap, you are HIGHLY unlikely to fill up Music Manager, so this comes in at the cheapest solution. Still, the Android app is minimally functional, with no playlist support and really a terrible UI. Given that Google owns Android, I expect new versions to improve on the existing product. Like Amazon, Google has made their web service accessible from Safari on iOS devices, so once again, it allows what iTunes Match doesn’t in promising users with multiple device types ubiquity. Still, until the application is improved, playlists are added, and a store (or other way of accessing songs you don’t already own) is introduced, iTunes Match will still look very good to most of you.
So, compared to the services Apple calls out for you, iTunes Match still looks like a good option, but what about the rest of the pack?
Well, there are replacements for the radio, including
- Pandora – With either ad-supported or a subscription product, Pandora gives you access to music everywhere. They’re on your computer, they have native apps for most every device, and they’re even in some cars, but it is not designed to give you access to YOUR library. Instead, Pandora tries to provide you with music you’ll love by using computer algorithms to recommend songs based on your express preferences. As they put it:
With Pandora you can explore this vast trove of music to your heart’s content. Just drop the name of one of your favorite songs, artists or genres into Pandora and let the Music Genome Project go. It will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings – new and old, well known and completely obscure – to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice. Then sit back and enjoy as it creates a listening experience full of current and soon-to-be favorite songs for you.
- Slacker – Much like Pandora, Slacker is available everywhere and programs listening experiences for you based on your preferences, but they don’t let you listen to your own collection directly. They differentiate themselves from Pandora by having much more human involvement in programming music experiences (and they do a great job at it). As they put it:
Slacker Radio is much more than a playlist creating computer that chooses songs that are similar to each other. Our expert DJs hand-pick songs based on their extensive knowledge combined with your personal preferences. Our music library is larger than our leading competitor’s by millions of songs, so you’ll hear all of your favorites and a ton of new music that we know you’ll love!
- Shoutcast, iHeartRadio, and SiriusXM – These services actually let you listen to radio (or web radio) stations programmed by others and also have nearly ubiquitous availability.
- MOG – For $9.99 per month, you can get access to a near limitless collection of the most popular songs ever recorded. You can stream them on the web or access them from your mobile device. You don’t have to buy the song because you can access any song you want. As they put it:
MOG’s all-you-can-eat, on-demand listening service provides access to a deep library of over 12 million songs and a million albums through its mobile apps on iPhone and Android, as well as on the Web and streaming entertainment devices for TV. It surpasses all other music subscription services in its ease-of-use, discovery features and audio quality.
- Grooveshark – For $9.00 a month ($1 less than MOG), you can get access to a near limitless collection of the most popular songs ever recorded. You can stream them on the web or access them from your mobile device… the only real differences between MOG and Grooveshark are: (1) Grooveshark gives you the option to take surveys to earn points to pay for the subscription instead of using cash; and (2) MOG was founded with support from the music industry, while Grooveshark has gotten where it is by settling lawsuits and flying under the radar. Beyond that, MOG boasts 12 million songs to Grooveshark’s 15 million, and MOG has a bit more support from TV and other device manufacturers.
- Gives you unlimited access to the music you like;
- Allows you to create playlists and organize your music for consumption;
- Lets you keep your music even if you don’t want to spend money that month;
- Lets you access your music on any device at any time; and
- ensures a high-quality/high-fidelity experience (I haven’t talked about this point as all of these services do a good job on that front once you’re already happy with digital music).