Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
Months before iTunes for Windows came out, upstart Buy.com copied Apple's winning approach to selling music à la carte--right down to mimicking its goofy ad campaign--and brought it to PCs. Sure, you can shop for tunes, and you have some say in how you use them, but pricing and usage inconsistencies mar the experience. Plus, the tracks won't sound quite as good as those you'll find through iTunes.
Users access BuyMusic through Internet Explorer 5.0 and higher, rather than via a dedicated application the way iTunes does; fortunately, browsing, searching, and purchasing are still mercifully easy. Unlike music subscription services, BuyMusic doesn't make you fork over any cash up front or even sign up in order to browse the catalog or search for music. You pay on a per-download basis, and there are no hidden costs for burning tunes.
Browsing for tunes is easy and addictive, but prices vary, so keep your eye on the bottom line.
Unlike Apple's 99-cents-per-track, $9.99-per-album guarantee, BuyMusic's pricing is inconsistent. And while the company advertises song prices starting from 79 cents, most of the tracks we wanted to download cost more than $1. Albums cost anywhere from $7.99 to a CD-like $15.98. And, despite its name, BuyMusic.com does not actually let you buy music; instead, tunes are "sublicensed" to you with certain usage rules. While you can play downloaded songs an unlimited number of times on the same PC, the tunes are tied to the computer used for the purchase. If you fry your hard drive, BuyMusic doesn't have to replace your purchased music. Apple restricts your rights similarly but allows more leeway. For example, with Apple's plan, you can store downloaded music on more than three Macs at one time, which lets you back up your collection on a second computer, among other things.
The situation with portable-device compatibility is even more troubling. Although BuyMusic claims that its secure WMA files can be transferred to select portable devices (the way iTunes Music Store customers can listen to purchased music using an iPod), the files we downloaded would not play on portables, even the Creative Zen NX, which BuyMusic recommends. Company representatives would not comment on the problem. On the plus side, starting in April 2004, BuyMusic will offer up to 10 free downloads to customers who purchase a Rio Karma, Nitrus, Cali, Chiba, or Fuse, so if you have one of these players, rest assured that you'll be able to listen to BuyMusic tracks.
You'll find a decent selection of music from all of the major labels (at the time of this writing, BuyMusic had cataloged more than 300,000 songs), but just like Apple's service, licensing difficulties prevent the inclusion of some big names. Apple secured uniform licenses with all of the labels, but BuyMusic must abide by each label's rules. Some songs can be burned to CD just once, while others can be burned an unlimited number of times.
While BuyMusic does a good job of making the process as seamless as possible, it still can't hold a candle to iTunes' ease of use. Plus, once you've downloaded your songs, they won't sound as good as what you'll find through iTunes; BuyMusic offers 128Kbps WMA files, rather than Apple's sweeter-sounding AACs. On the other hand, the service has improved considerably since we first tested it in July. Downloads are now lightning-fast, although their speed also depends on your connection. And while we could do without the extra download manager utility, at least it's not intrusive.
We give Buy.com props for breaking into the Windows market before Apple, but its service is hampered by some of the same usage-rules problems that plague subscription services. In other words, you may be able to find a great deal on a tune, but good luck keeping track of how you can use it.