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Appeared on: Monday, October 27, 2003
iTunes, Napster or Musicmatch?

An article in The Washington Post compares the latest three music downloading applications, currently available in the US.

Apple's iTunes Music Store opened for business in April to Mac OS X users, and it added support for Windows last week. Musicmatch Inc.'s Musicmatch Downloads service launched Sept. 29, and Roxio's Napster (the name is the sole remnant of the pioneering file-sharing service that debuted in 1998) arrives on Wednesday.

None of these downloads come in the popular MP3 format, and all of them come with usage restrictions that CDs never required you to think about.

Apple's MPEG-4 AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) files and Musicmatch and Napster's Windows Media Audio files can be copied to audio CDs and to some digital-music players an unlimited number of times but can only be stored on three computers at any one time and can't be shared over a network with any of the new crop of digital-music receivers. And you can burn a playlist to CD only 10 times in a row (five in Napster's case).

They also can't easily be lent out to friends, nor are they even available for sale outside the United States. And except for Musicmatch, which supports Windows 98 Second Edition and newer Microsoft operating systems, their PC compatibility only extends to Win 2000 and XP.

In exchange, though, music listeners can choose only the songs they want instead of having to buy an album's worth of filler. They can browse among hundreds of thousands of songs and hear brief samples of each. Each song includes a thumbnail image of the CD cover, but not lyrics or liner notes.

By inventory along, Napster does best -- it says it will stock more than 500,000 songs, compared with the 400,000 Apple plans to carry by the end of the month and the 250,000 Musicmatch offers. But you're probably going to find that all these services miss at least one song you desperately want, especially if that song was by a minor-label artist or one of the remaining name-brand artists (for instance, the Beatles) who have yet to allow their work to be sold online.

Finding and buying songs is easiest on iTunes and Napster; both offer multiple ways to dig through their collections beyond simple artist/album/song searches and genre-by-genre browsing. Napster offers the intriguing option of looking through other users' playlists (the only way it evokes memories of the old Napster, with which it shares neither personnel nor programming code). Musicmatch's store, by contrast, is an ugly, poorly organized mess.

Apple is the sole service to let you shop for other people: You can e-mail gift certificates and set up spending allowances.

All three programs burn audio CDs equally well, but Musicmatch will brake your CD writing to a glacial pace after the first four discs unless you ante up $20 for the "Plus" version of this program.

For transferring purchased music to a portable player, Apple can't be beat -- provided that player is an iPod, the only kind Apple supports.

Napster claims to duplicate that experience with a new Samsung player, which I didn't try. Its downloads are compatible with 25 other players, but the Napster software can't talk to any of them -- so I had to switch back to the program bundled with a Rio Nitrus player to load songs. Musicmatch supports fewer models, 19 in all, but can copy music to all of them.

The big differences between these services crop up when you put your music on multiple computers. With iTunes, you just copy the songs over as you wish, then authenticate the other Mac or PC once by typing in your account ID and password.

Better yet, if these computers are on the same wired or wireless network, iTunes can share your music library from the first machine's hard drive. (In one case, however, a ThinkPad on a WiFi network couldn't play any of the songs shared off an iMac.)

Musicmatch failed completely at this job. When it wasn't forgetting that I'd already logged in to authorize a song's playback on a second PC, it was constantly stalling and freezing, if not crashing the entire computer.

Napster doesn't even allow computer-to-computer transfer. You must download a new, free copy of each song off the Napster server for each other computer.

Last, but most important, Apple simply provides a better music program, whose sole (but not surprising) shortfall is its lack of Windows Media compatibility. In iTunes, Apple has accomplished what has eluded the entire PC market -- it's shipped a free, elegant, easy-to-use program that copies CDs in either AAC or MP3 format, offers numerous, thoughtful ways to organize a music library, lets you buy music conveniently, plays back Web radio and burns CDs and even DVDs -- and does it all without turning your desktop into a billboard for other products and services.

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