Streaming your music remotely: Google Music vs iTunes Match

Whether you've run out of space on your iPod, want to access all of your music from your smart phone (or tablet), or want to create an online backup of your music library, this post is for you.

I first started looking into this when I maxed out my 120GB iPod, and was trying to see if there was a way I could access my iTunes library directly from my Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Spoiler alert, there isn't. However, there are options to work around that.

Personally I went with Google Music. I think it's not only the most flexible, but it also happens to be free.

iTunes Match

  • $25 a year
  • 25,000 songs
  • iOS app and iTunes access only
  • Unrestricted downloads from iTunes. No downloads from the web
  • iTunes Radio

Google Music

  • Free (or $9.99 per month for All Access)
  • 20,000 songs
  • Android app + web access
  • Unrestricted downloads from Google Manager + limited downloads from web
  • Google Radio (All Access only)

Now for a review that's good and thorough (like Maude's doctor)... 

Google Play Music

Google Music allows you to upload your music to Google's servers and then access it remotely from your smart phone (or tablet) or any computer with internet access.

The service is free (although you can opt into a premium service for $9.99 a month, but more on this later), and you can upload up to 20,000 of your songs.

Once your music is uploaded you'll be able to access it from any computer with web access, and you'll be able to sync it to up to 10 Android devices through Google's "Play Music" app.

This is where the flexibility comes in. You can use Google Music on iOS devices as well through your device's browser by going to: play.google.com/music you'll just have to login using your Google account. So, if you have both iOS and Android devices Google Music offers a great advantage over iTunes Match, since it can be accessed from both platforms for free.

The upload time will depend on how many files you want to upload, and how big each file is. However, be prepared for it to take a while. If Google has a copy of a song or an album in you've selected to upload, it'll automatically add it to your Google Music library, bypassing the upload process for that song or album. In my case, to upload 15,000 files (most of which were not in Google's data base since I listen to a lot of live music) it took over a week.

Google Music does cap the file size to 300MB limit per file, but I have a hard time imagining the average user having any files anywhere near that size.

One of the largest music files I have is 100.8MB, and that's for a 44-minute version of the Allman Brothers Band playing Mountain Jam (Live at the Ludlow Garage 1970) encoded at 320kbps. Even the 40-minute 32-second version of Phish's You Enjoy Myself (Live Phish Vol. 14, Halloween 1995) encoded at 187 kbps only clocks in at 57.3MB, and Phish's infamous 36-minute 48-second so-called "Tahoe Tweezer" (2013-07-31 Harveys Lake Tahoe, Stateline, NV) encoded at 248kbps only takes up 65.9MB.

Once your music is uploaded you'll be able to stream your music, create and share playlists, and download copies of your music. Google Music allows you to download files from the web, or through the Music Manager software. From the web you'll only be allowed to download each file twice. However, there are no download limits if you use the Music Manager. There are also no restrictions on the files once they're downloaded. They can be played from any computer or device without needing to login with your Google account.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a premium service called All Access. This is a paid service which costs $9.99 a month, but comes with Google's Radio option. This is essentially equivalent to Pandora, Spotify, or iTunes' Radio, although it may not have as extensive a repertoire as iTunes Radio. Again, this service is optional and a paid subscription is not necessary to upload your music. Note that the music you stream, or purchase from Google Play does not count towards the 20,000 song limit. All Access also allows users to delete their entire music library in a couple of clicks (regular users have to delete each album individually).

When you first sign up for Google Music you'll be offered a free month of All Access. Go ahead and check it out (I believe All Access users also enjoy faster upload speeds than regular users, although my experience is anecdotal), but if you're not planning on continuing to use the service afterwards, keep an eye out for when your free trial expires. There will be no warnings, no reminders. The day after the trial ends, your credit card will be charged $9.99.

Here are some of the things I don't like about Google Music.

  • A credit card is required to sign up even if you're not planning on ever using All Access.
  • AIFF files are not currently supported.

I reported this issue to Google and their customer representative said they are always trying to add more formats. It may be possibility down the line, but I had to create mp3 versions of my AIFF files from iTunes before I could upload them to Google Music.

  • The organization isn't great.

There are separate tabs for Artists, Albums, Songs, and Genres, and those are organized alphabetically (although for some reason 1 is followed by 11 rather than 2, so if you want to organize a series you'll have to rename them 01, 02, etc..), but there is no options equivalent to iTunes' “Album by Artist” or “Album by Year.” There is also no way to alphabetize the list of albums when navigate through the Artist menu.

Also, Google Music doesn't recognize compilations, so it'll create a new artist tab even if you only have one song by an artist that's part of a compilation. While it does a good job grabbing album cover art from the files' meta data, Google Music has a hard time processing picture art for bands it's not familiar with. Those are either left grey, or are filled in with erroneous images (on mobile they're filled with album cover art pulled from your music library which I find more appropriate).

 This is the default artist art for bands Google Music doesn't have in its database. 

This is the default artist art for bands Google Music doesn't have in its database. 

 This is an example of both Google Music creating an artist tab for a single song from a compilation, and of erroneous cover art (it's displaying album art from the Allman Brothers Band's Eat A Peach).

This is an example of both Google Music creating an artist tab for a single song from a compilation, and of erroneous cover art (it's displaying album art from the Allman Brothers Band's Eat A Peach).


iTunes Match

iTunes Match also allows you to stream your music after uploading to the cloud (in this case to Apple's servers), but there is a restriction on how many devices can access your iTunes Match library. The cap is set to 10 devices (and that includes the computer you use to sign up for iTunes Match in the first place).

It costs $25 a year to sign up for iTunes Match, but you can upload up to 25,000 songs (that's 5,000 more than Google Music). Songs purchased from the iTunes Store do not count towards the 25,000 song limit.

Once your music is uploaded, you'll be able to stream your music, create playlists, and download copies of your music, BUT you'll only be able to access your music from iOS mobile devices or computers with iTunes, and you'll need to be logged in to iTunes with your Apple ID.

This means that there is no way of accessing your music from an Android device, and it would make it difficult to access it from someone else's computer. You'd have to authorize their computer to use your Apple ID, and that would count towards the 10 devices cap. Google Music also has a cap set at 10 devices, but since it also offers unlimited web access that means you can stream music from your library at a party by logging in to Google Music's web player (just remember to log out when you're done). The only actions that count towards Google Music's 10 devices cap is authorizing a device to access your library from an Android app.

The file size limit on iTunes Match is 200MB. While that's significantly lower than Google Music, I still think it's a lot more than any average user would ever need for a single song.

One thing I was happily surprised to discover when I was researching iTunes Match is that songs you download from iTunes Match are not locked by Digital Rights Management (DRM). As it turns out, songs purchased from the iTunes store are also no longer locked by DRM. This has apparently been the case since late 2009. Prior to then, if you purchased a song from iTunes you would only be able to play it back using iTunes and you needed to be logged in to iTunes using the Apple ID you used to purchase the song in first place. The fact that these songs are no longer locked by DRM means that they can be played back through other software like Winamp, VLC media player, iTunes (without needing to be logged in with any specific Apple ID), or any other software you may prefer to use.

iTunes Match has its own issues. Some users report that they own explicit versions of certain songs, but that iTunes Match added clean versions to their cloud-based library. I've also seen reports of iTunes Match uploaded the wrong version of a song (for instance a remix instead of the original). There does not appear to be any solutions for these problems at this time.


I should add an honorable mention for Subsonic.

Subsonic

 Subsonic is an app that allows you to access your computer's music files remotely. Because there are no files to upload to a server it is faster to set up than Google Music or iTunes Match. Simply install the app on your device, and the widget on your computer. From the web based control panel of the widget, you'll be given a URL for the server (in this case your computer). Enter that URL in the mobile app, and you should be able to start streaming your music. I have not encountered any playback issues regardless of file formats.

Subsonic does have several drawbacks.

  • Your computer must be turned on for your files to be accessible.

This may not be an issue if you're the only person who uses the computer, but if it's a shared computer this can lead to headaches. Even if all the user profiles have the Subsonic widget set to launch upon login, Subsonic will not work if no users are logged in. Another problem I found is that if not enough time elapses between when a user logs out, and the following user logs in, Subsonic will not work. I diagnosed this as being an IP / routing issue, but I found no solutions to this problem. Through trial and error, I found that 30 seconds to a full minute was necessary in between a user login out and the following user logging in for Subsonic to work.

  • The Android version is free to download, but after a free month of service users are required to sign up for the premium service: $1 a month, or $12 for a year's subscription (Subsonic used to be a free service, and users who signed up for it then are grandfathered in, and do not have to subscribe).

  • The iOS version is $4.99 (they also offer a Lite version for $1.99) I do not know whether iOS subscriber have to pay a monthly fee after they purchase the app.

  • While Subsonic does a good job of gathering the meta data from the files (including cover art), the tracks are displayed by which folders they are in on your computer. For instance, if you have a double disc album like The Beatles' White Album and you organize the files for Disc 1 and Disc 2 in separate folders, to access a track you'll have to click on The Bealtes, then White Album, then on Disc 1 or Disc 2, and then on the track you're looking for. This is regardless of how the meta data is written on the file, or how the files might display in iTunes.

  • The mobile player interface is a little confusing. "Play Last" is how they chose to name the button to add a song to the queue.

  • The web-based control panel displays perfectly in Google Chrome, but has display issues in Mozilla Firefox.