Editor's note: As of November 2007, Napster is now offering over-the-air song downloads. For $7.49 for five songs per month, or for $1.99 each, subscribers will be able to browse and purchase songs directly from the cell phone. Subscribers will then get two copies of the track; one will download to their handset and the others will download to their PC. Since we reviewed this service its name has been changed to AT&T Mobile Music.
05/09/2008: We've updated the review rating to reflect these changes.
Long after Verizon and Sprint launched their music download services, Cingular finally has released its own mobile music solution, aptly titled Cingular Music. As the first mobile music solution for GSM carriers, it's poised to take advantage of the carrier's expanding high-speed 3G data network. On the downside, only a few cell phones support this service so far and you must buy the Cingular Music Bundle to use the service. While Cingular's partner-focused approach seems like a smart move, you still have to download the songs to your PC and transfer them to your phone via USB. In the bundle are a stereo earbud headset, a USB cable, and a software CD. The Music Bundle costs $39.99.
Unlike its competitors, Cingular Music is not a music store from which you can download songs. Cingular Music instead acts as a kind of portal to different sources of music. From the main Cingular Music menu, you can select "Shop Music," which leads you to a browser page listing the various music stores available. Cingular has partnered up with existing online music subscription services such as Napster To Go, Yahoo Music, and eMusic to offer the consumer an incredibly wide music selection.
We can't help but applaud this model--instead of forcing the consumer to purchase exorbitantly priced songs (a track from Sprint's store is $2.50, while a song from V Cast Music is around $1.99), you can simply pay a flat monthly fee to the subscription service of your choice for an all-you-can-eat music experience--the Napster To Go subscription fee is $14.96 a month, while a Yahoo Music subscription is $11.99 a month. The Napster To Go model does include a new service called Napster Mobile, which lets you preview and buy songs from your phone for $0.99, which is still far cheaper than the other stores. It does not cost extra to download the songs from Yahoo Music, however. While Napster To Go and Yahoo Music are included in all phones, the eMusic content is specialized specifically for Cingular's aforementioned Sony Ericsson phones. Consumers who buy a Sony Ericsson Walkman phone from Cingular can get a free "in box" offer for up to 50 songs from eMusic. Music downloaded from Napster To Go and Yahoo Music is laced with Windows Media DRM, but the music from eMusic is DRM-free.
Unfortunately, there is a huge catch to this. Songs purchased or added from the phone cannot actually be downloaded over the air directly to the phone--you still have to download the song to your PC and then transfer it via a USB cable. For example, after we bought a song from Napster Mobile (you have to enter in your e-mail address and your phone number in the purchasing process), we received an e-mail that includes a URL link to download the song. So you can't even have the song waiting for you in your computer--you still have to click the URL link, which prompts the download. This is a pretty big flaw in the concept of mobile music, and we hope that Cingular Music adds over-the-air downloads in the future.