A year after Apple came out with its , Sony has entered the music download fray with its own 99-cent-per-track service called Connect. The store, which is accessible through a Web-based browser (such as Internet Explorer) or as part of Sony's SonicStage jukebox software, offers tunes encoded in the company's proprietary 132Kbps ATRAC3 format. This means you can play them on only Sony's CLIE handhelds, , and the company's Hi MD line (review coming soon) and on up to three PCs running SonicStage. While we are happy that the company's three divisions--consumer electronics, computer hardware, and the music label--are finally playing nice with one another (for more on this subject, see this MP3 Insider column), we couldn't find much reason to choose Connect over the many other competing services. To browse Sony Connect for tracks, you can either visit the Web-based store or download and install SonicStage, Sony's free jukebox software for managing playlists and burning CDs. The program works with Windows 98 SE and later (no Mac support) and is easy to install; we particularly liked that you don't have to give up your e-mail or other personal info until it's time to shell out. A word of advice: During installation, make sure that you specify a directory for storing music. If you don't, the app's default places your tunes in an obscure subdirectory.
Once you have installed SonicStage and Connect, you can click either desktop icon to open SonicStage.
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The service is definitely a work in progress. You'll see a lot of placeholders marked "Coming soon," as with the two Radiohead covers pictured here.
SonicStage's interface is decent, although library navigation involves a bit of a learning curve. Sony Connect is still a work in progress, which explains why we noticed some serious problems with its aesthetically pleasing interface. The windows are easy enough to navigate (and have a nice overall look), but the graphics and the font displays are buggy. We saw plenty of truncated song titles and images, and some images were missing completely, even the one for rap superstar Nelly. Plus, each artist page lists the artist's tracks all the way at the bottom, forcing you to scroll down to see them. The arrangement doesn't make sense. It's like a department store putting all its merchandise in a back room, making you walk through empty aisles in order to get to it. Furthermore, we'd like to see Sony add a bulletin board and an automatically generated Similar Artists list for when an artist search brings up no results, as often happened during our searches for more obscure indie material. SonicStage, your gateway to Connect, is passable jukebox software in its own right. But in these days of smart playlists, mix sharing, and automatic tag cleanup, passable just doesn't cut it. SonicStage will import MP3s, WMAs, WAVs, OpenMG tracks, and M3U playlists, then organize them by album, artist, genre, or date recorded. While SonicStage includes shuffle and repeat-play modes, its playlists are unsophisticated and hard to find (you have to create a new Album, which functions as a playlist). As for importing music from CD, the software can rip CDs to ATRAC3 or WAV--no MP3 encoding here, unsurprisingly. Also, one 128Kbps MP3 track we imported sounded garbled in SonicStage, though we've never encountered problems with it in other programs.
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This drop-down menu allows you to sort your library in a variety of ways.
As for the Connect store, at press time its catalog hovered at around 700,000 tracks--considerably fewer than the 1-million-plus Apple iTunes Music Store currently boasts. The catalog also has anomalies, owing to the fact that Sony's entertainment arm owns some of the songs. For instance, songs from Warner Music Group (WMG) can be transferred to portable devices only three times. There's no readily apparent indication within Connect or SonicStage that a particular song has different usage rules. We prefer usage rules that are consistent or, at least, more transparent than this.
Singles run 99 cents, and most albums are priced at around 10 bucks. You can search by song title, artist, and/or album. Most albums are downloadable as complete chunks, but some (typically boxed sets or best-of compilations) require you to buy and download each track individually. As with other stores, you can hear 30-second samples of every song in the Connect catalog. Unlike other stores, however, Connect currently offers some free radio stations (five, at the moment) that play a rotating mix of songs available for purchase.
Songs you purchase via Connect are copy protected by Open Magic Gate (OpenMG), Sony's own digital rights management (DRM) system. There's no limit on the number of times you can play a purchased track, and most songs allow unlimited transfers to a Sony device. We downloaded a few purchased tracks to our Sony CLIE, the , without a hitch. Like most of the services we've reviewed, Connect allows you to burn a particular playlist onto 10 CDs, but with Connect, 5 of those have to be ATRAC CDs (the other options are audio CDs or MP3 CDs). As you might guess, these work only on certain Sony CD players. You can also share songs on up to three Connect-registered Windows PCs, but unlike with iTunes, you can't use the software to share songs over a network.
Plus, be forewarned that only the primary computer can transfer songs to portable devices or burn them to CDs. At press time, Sony was working toward allowing users to transfer purchased tunes from secondary PCs to portable devices but had no definite plans to extend CD burning to secondary and tertiary computers. It's also important to know that Sony players can't play the MP3 format. If you want to manage all your music through SonicStage, you'll have to convert any MP3s in your library to the ATRAC3 format first--a transcoding process that slows down file transfers to portable devices. As of this writing, customer support for Sony Connect was limited to a set of FAQs on the Web site. We expect that technical support--and the service as a whole--will improve once Sony starts hyping the new, Connect-compatible Hi-MD Walkman players. Right now, the service has too many kinks to compete with either Apple's winning iPod/ combo or the many stores and MP3 players that support secure WMA files.