Apparently tired of offering deals on iRiver and Creative MP3 players in exchange for a one-year subscription commitment, Napster has decided to get into the hardware game itself. The company recently started offering two Napster-branded devices to those who sign up for a year subscription to its Napster To Go service ($179.40/year). You can either get a 256MB player thrown in for free or opt to shell out an additional $50 for four times the storage and get the DMPJ-250C 1GB player instead. We recommend the latter because, really, who can get by on only 256MB of music nowadays?
The Napster DMPJ-250C's design is rather Nano-esque, though with a bigger screen (1.7-inch diagonal) and a thicker profile (3 by 1.5 by 0.5 inches). Below the screen is a circular four-way directional pad flanked by two small buttons: menu and play/pause/power. A dedicated volume rocker sits on the left spine of the device, while a hold switch adorns the other. On the bottom, a mini-USB port and reset hole are covered by a flimsy rubber cover. Overall, the design is nothing special, but it's small and light--certainly pocketable--and it's fairly easy to use, though shuttling between different submenus and the main menu can be unintuitive at times. (Sometimes the back button gets you to the top menu, sometimes you must press and hold the menu button, and sometimes you have to hit the menu button, then click back.) The Napster player is certainly no plastic giveaway like its 256MB cousin--the company could probably sell it on its own for at least $100. That said, it would have some stiff competition from the likes of the Creative Zen V Plus and the iRiver Clix, both of which are better players overall.
Transferring songs to the DMPJ-250C is a simple affair. Under the settings menu, you can select either MTP or Mass Storage mode. The former allows you to use the player within Windows Media Player (WMP)--or Napster, of course--while the latter lets you drag and drop files via Windows Explorer. The player supports MP3 and both protected and unprotected WMA, but note that you must use MTP mode to transfer protected content. Also, the player apparently does not support other on-the-go subscription services: we tried transferring tunes from Urge, to no avail. It worked flawlessly with Napster, though. Once your music is on the device, songs are arranged into the usual subcategories: artists, albums, tracks, genres, and playlists. You also get a Play All Tracks option in the library submenu.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that Napster has included a fair amount of extra features in the DMPJ-250C. The player includes an FM tuner with autoscan (though no presets), as well as photo (JPEG) and video (AVI/MPEG-4) playback. Photos looked small but bright on the color LCD, and you can view them while listening to music, though there's no slide-show mode. Unfortunately, although the DMPJ-250C purports to support album art, none of the tracks we transferred showed album art on the device, despite the fact that most of them had some attached. Due to its small size, we don't recommend viewing videos on the 1GB player's screen.
When something is offered as a free (or price-reduced) gift with purchase of something else, quality comes into question. In this case, it's the quality of the included earbuds. Replace them immediately. When the DMPJ-250C was attached to our Shure E4cs, it actually sounded quite good. Provided we selected the right EQ setting (there are six: normal, rock, pop, jazz, classical, and custom), we got tight, punchy bass. Choose the wrong one, however, and you get some seriously muffled and crunchy bass. The player also offered clear, warm-sounding music with decent--though not great--range and detail, and it gets plenty loud. CNET Labs proved an excellent 34.8 hour battery life, and FM reception was more than adequate. If you're thinking about a long-term Napster To Go subscription, definitely consider spending the extra $50 for the DMPJ-250C 1GB player; a comparable player, such as the 1GB Cowon iAudio U3, will cost more than twice that.