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.