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.
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
- 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.
- Searching for music, and creating playlists, is more awkward than in iTunes.
- It's also significantly slower than iTunes. (Disclosure: Pentium 4 mobile 2.00 ghz chip, 1 GB of RAM).
- Many songs (usually one from each album) aren't available unless you pay extra and the downloading is slow.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.)
- Downloaded songs can be stored only on up to three computers, not the five machines Apple allows.
- 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.
- 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
- It can synchronize your downloaded music among several computers, so they all have the same songs.
- 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.)