Music Download Services Compared (2)

Music Download Services Compared

By Chris Nickson

Online music has come a long way since the days when Napster and Kazaa and other file-sharing networks were the Robin Hoods of cyberspace. There are still plenty of peer-to-peer sites out there to swap the tracks you have (just witness the actions of the RIAA taking people to court), but since Apple turned the iPod into a necessary fashion accessory, online music has taken a right turn into respectability and become a multi-billion dollar industry

For several years record labels had been trying to combat the online pirates – as they saw them – who exchanged music without buying it or paying royalties, but in 2001 a single device, and the software to go with it, suddenly made legal digital music a desirable commodity, just as broadband began to take off.

To be fair, Apple did a superb job with the iPod and iTunes by making it easy for people. And, by making the software proprietary, they made it a lot harder for the competition; what you downloaded from iTunes wouldn't play elsewhere. That certainly didn't stop the dominance of iTunes, which in just four years has developed a staggering lead in a huge growth industry. As of September 2005 they'd sold 500 million songs worldwide.

In the wake of all this, online music services have proliferated like mushrooms after a week of rain. Some, like Real Player's Rhapsody, have been around quite a while. Napspter itself, having undergone a Lazarus resurrection after being declared dead, has been reborn as a legal pay service. Most of the major labels, both on their own and in partnerships with multiple services, have entered the fray, which is proving profitable as sales of CDs continue to gradually decline as digital downloads increase. Yahoo and Micrsoft are all attempting to use their online muscle to become serious players, while major UK retail chains HMV and Virgin want to be a force both on terra firma and on the Web. And well they might; digital platforms are en route to becoming more popular than CDs; according to Napster UK, fully one-fifth of their 750,000 members no longer buy CDs, preferring to download their music, a trend that's being echoed worldwide as an entire generation grows up obtaining its music from the Internet.

However, all of that means the consumer is presented with a dazzling multiplicity of choices. Where do you go to find the music you want? Which is the best service? They all offer dazzling numbers of tracks – 900,000, a million – that stagger and scare the imagination. Finding your way through can be more than a little daunting.

The simple truth is, in many cases there's not a great deal to choose between them. Those massive music libraries are largely duplicated from service to service. So the criteria become something different. Do you want to keep the music you get? What can you do with it – can you store it on multiple computers, burn it onto CD, transfer it to a portable device? How easy is it to use the interface? And, for those whose tastes lie outside the mainstream, which services offer the best depth and broadest selection of music? Read on as we explain each music service so you know which one fits your needs.

Apple iTunes

There's a decided irony in the fact that Apple's iTunes is one of the best and also the most frustrating services. With a thoughtful selection and depth, pretty much across the range of music, it offers one of the comprehensive you'll find online, and the software, which acts like a web browser, is easy to download and use, with a fair, if not perfect, search function. You can download music on up to five computers and burn it to CD (but only up to seven times per playlist, which is also true for most other services) for 99 cents a track, pretty much standard pricing, and you can stream music around your LAN – handy if you have an office of music lovers. The big downside about iTunes, of course, is that its proprietary Fair Play DRM, isn't compatible with other systems. What does that mean in real terms? Basically, if you download a track from iTunes, it will only play on a computer in iTunes (and on an iPod), not on mp3 or Windows Media (once you've burned a CD you could then rip it onto WMA or mp3 – but that's ridiculously unwieldy). However, this might change as Real Networks Harmony service incorporates playback support for material that's been Fair Play encoded. But the final results of that move – legal and otherwise – remain to be seen.

The Lowdown:

Site -

Price - $0.99/song; $9.99/most albums

Service Type – Download Only


Napster, which was bought by Roxio, has gone to great, and expensive, lengths to re-establish itself. But as many have noted, all it has in common with the original Napster is the name. This time, nothing is free. You can purchase a track and burn it to CD for the usual 99 cents. But more interesting, at least for those who don't feel the need to own music, are Napster's subscription services. For $9.95 a month you can stream tracks to your PC, with access to virtually the entire Napster catalogue – which is quite a large beast. You don't own the music, however, and if you cancel your subscription, all the tracks you've downloaded disappear. But for most people who aren't diehard music aficionados, that's fine; music is a disposable commodity, anyway. Top of the range is the premium Napster to Go. At $14.95 a month it's relatively expensive (although actually about the cost of a single CD), but it allows you to fill your portable device with about 80 hours' worth of music from their catalogue. Again, you don't own it, but you can send tracks back and replace them with others, offering a revolving mix – all it takes is the time you spend selecting and downloading (which is accomplished by a fairly straightforward drag-and-drop), not too much of a chore for those who really love their portables, and the interface is relatively easy to use. As to the music on offer, the range isn't not quite as good as iTunes, but still full of surprises as long as your tastes don't veer too far from the norm. However, that's almost a universal; if you stray too far into, say, world music, obscure jazz and folk or avant-garde, you'll find yourself frustrated almost everywhere, because these services are understandably aimed at the main market, not the tiny niches.

The Lowdown:

Site -

Price - $0.99/song; $9.95/album

Service Type – Download; streamable music; To Go service lets you put your music on MP3 players for a monthly fee

Real Networks Rhapsody

Real Networks has been one of the pioneers of online audio with its Real Player, and it's attempting to push back boundaries with its Rhapsody service, which has been bedded in for a couple of years now. Like Napster, it offers $9.95 and $14.95 options of streamed music (although Harmony streams at 160 kbps, rather than Napster's 128 kbps, giving better sound), and downloads to keep and burn at 99 cents each. So what makes Rhapsody special? An excellent catalogue with more depth and breadth than most helps, as well as an easy to navigate search facility. But the real trick up Harmony's sleeve is its digital rights management (DRM) technology, which allows it to support virtually every kind of mp3 player – including the iPod, which has given Apple conniption fits – and their lawyers a lot of money. With the right judgments, Harmony could become the cross-platform service of choice.

The Lowdown:

Site -

Price - $0.99/song; $14.99/mo

Service Type – Download Only; streamable music