Napster's online service features a new area called Narchive (the worst name to come out of a committee in some time), a user-created music encyclopedia with live links to songs. Still in beta as of this writing, it's an interesting attempt to bring some Web 2.0 user-created content into a music store, and we'll be curious to see if it takes off. Entries are currently slight. Users can create new entries or add comments or pictures to existing ones. Also new are NapsterLinks, which let people insert links to songs in their e-mails, instant messages, Web pages, and even wikis, by automatically generating the right code for each. You get the code by clicking the Share It icon on an album page or by doing a search from the NapsterLinks tab. Napster gives you the option of joining an affiliate network to make money (5 percent) from purchases that go through your links. Rhapsody has similar links, but they're not formatted for different uses, so they're not as simple to insert. Rhapsody also doesn't offer an affiliate plan, but on the plus side, users don't need to create a free account to listen to songs from a Rhapsody link.
For song purchases and downloads, you'll need the Napster client. Recent updates include new editorial content such as tributes to music legends and opinionated blogs written by musicians, journalists, and other industry personalities. Although the Napster service includes artist biographies, it may take a few clicks to get to them, depending on what screen you're on. Rhapsody has the right idea by putting artist bios front and center.
Personalization is the key to Napster. One of the most visible new features on the client's home page is Playlist of the Day. Napster creates this tailored list based on a combination of members' individual listening habits, music libraries, and professional musicologist recommendations. We were very impressed by this feature. We listen to a lot of jazz, so it was no surprise to see a playlist filled with contemporary jazz artists. But you're not tied down to a single playlist--you can click the Show Me Another link to view additional lists. After a few clicks, we got a list of the type of low-key moody-pop singers we favor: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and the like. Yes, there was some familiar material on these lists, but much of it was new to us, so it's a great way to explore new artists. Subscribers can download the Playlist of the Day and transfer it to a compatible device by clicking the Take to Go button or simply play it as a stream on their PC. This isn't to be confused with the Playlist to Go feature, which is a predetermined mix of tunes based on theme or genre.
In another new feature, Napster automatically creates a playlist of the last 200 songs you played, and the Napster home page now displays the last three radio stations you selected. In a nod to Yahoo Music Engine, tracks are now encoded at 192Kbps, up from 128Kbps. All files are in WMA DRM format.
One of the highlights of Napster's content are the radio stations, which are really massive streaming compilations (most can be downloaded in their entirety if you're a subscriber) that have been preselected, though you can have Napster create custom stations based on criteria such as the contents of your music library. The available compilations are fantastic, and we like that you can skip tracks while listening to radio streams. We definitely appreciate the improved bit rate of streaming audio (192Kbps) and the fact that you can save radio stations as playlists, as well as easily purchase the tracks you like the most.
One personalization option that needs serious tuning is the feature that lets you explore other members' collections by genre. The way this works, however, is that if a member has just one song tagged to a particular genre amid a large collection, the member will show up in your search. In our jazz search, there were a lot of Twista and Kanye West songs to wade through before finding a handful of Duke Ellington tunes. The Now Streaming feature, also searchable by genre, similarly features some interesting associations. Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" appears in several jazz subcategories, and though we have nothing personal against Alicia Keys, we'd be hard-pressed to call her a blues musician.
Napster integrates with WMP 10, where you can view all your Napster content by purchased or downloaded tracks. Unlike WMP or Musicmatch, however, Napster's library still doesn't monitor your music folder to automatically add new tracks created in other programs. You can play purchased tracks or use your subscription on three PCs; in contrast, the iTunes Music Store lets you play songs on up to three networked Macs and PCs. To deauthorize a PC, simply call up the Manage My PCs option under the My Account pull-down menu.
In our testing, Napster's new online streaming worked well on Windows computers, and the 32Kbps streaming rate didn't bother us. Sure, music didn't sound as rich as on a CD, but it was at least as good as FM radio. On a Mac, though, we uncovered serious performance issues, which the company acknowledged. The pop-up music player window works fine on Macs for the first song or two, but the controls inevitably freeze, and users can't adjust the volume, pause playback, or skip ahead or back in the playlist. That's not all: online streaming doesn't work with Safari or Internet Explorer on Macs, so you're limited to Firefox. Safari support is coming eventually, we were told.
Testing the Napster client's speed by transferring tracks to a portable device, we found it to hold a respectable middle ground between our winners, Yahoo Music Unlimited and Rhapsody, and the slowpoke of the bunch, Virgin Digital. For more numbers, see our subscription music guide. Song downloads began almost immediately, and even though streaming playlists were delayed by a few seconds, it wasn't excessive. Streaming tracks sounded as clear as ever, comparable with the quality you get from Rhapsody.
You can burn any number of purchased or imported tracks to CD using Roxio's popular engine, which is integrated into the software. In our tests, burning was fast and worked flawlessly. We'd still love to see the line-in encoding feature standard on most jukeboxes.
The Napster client offers built-in support and documentation, which consists of well-written FAQs and a detailed user guide. If you have a specific query that's not answered by either, you can fill out and submit an online help form. E-mail support is available 24 hours, seven days a week. We sent a query from an anonymous e-mail and received a response in three days--not exactly the speed we were hoping for, but luckily, most of our questions were addressed by the aforementioned guide and FAQs page.