Every debuting online music service brings something new to the party, and AOL Music Now is a strong choice for people who work at multiple Windows 2000 or XP PCs. The service is browser based and can remember your personal playlists, so hearing your favorite tunes is as easy as logging on. It's a neat trick that competitor Rhapsody, which also offers a browser-based option, hasn't yet learned.
Currently in preview, AOL Music Now offers à la carte track purchases, as well as tethered (for listening on a local machine only) and untethered downloads (for use with PlaysForSure portable players). For those keeping track, AOL bought Music Now in October 2005, and this is largely the same service. AOL will fold its existing service, AOL MusicNet, and bring the remaining customers into AOL Music Now. Pricing is at standard rates: 99 cents for most tracks; $9.95 per month for a tethered subscription; and $14.95 per month for a to-go subscription. Considering the competition, it surprises us that AOL isn't offering a more competitive pricing scheme. Virgin is currently the to-go price leader, at $7.99 per month with no commitment. All downloads from Music Now are 128Kbps WMA DRM files, whereas those from Rhapsody and Napster are 192Kbps.
To get the most out of the service, you'll want to spend a fair amount of time browsing and creating playlists of your favorite songs. If you're a subscriber, you can access those playlists from any Windows PC (the service doesn't work on Macs), which is pretty handy. AOL Music Now also offers personalized playlist and radio suggestions. The more you use the service, the more it learns your preferences.
The downside to this is that the store isn't very good at surfacing new content, and by learning users' tastes, it creates a hermetic environment in which users are surrounded only by music they like. The fun of using other stores, such as Apple iTunes or Virgin Digital, is that fresh editorial content and user feedback lead you to new and unexpected things.
AOL Music Now currently offers more than 2 million tracks, with content from all four majors and more than 100 indies; it feels light on indies when compared to the competition, especially Yahoo, which has deals with more than 40,000 indie labels and artists. It doesn't offer gift certificates, an allowance system, parental controls, podcasts, or audiobooks. Editorial content is barely there (it exists only in the form of hot lists), as are community features--you can browse a few users' playlists but only the few that are posted. The service offers more than 80 radio stations, but they're grouped under music-genre pages, not listed altogether on a radio page.
In our testing, searching was easy (the service is kind to misspellings), but browsing within a genre was difficult, since there's no way to see all artists in a genre. Making purchases and downloading subscription tracks required small software helpers, but that worked fine in our testing. The service uses Windows Media Player for downloaded tracks. Our only hassle was that downloaded tracks weren't automatically added to our WMP library.
We hope the browsing interface is a lot more developed by the time AOL Music Now launches in late June, as it's surprisingly bland right now. At the full launch, expect to see purchasable music videos and song sharing with AIM. If you'd like to give it a try, the service currently offers a 30-day trial, which is more generous than most. If you experience problems, AOL has a support link to an automated FAQs list and an e-mail form.