The OS Quest Trail Log #73: Media Edition

Picture of a sunset over the waterIt was all about media on the quest this month. First I covered my tools for Blu-Ray ripping – MakeMKV and Handbrake. I finished going through and ripping the few Blu-Rays that I do have using the same method outlined in the articles. I lowered the Handbrake quality a bit on some to get a smaller file. I still don’t see myself getting a lot of Blu-Ray discs, but it does give me more flexibility with the ones I do get.

Then it was on to music in the cloud. At the time I wrote the articles I had settled on iTunes Match. I’m going to have to go back and update these articles. iTunes Match is history, It made a complete mess of smart playlists, especially on iDevices. The good new is that turning it off and everything was nearly back to normal. The only remaining issue was that many songs had their play count set to 1 (not zero). This was rather bizarre. It was most noticeable because I have a playlist that includes songs played just once. That list went from empty to over 300 songs. There were plenty of songs I knew had played many times although I’m at a loss as to why the play count is back to 1. It could be a lot more counts are off, just not as obvious.  So for now I have iTunes Match disabled everywhere. At least I got the DRM removed from my older iTunes purchases, but I probably won’t be renewing.

Amazon Cloud Player had its own problems. The iOS app wouldn’t display a complete list of songs available on the web cloud player. For example, a recently purchased album that Amazon automatically added to the Cloud Player showed 3 songs on my iPhone and 9 on my iPad. There were a total of 12 songs on the album. This wasn’t unique to purchases as any artist I checked had some missing songs on the device.

Google Play Music is the only one that hasn’t caused me any problems. Then again, I haven’t used it beyond some simple testing. I did have one unexpected problem. Unlike the other players it does support .flac files. For the CDs I ripped I have both MP3 and FLAC files in the same directory. The other players simply ignored the FLAC files. After Google got done uploading I noticed I had duplicates of everything. I couldn’t find any way to tell which song was which format so I deleted everything and I’ll re-upload just the MP3 files. I don’t see any reason to stream the larger FLAC files from the cloud. Although I want to do some research or testing to see if Google transcodes the FLAC files when streaming.

I have to say, Google seems to have the more reliable and solid tech in their web player. While I wouldn’t call it feature rich, it includes features that Amazon doesn’t: Instant Mixes, Play Counts, Thumbs up/down ratings along with a more flexible uploader. I may change my opinion once I actually look at using it. I’m still working on re-uploading the music. Like I mentioned in the article, I have a lot tied to my Google account so it’s not something I want to enter into a 3rd party app, so the lack of an official iOS app is a problem.

Tablets From the Source

Microsoft had a big news month and got a lot of positive spin. Although, their Slate announcement seemed to create more questions than it answered. Hopefully it lives up to the heightened expectations. It will be nice to have some competition and options for Apple. If nothing else, the MS Slate should be lacking the crapware prevalent in Windows OEM and Android devices.

Google also announced a 7” tablet that’s got the Kindle Fire in its sights. It seems promising. Hopefully the new version of Android will be tablet friendly. The few Android tablets I’ve seen appear to have an identity crisis trying to decide between a small or large display. Hard to put my finger on anything specific, but the just seemed “off”. iOS apps which can have distinct personalities depending on the hardware. I have to admit I find it tempting even though I can’t justify it.

One thing I found interesting was the hue and cry over Microsoft usurping their OEMs while I didn’t hear much complaints about the Google Nexus 7 despite Google saying they’ll sell it at a price to break even on the hardware absorbing any marketing and miscellaneous costs.This despite Google owning a Android hardware vendor (Motorola) and other OEMs using Android.

I’m not predicting any decline for Apple, but it looks like I’ll be able to consider alternatives when it’s time for my next phone and tablet. This can’t be a bad thing.

Wrapping UP

Looking at the various cloud players has go me into playing music more than I had in the recent past. For the most part it had been audio books and podcasts but I’ve been playing music again. I’m finally getting around to trying out the media related apps on my Synology DiskStation. It’s still to early to tell if they’ll be worth using. Then for true cloud music there’s always the subscription services.

So far nothing has been perfect. It will be more a matter of figuring out what I want and then picking the solution strongest in that area. The summer heat seems like it’s here to stay for awhile. Those hot humid days will be good for laying around listening to music, or staying in the air conditioning working at the PC.

For those of you in the States, have a happy 4th!

Cloud Music: iTunes Match

iTunes Match Settings

iTunes Match SettingsIn the past I stored my music on Amazon cloud storage more as a backup than as a way to play it “from the cloud”. I purchased much of my music through Amazon and storing it was free (now all music stored there is free). Google also redid their cloud music offering and then there’s iTunes Match. I took a look at all three, this article gives my impression of iTunes Match.

I held off subscribing to iTunes Match until a couple months ago. Then my primary reason was to get the DRM off some old iTunes purchases, a secondary reason being to upgrade some lower quality songs. I never enabled Match on any iDevices until the past week.

iTunes Match PlaylistI started off with enabling it on my iPhone (it’s already enabled on my Mac Mini that has me entire music library). I was warned that it would replace my local music library. Since the local library was just a subset of my Mac Mini’s library I didn’t expect much change. I got a brief scare when my playlists disappeared, but they eventually came back. It looks like match did the right thing and kept the music that was already on the iPhone and marked the rest as being in the cloud. As the picture to the left shows, the first 3 songs are in the cloud while the last 4 are already on the iPhone.

There is no option to exclude unchecked songs, they are all available. I do have the option to only included checked items enabled in all my smart playlists created in iTunes, but this is ignored in Match on the iPhone.

Match will manage what songs are cached locally, using the songs already there as a starting point. I can also have it download all songs in a playlist, for an artist, or on an album (probably other criteria too, but those are the obvious ones) so they would be available when I’m offline or if I want to avoid using cell data. Cell data usage can also be turned off for iTunes Match to avoid eating up a data plan.

There was a noticeable delay in playing a cloud based song when it wasn’t in the queue. For example, when the first song in a playlist was cloud based. But once the songs were queued up it was seamless. Most of my usage was over my home wi-fi but I didn’t have any issues when I ventured off wireless. Admittedly, I didn’t use it much on 3G and most of that was in my house with wi-fi off for testing. The 3G performance will only be as good as the local network. I use Verizon which has been a solid performer for me locally.

I’m not a fan of the iTunes Music player interface on the iPad so I use Diner Jukebox instead. Diner Jukebox ad no problem playing songs using iTunes Match. I played songs that were local on the iPad and those in the cloud.

While I can’t create or edit smart playlists on my iDevice, the playlists are updated as songs move in and out of matching the criteria and these changes are synced across iTunes Match devices (as expected).

As someone who likes iTunes and the iPhone as a music player I find that iTunes Match enhances the experience. Anything that eliminates a reason to fire up iTunes simply to manage a device already starts out on the plus side. It does cost $25 a year which is a minus, but for this first year I got the added bonus of removing DRM from my older iTunes purchases. This was less than I would have paid under Apple’s old upgrade policy.

I would like the ability to create and edit smart playlists on my iPad. I suspect the iPhone screen size would make the UI for that too cumbersome but it should fit fine on the iPad. I don’t add or edit smart playlists much these days so this isn’t a big drawback for me. Since Amazon and Google don’t have a smart playlist concept for their players they probably won’t be much of a contender for iTunes Match. But I’ll be giving them a try.

The other interesting thing I encountered was that iTunes Match seemed to turn itself off in iTunes. My account says the computer is associated with iTunes match, but it’s not available in iTunes and I had to re-enable it. When it was added back it quickly saw it had all but 4 songs, which it uploaded. This was considerably less than when I first enabled iTunes Match. Now I could delete all those unchecked songs from iCloud to get them off my iDevices but I’m not sure I want to do that. While I could keep the physical files they’d be gone from iTunes and iCloud. Even though I don’t play them my packrate nature keeps me from clicking delete. I could create multiple libraries and I may eventually do that, but a first glance it seems like more effort than I’m willing to make.

Do you use iTunes Match as a cloud player? User another cloud player?