Review of Napster Subscription Service
My PC recently suffered yet another harddrive crash (I'm never buying another Maxtor drive) resulting in the loss of about half of my mp3 collection. Although I could rip my own CDs again, I have to admit there was a large number of files there that I, erm, don't have on CD. Since I was also temporarily down on HD space I thought I'd give a music subscription service a go. Napster is only £10 a month (and yet somehow it is also US$10 a month - how does that work?). They also have a free one-week trial.
There is no web front-end to Napster so you have to install their software on your PC. Downloading is a breeze if you use Internet Explorer - FireFox users might have to put up with some errors before getting their download. Once downloaded, you install the software and then create an account. This involves entering your credit card details so that they can bill you the instant your trial period expires. I presume it also stops people repeatedly trailing the software for free.
Once you're up an running you'll discover an interface that's pretty similar to Apple iTunes. That's not at all surprising given the success of iTunes. You can spend the time ripping your CDs with the built in ripper or import any audio files you already have on your PC into the library. That didn't apply to me due to the HD disaster, so I went ahead and searched for music to listen to.
Slightly confusing at first is the fact that as a subscriber you can listen to also all the music in Napster's library without additional fees on your PC (and up to 2 others) and yet there are still links and buttons everywhere in the interface to 'buy' tracks and albums. This is because the subscription only allows you to listen to the music on your PC and compatible portable player if you paid the extra £5 a moth for that feature. If you want to burn CDs or retail access to a certain track once after you cancel your subscription, you need to 'buy' that track the same way you do with a non-subscription site like iTunes. I put the word 'buy' in quotes because the files are heavily DRM encumbered and you're really only buying a licence to use the music under certain restrictive circumstances. Still, if you want to make a compilation CD to put on at a party or something, you'll need to pay the 79p a track that Napster currently charge.
So lets assume that like me, you only really listen to music at your PC and you have broadband internet access. In this case you can stream the music off the Napster servers. This saves a lot of harddrive space, but it does mean that if your net connection drops, things go silent pretty quick as there is very little buffering. You can download the music to your harddrive if you don't have access to the net continuously. You'll still need to connect to Napster every so often though so the software can renew the "rental" of the files after confirming that your subscription is ongoing.
As well as being able to search for artists, albums and tracks, there are other ways to discover music. There are downloadable playlists, some just on a theme, others compiled by celebrities. Another advertised feature is "40+ advert free, interactive radio stations". This is one feature that doesn't work very well at the time I write this review. You see the "radio station" is really just a dynamic playlist - the music streams from their servers anyway so the only thing of interest is the choice of songs. Unfortunately the algorithms they use to pick the order of songs don't work very well. Most of the tracks on a given 'station' are picked by Napster staff - the order is randomised and a portion loaded into your playlist window. It's likely in any given try that you'll only get through the first twenty songs before you get a song you've already heard, even though there might be new songs further down the playlist. It has a facility to make a custom radio station based on a selection of tracks from your library. I didn't try this because my library is empty since there's no need for me to download tracks. This doesn't seem to be taken into account.
OK, I've got through all that without mentioning what is by far the biggest problem with Napster - the sound quality. They use WMA encoding which in itself is not a problem for me. The problem is that they encode their files at 128kbps. Even though WMA is more efficient than standard mp3, 128kbps is still vastly inadequate for most music. Subjective quality on the music I listen to varies from OK-ish (Scissor Sisters) to completely unlistenable (Green Day) due to the phasing in and out of high frequencies. This is such a shame because for me, the all-you-can-eat subscription model works, the price is right, but the audio quality, to be frank, sucks.
I'd rate Napster 6/10 at the current time due to the audio quality. It's the only major flaw but boy, is it a big one. If they increased the bitrate to 192kbps that would make most music listenable and then I've give the service 9/10. If they fixed the niggling bugs (many of which I've left out of this post for brevity but if you use Napster you'll be aware well aware of them) and increased filled in some of the obvious omissions in their library I could happily give the service 10/10.
I'd like to include some sound files to demonstrate how bad the audio quality is, but that would obviously be against the law (and their terms of service). If you want to try Napster yourself go to www.napster.com for USA residents and www.napster.co.uk for Brits. I don't think there's a referrer scheme unfortunately. A word of warning though - I'm still a subscriber (despite the flaws), but I've read on the built-in chat room boards that unsubscribing is a bit of a hassle.
I'd like to try Yahoo's service, but it's only available to US residents. I read Microsoft is setting up a Napster-alike that will presumably be available in Europe so I'll look forward to reviewing that at some point.