Napster-to-go versus iPod: A Homespun Review

Nap­ster may carve a niche among peo­ple who don't mind NOT own­ing their music, but for the rest of us it's cur­rently akin to "look what the cat brought in".

Apple's iTunes online music down­load ser­vice is the trail­blazer that has spawned a whole indus­try of cheap imi­ta­tions. There's yet another chal­lenger now, Nap­ster's new Napster-to-go ser­vice which promises a new twist on dig­i­tal music offerings.

Main point of difference:

iTunes: You pay 99 cents to BUY a song.

Napster-to-go: You pay a monthly fee ($14.95 as of this writ­ing) to RENT unlim­ited songs, but if you want to BUY, the charges are sim­i­lar to iTunes.

Ok, the background

With iPod, when you pass that first-round rig­ma­role of miss­ing USB 2.0 because your lap­top is a month older than the tech­nol­ogy, every­thing is smooth sail­ing (ok, an occa­sional idio­syn­chracy). You search, you pre­view and taste your music from a huge com­pendium, and iTunes is every­thing it is toted to be. Not the fastest when you have 3000 songs and upward but it's a great organizer.

For some time now, other online ser­vices like Real's Rhap­sody or Yahoo's Music­match have offered some fee­ble chal­lenges to iPod with sub­scrip­tion based ser­vices that allowed unlim­ited down­loads to a PC, but not a portable player, for a monthly fee.

What's new about Napster-to-go is porta­bil­ity. It allows these songs to be copied to com­pat­i­ble portable play­ers, lead­ing iPod alter­na­tives like Cre­ative Labs' Nomad, iRiver (review), and Dell Juke­box. That makes the ser­vice a stronger com­peti­tor to Apple's iTunes and iPod combination.

So, scam­per­ing to get Napster…

So I down­loaded Napster's lat­est offer­ing with a mix of enthu­si­asm to see if Win­dows has a chal­lenger of its own (Sony has dis­ap­pointed me consistently).

The Nap­ster down­load and the instal­la­tion were nim­ble, shy of 5 min­utes in all. Unfor­tu­nately, after lib­er­ally squirt­ing my reg­istry with class IDs the soft­ware con­fesses that triv­ial fineprint: US-only. Gee thanks, would've been great if I'd known this before down­load­ing (geolo­ca­tion doesn't need PhDs any­more) or at least before installing and squirt­ing all over my registry!

It irri­tated the heck out of me, but this review is based on some fid­dling around in a hotel room on a recent Boston trip.

…Only to dis­cover Nap­ster sucks rocks

  1. Let's begin with the inter­face. It's clunky. You can't see the sta­tus of down­loads or of song trans­fers to a portable player with­out switch­ing to a sep­a­rate window.
  2. Search­ing for music, and cre­at­ing playlists, is more awk­ward than in iTunes.
  3. It's also sig­nif­i­cantly slower than iTunes. (Dis­clo­sure: Pen­tium 4 mobile 2.00 ghz chip, 1 GB of RAM).
  4. Many songs (usu­ally one from each album) aren't avail­able unless you pay extra and the down­load­ing is slow.
  5. Actu­ally, it gets worse. Not all songs can be rented. Some can only be pur­chased. Oth­ers can only be rented, and not pur­chased. Why keep it straightforward?
  6. One huge down­side to the Nap­ster approach. Stop pay­ing your monthly fee, and all your music vamooses. Even exist­ing song files will become inert and unplayable unless Nap­ster is able to ver­ify that you con­tinue to be a sub­scriber in good stand­ing. In fact you have to log onto the ser­vice with a PC at least once a month and plug in your portable player so that Nap­ster can ver­ify your paid sta­tus. If you ever halt the monthly pay­ments, how­ever high they may go in the future, you're basi­cally screwed.
  7. If you want to keep a song per­ma­nently like in the iPod camp you have to pay the same 99 cents a track Apple charges, on top of your $14.95 monthly fee. (Although Nap­ster will sell you bulk cred­its for buy­ing songs per­ma­nently that can lower the cost to around 79 cents a track.)
  8. Down­loaded songs can be stored only on up to three com­put­ers, not the five machines Apple allows.
  9. Each PC can copy music to only three portable play­ers, not the unlim­ited num­ber in Apple's sys­tem. You can't burn rented songs to a CD; you have to first buy them for 99 cents.
  10. Also, when trans­fer­ing songs to the iRiver player, glitches abound. Sev­eral times the trans­fer process choked, and I had to quit and start over. In one case, I received a mys­ti­fy­ing error mes­sage that read: "I/O oper­a­tion has been aborted because of either a thread exit or an appli­ca­tion request."

What's nice about Napster

  1. It can syn­chro­nize your down­loaded music among sev­eral com­put­ers, so they all have the same songs.
  2. But no, that's a minor ben­e­fit. The real (poten­tial) ben­e­fit is that buy­ing a lot of music from iTunes can be an expen­sive affair (3000 bucks for 3000 num­bers). With Nap­ster, you can sam­ple music for a while and if it jades out, just get rid of it.

If that works for you, and if you're in the US (or the UK?) give it a try. I'm hap­pier being with iTunes which allows me to sam­ple my music before down­load­ing too (as does Amazon.com on each prod­uct page.)

  • John

    Another ben­e­fit to Nap­ster is that you can redown­load music that you lost for free, where as if you lose it with itunes, your screwed, and you have to buy it again. For any­one out there who wipes there hard drive fre­quently and doesn't want to burn a bunch of cd's, Nap­ster is a good idea.

  • David

    I am about to get Nap­ster. I don't have a portable MP3 player but I also don't have a credit card avail­able so I am going to over pay a bit for the 3 month To Go sub­scrip­tion card but it's still a great deal.

    I LOVE the idea of RENTING music!

    It's the BEST LEGAL and most cost effec­tive way to down­load new and old music with out cough­ing up a buck a song so I can own it.

    I don't like iPOD or apple and no amount of nay sayer's will change my mind. If you want to BUY your music than just DO IT and pipe down!

  • Mark W

    How do you remove the songs, if you decide to no longer sup­port Nap­ster to Go?

  • Daniel

    I've been using the Nap­ster to Go ser­vice for about 6 months and as far as I'm con­cernd this model is the future.

    Things must have changed since this review was writ­ten because I have never found a track that's excluded from this rental ser­vice and the process is smooth and pain­less. See an album you like? Click "trans­fer to portable device" and it down­loads and trans­fers it with no fur­ther inter­ven­tion required. And noth­ing to pay.

    You need to use your imag­i­na­tion to realise how fan­tas­tic this model is: Imag­ine if I told you I'd give you the top 20 albums every week? Imag­ine if I told you I'd give you the top 40 sin­gles for every year for the last 20 years? Sub­scribe to Nap­ster to Go and you get exactly that, or any other com­bi­na­tion you care to think of.
    I have wired my 20GB player into my car, and I have a cable for plug­ging it into my home hi-fi. So I can lis­ten to any music any time and never buy a CD or pay for a track download.

    I find it hard to believe that peo­ple are still buy­ing music. This is the future peo­ple, and it's fantastic.