Apple was the first company to offer an online music store, for users of its iPod music player. It isn't alone anymore. Which one will give you the tunes, versatility, and price/performance you want? John Aubrey checks out four of the most popular stores, and delivers his verdict.
Apple’s iTunes Music Store is integrated with their music player, the iPod. The software is quite easy to use. The best part of the program is the search feature. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. I searched for “Blue Christmas” and got 269 hits back. Not all of them were titled “Blue Christmas;” actually, 84 of them were entitled “Blue Christmas.” The rest contained “Christmas” or “Blue” in them. This is a really quick solution for finding today’s top songs, but trying to find rare songs will require more work.
The coolest search feature is the radio search. Did you hear a new song on the radio that you want to buy? iTunes has a radio search: select your city, and the station your heard it on, and the last 50 songs played will appear. This is a great feature if you didn’t catch the song's title or artist, but still want the song or album. This is the only store other than allofmp3.com compatible with a Mac. On the flip side, it is a Mac program, which has been converted to Windows; sometimes it seems to get bogged down for no reason.
iTunes uses a different format for its music than other solutions, called AAC. The quality is the standard 128 kbps -- nothing outstanding, but good enough for most listeners. If you use iTunes Music Store, the songs are playable only in iTunes. As for transferring tunes to portable music players, they will work on the Apple iPod, both regular and Mini, but no others. The songs can be transferred to as many iPods as you want, but each iPod has to be authorized to the user account. Apple does allow you to authorize up to 5 computers for use of the songs. The songs can be burned to CD an infinite number of times with the built-in program. You are also allowed to stream music on your computer across a network, for your peers to listen to -- but they can’t copy the songs, only listen. Apple also gives out one free song a week. The song is usually an upcoming star, and the genre usually changes from week to week.
There is a way to “remove” the Digital Media Rights associated with Apple's AAC. The crack was written by Jon Lech Johansen; he is better know to many as the person who broke the DVD encryption. This time his program saves the streamed audio from QuickTime into a file, but without the authorization key. When you open a protected AAC song, the program loads it into memory. Once loaded, it check to make sure you have the rights to play it; then it decrypts the songs, which enables the audio player to play it.
Once playing, Johansen's tool tells the program to save the audio into a non-protect file. When the song is done, you have a 1:1 copy of the song, ready for any use you wish. Since you need to actually play the song, it doesn’t work any faster than burning and reripping it, though the quality will be a little better.
Johansen made this program because he wanted to be able to listen to the songs he bought from iTunes Music store on Linux, but there is no Linux version of iTunes. While he had good intentions, if you're thinking about using his tool, you need to be aware that his action violated the Apple License agreement and was deemed illegal. Apple keeps releasing new updates to iTunes, and people keep recracking the updates. This is an endless cat and mouse game.
The songs at iTunes cost 99 cents. It's not the cheapest deal, but you can play them on more PCs. Most albums are $9.99, though you can find some CDs in the bargain bin for $4.99. You can pay via credit card, PayPal, prepaid cards, or gift certificates. Prepaid cards get you 15 songs for $15, and can be bought at places like Amazon and Best Buy. Gift certificates range from $10-$200. Apple also has an allowance, which is a great feature for kids, or if you can’t contain yourself. Every month it lets you spend a certain amount of money at the music store. You can set your allowance from $10 to $200 a month.