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.
If names sell, then Napster should rule. Napster is owned by Roxio, the same company that sells CD burning software. They paid $5 million for the name, in the hope that it will cash in for them.
The program itself looks bloated. For instance, there is a magazine section on music groups, as well as a messageboard. This is a nice feature, but jamming too much stuff into the program takes away from the music listing. Maybe the company should have set it up as an email newsletter and an online forum. The music is well organized, with categories and subcategories. Using Napster is a lot like using Windows Media Player, as far as feel goes. I really like the playlist on the side; on iTunes you needed to change from the music store to your library every time you wanted to play some music, which resulted in a slight delay. In Napster it’s all integrated into the same program, with no need to change what you are viewing.
Napster uses protected Windows Media Audio (WMA) files encoded with a quality of 128kbps. These files can be played within Napster as well as Windows Media Player. The songs can be burned as many times as you want, and transferred to a music player unlimited times. The current WMA protection has yet to be broken. Previous versions of protected WMA files have been broken; time will tell whether or not this version can be broken.
Napster provides the largest number of options for your method of payment. The songs cost the same as they do at iTunes, 99 cents, but the albums cost a little more. For instance, the CD “Songs about Jane” costs $9.99 at iTunes, but $11.95 at Napster. Like iTunes, Napster offers prepaid cards. The prepaid song cards come in 15, 25, and 50 song denominations. You do get a small discount by buying the cards; the 15 song card will save you 13 cents a song, and the 50 song card will save you 20 cents a song.
Napster gives its users something iTunes doesn't: a subscription service. For $9.95 a month, you can listen to any songs they have. You can even download them, and play them offline on WMP. To be able to burn a song to a CD, though, you must buy it.
Napster upped the stakes when it released Napster To Go, part of Microsoft’s PlayforSure. Playforsure is a partnership between media devices such as MP3 players and online music stores. It’s a guarantee that the music you bought online will work with your MP3 player. When looking for a MP3 player, look for a blue PlayforSure logo. As of press time there are a small number of players compatible with subscription services like Napster To Go.
This means that when Napster is paired with an MP3 player compatible with Playforsure, like the Iriver H320, you can transfer the Napster subscription songs onto the MP3 player and play them from there. This will cost you a little more -- $15 per month -- but you can put any song on the player, and know that you can play it. This is nice if you would like to download a lot of music, and don’t have thousands of dollars to burn, or if your music taste changes a lot. For $15 a month, you can listen to music online, on your computer, and on a portable player. The catch is that if you decided to cancel this service, all the music won’t play anymore.