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Rhapsody 3.0 review: Rhapsody 3.0

Rhapsody 3.0

9 min read



Rhapsody 3.0

The Good

Attractive and intuitive interface with rich jukebox functionality; three-tier service, including free Rhapsody 25 and Rhapsody To Go; rich biographical information on artists; radio stations allow you to skip songs; lets you access your music from any Web-connected PC; seamless integration with some digital media receivers; nice playlist management features.

The Bad

Some initial bugginess with Rhapsody To Go transfer feature; no "smart" playlists; no autosync of subscription-based downloads.

The Bottom Line

A ton of new features, including Rhapsody To Go and full jukebox functionality, gives this elegant subscription service some fresh and very powerful legs.
Back in July 2002, Listen.com's Rhapsody inked deals with all five major record labels and more than 100 indies, beating the labels' own music services, MusicNet and Pressplay (subsequently absorbed by Napster), to the punch by several months. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Rhapsody is now owned by RealNetworks, and it's still going strong. It has continued to expand its catalog, with music from more than 500 independent labels, and it remains the best provider of streaming audio. What's more, Rhapsody is the only on-demand streaming music service that offers integration with several digital media receivers to stream music over a network to your home stereo. Now, RealNetworks has taken Rhapsody to an entirely new level with its launch of three variants, the most newsworthy being Rhapsody To Go, which allows you to untether your subscription-based downloads and listen to them on compatible portable devices. Rhapsody To Go costs $14.99 a month, while Rhapsody Unlimited, which gives you unlimited streams and downloads--but no transfers--to portable devices, is available for $9.99 per month. The final choice is Rhapsody 25, a redesigned iTunes-like jukebox application that features 25 online radio stations and 25 on-demand streams per month, all for free. Considering the popularity of Rhapsody, the revamped service will likely make a huge impact on the digital audio world, as it is no longer so streaming-centric. In fact, the service is much more dynamic and will, no doubt, attract newbies, while still appeal even more to existing Rhapsody users. With a 7.93MB download, Rhapsody's installation takes a little longer than the previous version's, but the program comes full of more features and is ultimately a joy to use. You also aren't bombarded with the check boxes and the offers that are typical of a Real install. The updated controls look even more futuristic and streamlined, and they're easy to navigate. From glowing buttons to well-placed windows and tabs, the interface rivals iTunes' for simplicity and aesthetics. You search Rhapsody's library of music using the large browser window, which features a Flash-enabled rotating promo for albums, playlists, and staff picks. All tracks have Play and Buy options in the basic version, while the subscription versions substitute an Add To Library icon for the Buy option. Play a song, and it appears in your current playlist in the lower left. You can save and organize playlists to listen to your favorite songs in whatever sequence you wish, whenever you're connected. The new Mixer lives in the playlist window lives and includes tabs for Burn and Transfer, a new component that's key to Rhapsody To Go.

The revamped interface has more features but is just as clean as its predecessor. Notice the updated Mixer tabbed window.

Stereo controls, song progress, and artist information (including album art) are displayed cleanly along the top of the application. Rhapsody packs curious factoids about artists, so it's fun and addictive to browse. Rhapsody includes links to artists' official Web sites and suggests related performers that might match what you enjoy. It even includes song information on albums that it doesn't carry--a truly useful resource.

We love the simple player control with automatically updated artist factoids.

In the midleft window, you'll find the main options: the Rhapsody Music Guide (default), Rhapsody Radio, My Library, and My Playlists, plus any portable attached devices. The browser includes a simple but effective search box with the option to search by keyword. In the Rhapsody Music Guide, you'll get links to features, 19 genres, a host of charts, and celebrity picks. You can also create My Rhapsody, your own music home page, which gets populated with music matching your tastes (more in Features). The My Library window is equally attractive and efficient, with a responsive search and a useful column dubbed Rhapsody Type, which can sort by imported, purchased, and subscription music.

The Music Library is iTunes-esque in simplicity but packs more options and info.

Another big plus: Rhapsody is the only on-demand streaming service that offers seamless, off-the-shelf integration with digital media receivers, such as Rockford's Omnifi DMS1, Prismiq's MediaPlayer, Netgear's MP101, and Linksys's WMLS11B. With one of the aforementioned digital media receivers, you can navigate and stream Rhapsody's full content catalog over a wireless network connection to your home stereo, or you can use the excellent Sonos Digital Music System, which even lets you play different songs in different rooms at the same time. The only caveat is that your PC has to be on and running the Rhapsody application.

Those who choose Rhapsody 25 can download the application for free (with a valid e-mail address) and get access to 25 excellent ad-free radio streams and 25 on-demand streams per month. Basically, as with a jukebox but for free, you can listen to 25 songs from the vast Rhapsody catalog--not a bad deal. In addition, the basic program adds jukebox functionality, such as MP3/AAC ripping up to 320Kbps, WMA ripping up to 192Kbps, CD burning, and a well-organized music library designed to simplify the tasks of managing music and transferring tunes to an MP3 player. You can also purchase tracks for 99 cents each or albums for $9.99. A really nifty feature: You can send your created playlists to friends. If they download Rhapsody 25, they can hear all the songs in the playlist, in their entirety, free of charge. Essentially, you can make one 25-song mix every month, and nobody has to pay.

True to its name, Rhapsody 25 gives you 25 free streams per month--not bad for a free jukebox application.

Pony up the $9.99 per month for Rhapsody Unlimited, and you'll get unlimited streaming and download access to one of the industry's largest catalogs of albums, insightful background on your favorite artists, 128Kbps WMA streaming, 160Kbps WMA downloads, and access to many top-notch radio stations. One gripe about the radio: While you can skip past songs you don't like, you can't pause in the middle of a track; Napster, on the other hand, allows this. To date, Rhapsody's catalog contains more than 1 million songs. If that seems overwhelming to you, try the program's radio station creation tool, which customizes a station based on up to 10 artists of your choosing.

For the subscription service, you can either stream or add music to your library. If you wish to do so, you can purchase a track by right-clicking the track in the library.

If you have a compatible portable device such as iRiver's H320, Creative's Zen Micro, or Dell's DJ-20, you'll want to investigate Rhapsody To Go. Following on the heels of Napster To Go's revolutionary Janus-based service, Rhapsody To Go gives you access to 100 percent of the downloadable catalog to transfer to your device. A clock built into compatible devices times out licenses for songs when the subscription runs out, but until then, these files can be played with aplomb. While you can populate your playlists with any track in your library, you can autosync when you connect your device with only purchased or imported tracks, not subscription-based downloads. In other words, subscription content must be manually transferred, so you can't automatically fill your 20GB player with random tracks from the Rhapsody catalog. Though we're picky about music, it'd be nice to have a one-click subscription fill-up on our portables.

Tons of players are compatible with Rhapsody, but only a select few (such as the Creative Zen PMC) currently work with Rhapsody To Go.

New Rhapsody features
Since both subscription services allow on-demand streaming of any track available, most users won't need to purchase tracks, but studies have shown that subscribers still buy their favorite tracks. Subscribers have the option to buy tracks with a 10 percent discount. That's 89 cents per track or $8.99 per album. Purchased tracks are 192Kbps AAC files wrapped in Real's Helix DRM.

Additional features of the new Rhapsody include:

  • My Rhapsody: This area is a customized glimpse at the music you're most likely to want at any given time. It gives you personalized selections and charts based on the tracks you've streamed, downloaded, or even imported and played from an MP3 collection acquired elsewhere. It lets you follow genres and subgenres (then alerts you to most popular, newest, and just added tracks) and create an instant 25-song playlist from titles, based on the last 100 tunes you've played. The same mechanism recommends albums for you, based on an automated algorithm as well as Rhapsody's excellent editorial content.

  • James Kim's customized My Rhapsody page.
  • Playlist Central: Here, you'll find playlists put together by Rhapsody editors, celebrities, and other users. They'll shuffle based on how other users rate them--a playlist you publish on there could take off and turn you into the next big tastemaker. There are also playlists for specific themes, such as a dinner party or an intense workout. You can browse from any playlist to the artist page, which makes these a great way to find new music. Using an e-mail client that's embedded within the program, you can also send a playlist to anyone; the recipient can get Rhapsody 25 for free and hear the playlist in its entirety. While we think Playlist Central and Instant Playlist rule, we've become accustomed to traditional "smart" playlists for latest tracks added and top-rated tracks, and we noticed their absence.
  • Extras: Parental controls, more/bigger images, and 1,500 music videos.

System requirements aren't intimidating (Pentium II 350MHz equivalent or better, 64MB of RAM, 380MB available disk space), but Rhapsody works with only PCs running Windows XP, Me, 2000, or 98 SE, and you must have Microsoft IE 5.5 or later, as well as a broadband connection, speakers, and a sound card. You should have a CD burner too. Rhapsody is predictably responsive over an office LAN; in our tests, songs started playing almost as quickly as if they were stored locally. In comparison, when we used Napster 2.0, streaming playback typically took several more seconds to begin.

So how did we fare with Rhapsody To Go? Rhapsody went with the same drag-and-drop method as Napster, though it doesn't have a completely separate window for your device. Instead, a tabbed window in the lower-left corner serves to hold your tracks to play, burn, or transfer. Also unlike Napster, Rhapsody doesn't let you drag tracks, albums, or playlists into the window once you've begun a transfer; you have to wait until the current list has finished.

The Transfer window shows the status of the tracks currently being synced to your device.

After an intial bout with bugginess and transfer failures to compatible portable devices such as the Creative Zen PMC, the Creative Zen Micro, and the iRiver H10, we were finally able to transfer subscription-based tracks to our H10 with no hitches. Presumably, Real engineers were working "real" diligently to get the feature to work postlaunch. A transfer of 100MB worth of tracks (a smooth blend of Mariah Carey and the Postal Service) took just less than four minutes or a rather slow 0.4MB per second over the USB 2.0-enabled H10. Our final comment: in this early stage of Rhapsody 3.0's life, we've had some difficulty logging onto the service, which is probably attributable to high server traffic and growing pains.

Links to service and support are easily available from the help option in either online or offline versions. A quick hop to a Web page, and you have access to a FAQ, including a What's New in Rhapsody 3.0 link and a customer service box that takes you to important functions such as canceling your account. Clicking the search link brings you to a more detailed and all-encompassing searchable FAQ. The latest post addresses the different Rhapsody 3.0 subscriptions.

Customer support is solid.

The only way to contact Real is via an e-mail form that allows you to attach documents. Real will get back to you in 1 to 2 business days. The program won't automatically update to the new version, but there is a link to do this manually. Menu options to authorize a computer or to import music to your library are few and far between, but they offer just the information or function you need. For example, the account summary page lists the number of artists, albums, and tracks available to the user, and there is a useful blogging feature in Preferences.

Streaming technology has always been the heart of Rhapsody. Now that it has incorporated downloading as well, Rhapsody has become a complete music service with full jukebox capabilities, compatibility with portable devices, and an intelligent three-tier service. RealNetworks has managed to combine some of the features of its competitors (for example, basic jukebox functionality as with iTunes and untethered downloads as in Napster) and introduced them to a brand that has a loyal following, thanks to a large and diverse music catalog, a simple yet full-featured interface, proven streaming technology, and top-rate editorial content. While we had a couple of early glitches, overall the program is a nice improvement to the now-classic (but in need of an update) Rhapsody.


Rhapsody 3.0

Score Breakdown

Setup 9Features 8Performance 7Support 8