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Napster MP3 store: great selection, bad interface

Napster launched its Web-based MP3 download store, and while the 6 million available songs are promising, the company still needs a bit of help designing user interfaces.

Napster launched its Web-based MP3 download store yesterday, and it seems to be the latest digital music whipping boy, with negative reviews in several places.

Let me start with the positives. Napster claims the store has 6 million tracks, which is 50% larger than any other MP3 store out there. They do have a single download of "The Promise" by When in Rome, an obscure 1980s single my wife loves but that iTunes will only let you buy as part of the full Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack. I'm sorry, Apple, but I won't pay more than $0.99 to get that song.

Two album results...but we won't show them to you. Screenshot

And of course it must be mentioned that every song on Napster's MP3 store is DRM-free, meaning it can be transferred to an unlimited number of computers and devices and will play in just about every music software program known to humankind.

But I'm afraid that Napster still falls short in interface design--a longtime complaint I've had with the company.

Oddly, the Napster home page still features the subscription service far more prominently than the MP3 store, even though the store launched today and will presumably be attracting a lot of onlookers.

When you do find the store, you'll probably recognize it: it looks an awful lot like iTunes rendered within a browser. Which would be fine if it worked as well as iTunes. Unfortunately, there are a few gaps. First, if you have Firefox pop-up blocking enabled, you have to turn it off. Second, when you get a list of search results, they seem to be listed in a random order, making it hard to find a particular item. (Perhaps they're listed by popularity? It doesn't say.) You can arrange them alphabetically, but it takes some hunting and clicking--some of the headers are clickable, some aren't.

Then, there are just some general bugs. For example, when I searched for the new Nick Cave album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig, I got a green bar showing me that two album results were available...but the screen for the results was strangely blank. (See the screenshot.) Huh? Another glitch: when I conducted a new search, sometimes it ignored the changed search terms and re-ran the previous search.

I also ran into the "this MP3 is not available" debacle that this Ars Technica reviewer describes--in this case, it was for a Pink Floyd album I was particularly excited about downloading, an obscure 2005 re-release of two songs from a 1968 movie called Tonight Let's All Make Love in London. But although the album showed up in my search results with a little "MP3" tag next to them, the MP3s aren't actually available for purchase. Insane.