Feb 27, 2006 (11:02 AM EST)
Review Roundup: Five Music Subscription Services Challenge iTunes
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
Music is everywhere these days. Thousands of tunes are immediately accessible via your computer and your mobile player. However, the advent of music subscription download services has fueled a debate among aficionados. Is it better to rent all the music you want for a monthly fee that's about the same as the cost of a single CD, or buy the music outright without limits or conditions –- for more?
It all started three years ago with Apple's iTunes music service, which was an immediate hit because of its famously large selection of legal 99-cents-a-tune songs and full-CD prices of about $10. iTunes remains a staraccording to Nielsen/NetRatings, traffic to the iTunes music store surged by 241 percent in 2005, and recently the service reached its one billionth download.
However, the next generation of music services, which started emerging in 2005, may trump that hand. Subscription download services let you pay a flat monthly subscription fee of between $5 and $15, which is less than the typical cost of a full CD. For that fee, you can download all the available music you want and play it on your desktop computer or personal media player.
But you can play the music only if you pay the monthly fee; the digital rights management (DRM) software prevents playback if you stop paying the "rent." And you can't share with friends or burn CDs with subscription service music. To do that, you still must buy the music outright.
Because the subscription services provide virtually unlimited downloads, those who don't care about burning CDs report feeling like the proverbial kid in a candy store after they subscribe. However, those who do care about actually owning music often report a look-but-don't-touch reaction.
I reviewed five leading subscription download services as well as iTunes and found that, no matter where you come down in the buy-or-rent debate, these services generally work as advertised. But there are some issues to examine before you dive into the subscription services.
How To Choose
Before you sign up for a music subscription service, there are a few things to consider:
Rent or buy? As mentioned previously, the advent of the subscription music download services has engendered intense debates about whether it is preferable to own music outright, which costs more, or to rent it and live with some limits.
In fact, the two approaches aren't mutually exclusive. The subscription services also sell individual songs and CDs, often for less than iTunes charges. If you take this approach, you can download and try out music, keep playing it if you like, buy it if you wish, or simply stop listening to it and download more music.
In any case, all the subscription services reviewed here offer free trial periods in which you can get a feel for the service and how you prefer to acquire music.
Price. Most music fans are familiar with iTunes' pricing of 99 cents per song and $10 per CD. Pricing gets slightly more complicated with subscription services. First, there are monthly subscription fees. Most services have one fee for downloading music only to your PC and a second fee for what's called a "to go" subscription in which you can download music to both your PC and your personal media player. Prices for the former are between $5 and $10 and prices for the latter are between $8 and $15.
In addition, all the services I reviewed allow subscribers to purchase music by the song or CD. Mostbut not allcharge subscribers less than the standard iTunes fees, with prices as low as 79 cents per tune and under $8 per CD. Note, though, that CD prices can vary even within the same service, depending on the nature of the contract the service has with a specific artist or label.
What all this means is that, before you subscribe, examine both subscription fees and per-track and CD charges to see which pricing scheme works best for you.
Selection. When Apple launched iTunes in the spring of 2003, it bragged that it carried 200,000 songs. Now, iTunes and the major subscription services each have more than two million songs for sale. The number of subscription-downloadable songs per service is less than thattypically about 1.5 millionand is growing rapidly.
If your primary interest is in artists signed to the handful of major recording labels, you'll notice virtually no difference in availability among the subscription services. However, there are thousands of independent recording labels, and the subscription services use third-party vendors to sign up these labels and the artists that record for them. Those services are proceeding on different schedules. As a result, there were small but noticeable differences among the services in the availability of independent-label music. Over time, those disparities, already small, will become increasingly negligible.
In the meantime, though, it's a good idea to use the free trial period offered by all the services to determine the availability of artists you are particularly interested in.
Different types of media. All the services I reviewed offer streaming music and "radio stations" featuring programs of music in a variety of genres. With other types of digital media such as podcasts, video, and audio books, however, iTunes continues to hold a commanding lead. In fact, no other music service offers audio books or commercial videos such as TV sitcoms, and so far, only Yahoo! Music Engine offers podcasts.
However, you can find these types of media elsewhere. Services such as Google Video offer video, audio books are available from sources such as Audible, and a number of sites offer podcasts. The subscription services say that they eventually will offer such media, but for now, if you want a single source for all these types of media, iTunes is your only choice.
Software and other content. Four of the five subscription services and iTunes use standalone software to help you search for, acquire, manage, and play media. AOL Music Now uses a browser-based interface.
At the very least, you can expect all the services to break music down into genres to aid in searching and browsing. The services also provide biographical information and reviews for most artists and CDs. You can also use the software to manage and play your library of downloaded or purchased music and to stream music without downloading it first. Plus, all provide tools for transferring music to your PC and media player.
However, while the capabilities of all the software and services were roughly comparable, we found significant differences in the usability and stability of the software. This is yet another reason to try the services before you commit.
Supported devices. Before signing up for a subscription service, you'll need to find out if your existing music playeror one you are considering buyingis compatible. Behind that question is a bit of industry politics.
Apple's iTunes may have popularized digital music downloading, but Microsoft is the developer of PlaysForSure, the DRM technology that is behind the subscription services. So far, Apple has stood firm against the subscription wave while Microsoft and device vendors like Creative, SanDisk, and iRiver hope that the user-friendly economics of the subscription services will enable them to overtake Apple.
Practically, what all this means is that iPods work directly with iTunes but not directly with subscription download services. Similarly, non-iPod music players don't work directly with iTunes. However, you can somewhat overcome that shortcoming by purchasing music from, say, iTunes, burning it to a CD, and then transferring music from the CD to non-iPod player. The opposite works when buying (but not "renting") music from a subscription service and playing it on an iPod.
This situation also plays out on the desktopiTunes works with both Apple's OS X and Windows, but the subscription services currently work only with Windows PCs, although one service is testing Linux and Apple versions.
There's one other angle to consider. Most non-iPod media players released in recent months are PlaysForSure-compatible and will work with the subscription services, but older ones may not. Device vendors are updating device firmware for some, but not all, older devices to support PlaysForSure. However, before you commit to a subscription service, you'll want to know whether your device will work with it as-is, whether a firmware upgrade is available, or if you'll need a new device.
AOL Music Now
AOL Music Now, which was still in beta "preview mode" when this review was being written, is a strong and unique subscription service, although its pricing is high and a bit of fine-tuning is needed.
This is the only Web-based subscription service; the other services and iTunes use standalone software. The Web interface means you can download and manage music using a browser in any Internet-connected Windows XP computer, while the other services typically limit your downloading activities to three computers.
AOL Music Now's interface is clean and easy to navigate. Like services that use dedicated software, the home page of AOL Music Now lists newly released music and provides access to key features such as streaming media radio stations. It also provides access to music you recently accessed and a daily playlist that the service automatically generates based on your browsing habits.
You navigate via tabs. One tabbed page, the My Music page, displays playlists and music you have previously selected, sortable by artist and genre. The Get Music tab is where you go to find specific music by searching or browsing through genres. As an aside, one complaint is that the service doesn't use subgenres but, rather, uses only broad genres like "Alternative" or "Classical." This makes trolling for new music a bit more time-consuming.
The ability to download directly to a device is goodnot all the subscription services have this capability. However, the system provides very little on-screen status information about the download and sync process beyond a cryptic "downloading x out of y" sort of status report. It doesn't, for instance, tell you exactly what is being downloaded or how quickly the download is proceeding.
Also, if you only want the music downloaded to your PC and not to your music player, AOL Music Now requires you to navigate a somewhat confusing group of dialog boxes both in the Web interface and in Windows Media Player (WMP). Otherwise, you must remember to disconnect your device. Once the music is downloaded, AOL Music Now requires use of Windows Media Player to manage your media. WMP is the ultimate love-it-or-hate-it software, with many people finding its interface balky, inconsistent, and difficult to learn.
A final issue is that, while you can navigate the service using Firefox, you can't use that browser for downloads, because AOL Music Now uses ActiveX controls that Firefox doesn't support. A spokesperson for AOL Music Now said Firefox support is on the company's to-do list, but wouldn't say when it would be available.
A Solid Selection
However, at $14.95 a month for the "to go" service and $9.95 for the right to download only to a PC, AOL Music Now is at the high end of the price range, along with Rhapsody and Napster. In addition, its 99 cents per tune and ten bucks an album purchase price is the same as iTunes, and is higher than most of the other subscription services.
On the other hand, if you value the ability to access music from any PC, appreciate the initial simplicity of a Web-based interface, and don't mind relying on Windows Media Player for managing music on your hard disk, AOL Music Now is a good choice.
Apple's iTunes didn't become dominant just because it was the first successful legal music download service. Its massive number of selections and the strong usability of its software also propelled it to prominence.
Those virtues have not diminished even as the software has been updated and the service has passed the billion-songs-sold mark. While more refined, the software remains close to its roots. The left pane is still where you switch between your music library, the music store where you browse and acquire media, playlists, and other content. The right pane is where you view details, such as information about an artist or CD, or the contents of your music library. The success of iTunes' interface is reflected in the interfaces of its next-generation competitors, some of which are amazingly similar to iTunes, right down to the icons.
The amount and variety of its content is another reason that iTunes has maintained its runaway popularity. While other services now offer about as many songs (more than two million), iTunes is the only service that offers videos, including popular television shows, as well as 16,000 audio books and 25,000 podcasts.
Of course, iTunes isn't without its shortcomings. Windows users often chafe, at least initially, at the Mac-ness of the software. And the service doesn't work directly with non-iPods. If you own another type of player, you must burn music you buy on iTunes to a CD and then copy it to your player.
So far, that hasn't happened, and iTunes continues to dominate the online music business. But the subscription music services are still new and evolving, and it's a good bet that Apple is watching carefully. In the meantime, if your only interest is buying songs and not renting them, iTunes remains an elegant, simple-to-use service with an unmatched selection of media.
Napster, for better and worse, has been a trailblazer in the digital music download business. It previously gained notoriety as a peer-to-peer (P2P) program that enabled users to download free music from each other. That galvanized the recording industry to fight P2P software in the courts, claiming that the downloads were illegal. That battle, in turn, led to iTunes and, more recently, the legal subscription download services, of which Napster was among the first.
This service has strong positives and a few equally strong negatives. One valuable feature is its "browse music" ability, which, like iTunes, lists all artists in specific genres and subgenres. This seemingly simple feature greatly speeds the process of hunting for new music and artists.
Across the top of the interface are buttons on which you click to go to the home page or to your library. In the middle of that toolbar is the search box and the button from which you can launch the browse feature mentioned above. This toolbar is present wherever you are in the software, which is convenient.
Also always present is a pane along the right side that includes the music player and a small box to which you can drag music you want to transfer to your media player. You can drag either already-downloaded music or music that you haven't yet downloaded to that box; in either case, the music is transferred to your device. Another excellent feature is the software's ability to download multiple tracks at once. The download speed for each track is a bit slower than downloading a single track but, combined, the process is faster.
Napster's music selection is strong, almost equal to that of Rhapsody, which consistently had the widest selection. Like Rhapsody, its monthly $14.95 charge for the "to go" service and $9.95 for the PC-only service is at the high-end of the range, as is its typical $9.95 charge for full CDs. On the other hand, its 79 cents per tune price for subscribers is, along with Yahoo! Music Unlimited, the least expensive.
Napster is a good service, but given its high monthly subscription fee and sometimes dodgy software, it isn't a compelling choice.
RealNetworks' Rhapsody service combines a strong selection and highly usable, virtually bulletproof software.
Of all the music service software, Rhapsody's is the most intuitiveeven beginning users won't spend much time figuring out how to download, manage, and play music; burn CDs; or transfer music to a media player.
The software employs a three-pane approach. The top left pane is where you switch among the service itself, the streaming music radio stations, your music library, your playlists, and your device (when connected). The large pane on the right displays the contents you select in the upper-left pane.
The lower-left pane contains tabs on which you click to manage music playback, burning CDs, and transferring music to your device. Tabs are hardly an interface innovation, but the feature is, nonetheless, unique among the software provided by the subscription services and makes it far easier to navigate the program.
There are a handful of other nice but small touches in the software and service. For instance, the page devoted to a specific artist lists all the compilation CDs, such as movie soundtracks, to which the artist made a contribution. And when looking at those compilation CDs, the service provides the name of the contributing artists. Other services, such as Yahoo's, often name the artist "Various Artists," which makes it clumsy to find all the work of a specific artist.
Most of Rhapsody's software shortcomings are minor. For instance, it is missing a few bits of helpful navigation such as a direct link from an album in your music library to the artist's main page on the service. But it offers one potentially enormous advantage for many users: Besides the Windows version, the company is publicly beta-testing a Web-based version that supports Linux and Mac OS X, which would make it the only major music service available for those platforms.
As discussed previously, it is difficult at this early stage in the evolution of subscription download services to definitively compare the content offerings among services. However, Rhapsody consistently had downloadable music that was not available on the other sites, and it was rare that another service had music I didn't find on Rhapsody.
At $9.99 for PC-only listening and $14.95 for the portable "to go" service, Rhapsody is at the high end of the monthly subscription price range, although its per-tune price of 89 cents and CD costs of under $9 are in the middle of the pack. Overall, though, Rhapsody arguably offers the best balance of software and service capabilities.
Virgin Digital is an appealing subscription music option, combining some of the best features from its competitors at the lowest subscription price in the group.
More than the others, this is a service for music lovers. Besides the usual biographies and album reviews, which all services provide, Virgin Digital is the only service that also provides album credits, such as the names of musicians that play on a particular track or CD. This is the sort of information that people who are really into music often want to know, but which has become harder to come by in the world of digital downloads.
Similarly, Virgin Digital supports user reviews. Like the other services, when looking at a page showing the work of an artist or a CD, there are links to take you to similar artists or CDs. However, a small but fun addition to each list is a "Surprise Me" link that takes you to a seemingly random artist. Oddly for a fan-friendly site, the service does not sort music into subgenres, which makes cruising for new music more difficult.
There are a few more innovations in the interface. Most notably, on each album or artist page, there is a button called, not surprisingly, "The Button." Click on this button and a menu appears with options to play a stream of music from the artist or the genre, or to auto-load as many as 100 tracks either by that artist or from the artist's genre. More specifically, auto-load provides a very easy-to-understand dialog box for downloading the music either directly to your PC or to both the PC and your media player. One word of caution, however: Downloading 100 tracks could tie up even a fast Internet connection and fill up your hard disk or media player.
Virgin Digital's selection of downloadable music was not quite as good as Rhapsody's. However, as stated previously, this should be a temporary situation, since the services ultimately are expected to sign up the same artists.
At $7.99 per month for both PC and "to go" downloads, Virgin Digital has the least expensive monthly subscription fee. CD prices for subscribers are, typically, $8.49, which is less expensive than services like iTunes or AOL Music Now. However, individual tracks are 99 cents, which is the same as the higher-priced services.
Overall, Virgin Digital is a solid service made more attractive by its fan-friendly features and low price.
Yahoo! Music Unlimited
Yahoo! Music Unlimited's software is a bit buggy and its selection of downloadable music falls slightly behind some of its competitors. However, its low price combined with the fact that it is close to its competitors in terms of quality and quantity make it worth a serious look, particularly by those on tight budgets.
The Yahoo! Music Engine software has a clean interface that offers easy navigation. This is three-pane software: The left pane lists your destinations, such as your music library or the service itself; the middle pane displays what you selected in the left pane; and the right pane is where you can drag music to burn CDs, create playlists, or queue songs to transfer to your device.
At any point in the software, such as the library of already-downloaded music or the service itself, there are generous numbers of links to logical locations. For instance, a song in your library will offer links to the artist's main page, to the page for the CD on which the song is found, and even to the hard drive subdirectory in which the song is stored. The software also provides the cleanest interface for managing my Creative Zen Touch MP3 player, letting me sort by genre, album, and artist. In fact, it did a better of job of managing the Zen Touch than Creative's own software.
In The Freeze
There were also several smaller annoyances. For instance, when viewing the library of downloaded songs, if I changed a single bit of information about a CD or individual song, such as its genre, I was sent back to the top of the list of all music. To continue working with that artist or song, I had to re-scroll down the entire list. Similarly, any time I dragged music to the right pane, it started playing, even if my intention was to transfer it to my music player or to burn a CD.
Yahoo! Music Unlimited's selection of music is pretty good but not stellar. It was almost as good as Napster but never quite equaled either that service or Rhapsody, which consistently had the largest selection. On the plus side, a plug-in for the Music Engine is now available for podcasts, a capability missing from all the other subscription services.
Where Yahoo! Music Unlimited really shines is its price. It charges $5 a month for a PC-only subscription and $9.99 for a "to go" subscription. The "to go" subscription price is a couple of bucks more than Virgin's and its PC-only price is a couple of bucks less. Subscribers who want to buy music will also find the lowest pricing, at 79 cents per tune and a typical price of under $8 for full CDs.
That makes Yahoo! Music Unlimited an attractive choice, even if its selection is a small notch below Rhapsody's and Napster's, and its software, while vastly improved, still needs some work.
In the end, all the music services offer different mixes of price, convenience, and software, and each has something to recommend it. If you own an iPod, your choice is simple: iTunes is the only service that works directly with your music player. Plus, it's the only service that offers a wide variety of other types of media, including video, audio books and podcasts. What it doesn't offer, however, is a subscription service.
If you prefer to pay monthly for an all-you-can-hear service and have a media player that supports it, then you have several choices. Napster has a strong selection but its software isn't as easy to use or as reliable as some of its competitors, and it's priced at the high end of the range. Yahoo! Music Unlimited has decent selection and a low price, particularly when buying individual tracks and CDs, but its software, while newly updated, still needs work.
If you prefer Web access to standalone software, AOL MusicNow, with its reasonably strong selection of music and easy interface, is not only the best choice –- it's the only choice. The budget conscious -– and serious music fans -– will find Virgin Digital an excellent choice, with its low monthly fee and nice touches such as user reviews and liner notes for CDs.
Overall, though, Rhapsody is the best choice. It has the strongest selection and its software is the easiest to use, although its subscription fee is at the high end.