Product Review: New Napster a bit buggy, but promising


  • Business
  • Tuesday, 21 Oct 2003

By MATTHEW FORDAHL

NEW YORK (AP) - Anyone who thinks music should cost nothing will be disappointed with the reincarnated Napster online music service, which has emerged from the ashes of the old free-for-all as a legal, recording industry-sanctioned, pay-to-play store. 

That's not to say Napster 2.0, available to the public Oct. 29, has lost all traces of the old. 

The headphoned kitty logo is still there - in fact, everywhere.  

Its new owner, Roxio Inc., also has maintained some of the spirit of old Napster. 

Minus the theft, of course. 

Several old Napster features that helped build community and encourage musical exploration give its successor a slight edge over the competition, including Apple Computer Inc.'s popular iTunes Music Store, which has been available to Macintosh users since April and will soon be available to the Windows crowds. 

But the basic service provided by all the online stores - selling difficult-to-steal songs for 99 cents - is more or less the same, thanks to very similar licensing deals struck with the record labels that have, after many years, started to see the light and profit potential. 

Napster, which works only on Windows-based computers, will launch with half a million songs _ more than its rivals.  

Still, that number pales in comparison to what was available on Napster 1.0 or today's illicit file-swapping networks. 

As with the other legal services, songs purchased on Napster are more reliably a higher quality than those downloaded from a peer-to-peer network where you're never quite sure if the file was properly labeled, ripped on an underperforming computer or contained a virus. 

And like the rest, Napster's digital rights management technology limits what can be done with each file.  

Each purchased song can be shared on only three computers but can be burned to a CD as long as the play order occasionally changes. 

The tunes also can be transferred to a portable music player an unlimited number of times. 

(Napster can be used to move songs to Samsung's Napster-branded player. Owners of other players, which must support Microsoft's secure Windows Media Audio format, have to switch to Microsoft's Windows Media Player to transfer songs.) 

If all this sounds a bit more confusing than the old Napster, it is. But it's a big improvement over first-generation legal subscription services like pressplay, which was purchased by Roxio and has been merged into the new Napster. 

At least now purchased songs don't die if you don't shell out the monthly subscription fee.  

In Napster, there's still a $9.95 monthly charge for extras like full audio streaming. But it's not required to buy the music. 

In theory, then, the new Napster ought to be greeted with cheers by law-abiding, music-loving Windows users. 

The actual software I tested - a prerelease version - in reality gave me a bigger headache than any heavy metal band ever did. 

The software repeatedly crashed during installation and brought down the entire computer with it. 

Napster technicians say it may have been an issue with my older CD burner, and that the problems will be fixed when the official version becomes available.  

In any event, Napster plans to offer e-mail support around the clock and telephone assistance during business hours. 

Fortunately, I had another PC available and did a fresh install of Windows just to be safe. 

This time, Napster installed, launched and allowed me to sign in before crashing. 

The program ran more reliably after I started it up again. 

I'm glad I didn't give up. Napster succeeds at providing a fuller experience than the current crop of online music stores. 

Besides shopping, it includes a music magazine and for a $9.95 monthly fee, a radio service and discussion area. 

In other words, it provides opportunities to explore music. In this sense, it's similar to the old Napster, in which users could not only steal from each other but also chat about their collections and post messages. 

Another perk of being a premium member is the ability to stream entire songs, unless they're marked with a "buy only'' tag. 

(Streamed songs, however, don't sound as good as the downloaded version and can't be transferred to a portable player or burned to a CD unless purchased.) 

Premium users also can send songs to other subscribers or see what they are buying and streaming. 

Members can listen to a stream or purchase those songs, but can't swipe the music off others' hard drives. 

I also especially liked built-in Billboard listings, which in some cases go back to the 1960s. 

Overall, searching and browsing is simpler in iTunes than Napster. Then again, Napster allows more ways of drilling through categories and subcategories. 

Napster's song tags also seemed to be more accurate than iTunes, especially the album release dates. Napster also seems to do a better job with classical music, which is broken down into more categories such as "chamber music,'' "romantic'' and "opera.'' 

Napster does a fine job of burning the music to CD _ not surprising given that Roxio is a well-known maker of CD-burning software. 

Still, all music services, including Napster 2.0, share a glaring deficiency. 

There isn't the range of music available that there was on the old Napster or today's free file-swapping services. 

Looking for Madonna? There are two tracks available. Garth Brooks has just one, a duet with Trisha Yearwood. 

And the Beatles? All the hits from John, Paul, George and Ringo are available - but performed on panpipes. - AP 

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