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Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Napster Turns Music into Rental Deal

Napster To Go's hitch is that it works only with MP3 devices that use Janus, Microsoft's new digital-rights management software.

When players are plugged in, Janus periodically checks to see whether a subscription is still current.

That one-time online rebel reincarnated as a legal music shop, Napster Inc. , is now offering consumers the option of renting as much music as they like and taking it on the road. There's no hesitation with Napster To Go. Download a track -- heck, you may as well transfer the whole album -- and give it a listen while you look for more music. Or build a playlist and load songs onto one of about a dozen supported digital music players, including devices from Dell Inc. , Creative Labs Inc. and Reigncom Ltd.'s iRiver. (Sadly, Apple Computer's popular iPod isn't among them.)

Other than the portability, the newest version of Napster -- available for Windows 2000 and XP -- is nearly identical to the previous one launched in October 2003.

Oh, and it costs about $5 more per month, or $14.95, to get the portability. The $9.95 desktop-only plan remains available and offers access to virtually everything else on Napster. Also available is a per-download service free of monthly fees.

Napster To Go's hitch is that it works only with MP3 devices that use Janus, Microsoft's new digital-rights management software. When players are plugged in, Janus periodically checks to see whether a subscription is still current.

That's right: If you cancel your account, you can no longer listen to any of the music you've downloaded from Napster unless you re-subscribe or buy songs at 99 cents apiece and albums at about $10 -- roughly the same prices as most competitors.

Napster is selling this snag by saying it's cheaper to pay the monthly fee for unlimited downloads than to buy each track outright at iTunes, where you get about 15 songs a month for the same price -- though you keep them forever.

Most other all-you-can-eat plans, including Yahoo Inc.'s MusicMatch, won't let you move music directly to MP3 devices unless you've purchased individual tracks for an added fee.

F.Y.E. Download Zone, from Trans World Entertainment Corp. , does let you play an unlimited number of songs on portables, but it relies on Microsoft Corp. software that isn't as flexible as Napster's.

RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody only allows songs to be streamed to its desktop software or burned to a CD for 79 cents a song.

Apple's popular iTunes Music Store, meanwhile, is only compatible with the iPod and offers no subscription plan: You must pay for each song.

Of course, with both iTunes and Rhapsody, you can always burn CDs and then convert the tracks into MP3 files and then transfer them to your MP3 player. But that's clunky.

Napster To Go's software, while slightly more difficult to navigate than iTunes, is easy to use.

The clean interface includes a main browser window with buttons that link to music libraries both at Napster and on the computer. New releases and recommendations are splashed across the home page; a search box sits conveniently up top.

Apple, however, seems to have struck a chord with simplicity: iTunes is free of the dizzying clutter created by the collapsible file-tree structure used by Napster To Go. It took me about two hours of rabid downloading before I started getting comfortable with Napster To Go's scattered layout.

Napster To Go places the playlist window along the right side, making it easy to skip tracks and manipulate your song list while perusing the music library. Put on your own hip-hop mix, or fire up the jazz radio channel with a few clicks. With iTunes, you must swap the entire window to change what song you are listening to.

The only new feature that is strictly for portable users is "Playlists To Go," Napster-built compilations that can be downloaded and transferred to an MP3 player with just one click. Each of a dozen varieties carries a genre-based mix of mostly mainstream and popular artists, and with one click, Napster To Go will load the playlist to your MP3 device.

If you get bored with your own music, Napster also lets you search the libraries and playlists of other members.

That's one feature unavailable at F.Y.E. Download Zone. F.Y.E. offers unlimited songs on portables as well, but without a standalone application -- it piggybacks off Microsoft's free Media Player 10 -- you can't share lists with others.

With Napster, I had a blast trying out songs without worrying about breaking the bank. Napster, like iTunes, boasts more than a million tracks -- though I was surprised to learn that some were marked "Buy Only."

For example, six of the 20 tracks on Eminem's "Encore" were for purchase only, hindering me from getting the entire album. The clean version of Jin's "The Rest Is History" was free to transfer, but the explicit version was not.

Other features to note include "Blahgs," Web log-esque commentaries from journalists and industry insiders, and "Fast Forward," a prescient glimpse at up-and-coming artists.

Like its former version, Napster To Go also burns CDs and has a message board for members to share their thoughts on artists.

But the music service overshadows Napster's attempt to promote content.

Born as a free file-sharing network that spawned a heavyweight legal bout with the recording industry, the one-time pioneer may have found a way to reclaim its place at the top.

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