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Editors' note: Napster's service details and rates have changed significantly since this review was posted. For more information, please read the updated article at the MP3 Insider blog.
Napster has twice revolutionized music downloading: first infamously by facilitating illegal downloads, then by popularizing the notion of "renting" music through its Napster To Go subscription plan. Now it's again offering free music but this time with a catch that makes it legal. Registered users can stream almost any song in the catalog five times with the new browser interface, although those songs can't be downloaded and are encoded at a low bit rate. The full Napster client, however, offers a fully featured music shopping experience with loads of custom recommendations, community features, and experienced editorial content. Bargain shoppers will still gravitate toward Virgin Digital and Yahoo Music Unlimited, which edge out Napster on price. But if it's an all-encompassing digital music shopping experience you're after, Napster's tough to beat.
The new online service, found at Napster.com, is well arranged and offers quick access to new releases, personal recommendations, music genres, and editor-created playlists. It's organized with a tabbed interface that lets you access the new Narchive and NapsterLinks sections, as well. The Narchive is a music encyclopedia wiki, with users doing most of the writing. It had barely begun at the time of this writing but showed promise. NapsterLinks are Web URLs to songs or albums that users can insert in their Web pages (see Features for more info). Clicking one lets registered users listen to that song free online. Navigating and using the online components is pleasantly simple.
As for the Napster client, the first thing you'll notice is a more streamlined home page than with previous versions. The look is designed to make it easier to find music--a novel idea, indeed. The search bar is still on top, but now it sits square in the middle of each page instead of the top-right corner. As with Napster 3.0, you can search for music by artist name, album, or track; you can also search for a particular Napster member or search purely in your library. Next to the search bar is a Browse Music drop-down menu, where you can search through Billboard charts or independent label content, or just browse by genre. Tucked in the upper-right corner is a button for accessing your music library. Gone are the tabs from the 3.0 version; instead, you get drop-down lists for features, radio, playlists, community, and extra options. In all, it has a less cluttered look and feel than the previous version--a welcome improvement.
The playlist column is always present on the right side of the screen and displays currently playing tracks, whether from your library or streamed from the Napster service. When you connect a Napster To Go-compatible device (one labeled PlaysForSure that uses Microsoft's Janus protocol), you get a small picture of the player in a box on the bottom-right corner, just beneath the playlist column. The player also shows up in your library as a folder. As with the previous version, you simply drag and drop songs to the box, which then displays the transfer status as a percentage. But what we like best about this transfer method is that you can continue to drag tracks into the box while music is transferring, and they'll be added to the queue. Virgin Digital offers this feature, but Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited do not. You can use the latest version of Windows Media Player to transfer tracks purchased or downloaded from Napster.
The Napster client (currently version 3.6) runs only on Windows 2000 and XP. If you want a Napster To Go subscription, you'll need WMP 10 (XP only). Even if you don't, it's recommended to help speed streaming quality and rebuffering time. Subscribers can play their tracks on two portable devices and three computers with each Napster To Go account. If you want to connect an additional device, you must drop an existing one from the partner list.
Since Napster introduced its to-go service, with which you can download subscription tracks to compatible digital music players, Rhapsody, Yahoo, and Virgin Digital have all unveiled similar plans (and don't forgot AOL Music Now, currently in preview). Virgin Digital is the cheapest at $7.99 per month with no commitment, and Yahoo Music Unlimited follows at $11.99 per month. Napster, Rhapsody, and AOL Music Now all charge $14.95 a month to take your tracks to go. For all-you-can-eat tethered downloads (which can't be transferred or burned), Napster costs $9.99 per month. If you're new to subscription plans, be aware that downloaded tracks expire once you discontinue the subscription. To find out which MP3 players are compatible with Napster, use our music compatibility wizard.Music is free on Napster once again--sort of. Napster's new online service lets people create free accounts that can stream almost any title from Napster's catalog of more than 2 million songs (among online music stores, Napster and Apple's iTunes Music Store have the largest catalogs). If a track is available for subscription, it's available for free streaming. There are a few catches, though: free users can stream a song only five times, tracks are encoded at a low 32Kbps, and users need to endure ads after every third track.
The online service is nice perk, since it lets you sample new music and works with any computer, but it's not perfect. We wish it had a playlist feature, so users could build and save song lists. That would be especially helpful for subscribers, who aren't bound by the five-stream limit. AOL Music Now is browser based and lets users save playlists, but the browser version of Rhapsody hasn't learned the trick either. We also wish that users could add songs to the now playing list. Currently, when listening to an album, you need to finish listening to the tracks before you can select more songs, otherwise those new choices will simply replace the existing ones.
Rhapsody is the only other service with a free online option, but its plan is a bit different. Rhapsody lets free users listen to 25 tracks each month, so it's more limited, but there are no ads between songs, and tracks are encoded at 128Kbps. We say don't choose--get an account with each.
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.