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Australian music download services compared

If you're keen to boost your music collection without stepping away from the glow of your monitor, our quick guide to Australian download services will give you all the info you need.

(Credit: CNET.com)

If you're keen to boost your music collection without stepping away from the glow of your monitor, our quick guide to Australian download services will give you all the info you need.

The digital music landscape has undergone substantial shifts in the past two years. The main trend is the gradual relaxation of digital rights management, or DRM. Song files protected with DRM have an extra bit of data attached to them that restricts where and when they can be played. A year ago, you'd be hard pressed finding DRM-free tracks for legal download, but several big-name retailers now offer songs in unprotected formats.

Last year saw the introduction of subscription and streaming, with mixed results. Australians have previously been limited to per-track or per-album purchasing, but we received a local subscription-based service when the long-promised Microsoft-Sanity venture, LoadIt, finally arrived in August. Five months later, Sanity announced that the service would cease operations at the beginning of 2009. At least they tried.

Nokia's music store, which launched in April 2008, brought streaming into the mix for a monthly fee. September 2008 saw the introduction of MusicStation, a subscription service offered only on Vodafone mobiles. With the influx of these new services came the demise of older ones — Destra-powered stores such as JB Hi-Fi Music, Channel Go and Chaos Music quietly vanished into the digital ether.

In January 2009, Nokia added to its music store a music download model called Comes With Music. Compatible phones are bundled with an activation code that gives users unlimited downloads from the Nokia music store for a year.

Format traps

Digital music is offered in three main formats online: WMA (DRM), MP3 and AAC.

All portable devices are compatible with MP3 files. Tracks in this format don't contain any software that restricts usage, but copying songs and handing them out to friends is still illegal. If you have an iPod, you'll need to purchase music from the iTunes Store or look for songs in MP3 format at other stores. Non-Apple players will generally handle WMA (DRM) files as well as MP3s. Some also play unprotected AAC files, which can be bought from iTunes in the iTunes Plus section.

Regardless of what player you own, it pays to do some spec checking before loading up your digital shopping cart — a browse through the manual will tell you what files you can buy.

Below is a basic run-down of five Australian-based music download services. If you have any rants or raves about these stores or any others, sound off in the comments below.

Apple iTunes Store

iTunes is the dominant force in downloads, and with good reason — the store is very well organised and allows users to browse by genre, read user reviews and playlists and get recommendations courtesy of the Genius feature.

Format: 128Kbps protected AAC. iTunes Plus tracks are 256Kbps non-protected AAC. Note that you can also update iTunes tracks purchased in the DRM-riddled AAC format to iTunes Plus for a small fee.

Prices: $1.69 per track, albums typically $16.99.

Requirements: iTunes software. Protected AAC files will only work on players in the iPod family.

Usage restrictions: protected AAC tracks can be played on up to five PCs, single songs can be burnt to CD or copied to iPod an unlimited number of times. iTunes Plus tracks are unrestricted.

Bandit.fm

Bandit.fm is a new venture from Sony Music providing DRM-free music and video downloads. Like other label-run sites, the selection is limited to more mainstream artists, though it's not like Musichead MP3 (below) which only offers downloads from within the label's own roster — Bandit extends to many of the other majors as well. Prices do fluctuate though depending on the label, so be sure to check before purchasing.

Format: 320Kbps MP3.

Prices: $1.65 per track, albums typically $16.99.

Requirements: any web browser; any media player.

Usage restrictions: none.

BigPond Music

In addition to standard WMA (DRM) and MP3 tracks, Telstra's song service provides "dual downloads", meaning you pay $2.99 to get one song in two formats — one for your PC/MP3 player and one for your mobile phone. BigPond customers enjoy cheaper prices and the ability to charge downloads to their internet account.

Format: 192Kbps WMA (DRM) and 320Kbps MP3.

Prices: $0.99-$1.69 per track, albums typically $16.50. BigPond customers get a discount.

Requirements: Windows Media Player for playing WMA (DRM) files.

Usage restrictions: WMA (DRM) tracks can be copied to two portable devices and burnt to CD three times. MP3s are unrestricted.

EMI Musichead MP3

Musichead MP3 is provided by label EMI and digital media company 7digital. The catalogue is therefore limited to artists signed to EMI and its subsidiaries, but there are some big names on the bill including, Coldplay, Radiohead, Norah Jones and the Chemical Brothers.

Format: 320Kbps MP3.

Prices: $1.69 per track, albums typically $16.99.

Requirements: any web browser; any media player.

Usage restrictions: none.

Nokia Music store

Nokia offers streaming for a monthly fee, as well as selling songs by the track and album. It's also compatible with the company's Comes With Music service. Like iTunes, you'll need to download the dedicated Nokia software to use the service. The lack of support for non-IE browsers is a big minus, though. Read our full review for more details.

Format: 128-192Kbps WMA (DRM).

Prices: $1.70 per track, albums typically $17. The store also offers unlimited streaming of songs to your PC for $10 per month.

Requirements: Windows XP or Vista; Internet Explorer 6 or above; Windows Media Player 11.

Usage restrictions: depends on the music label. To check, click "Rights & Information" next to the track. Most songs can be transferred to a portable device an unlimited amount of times, and burned to CD 10 times. Streaming music cannot be recorded or transferred.