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Napster Returns from the Dark Side: Version 2.0 Review

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Oct 29, 2003 amidst much hype Napster returns — legally this time — to go head-to-head against Apple’s iTunes, Real’s Rhapsody, Musicmatch, Buymusic and players to be named later.

When Napster originally debuted, creator Shawn Fanning, made it easier to trade music for computer users of all skill levels with a simple and sexy user interface. The problem was all this music being traded around was running across a centralized network, and thus the RIAA came to town and cried foul legally. The lawsuits ultimately shut down Napster, but spawned clones of the service like Kazaa that were decentralized in structure, thus escaping legal peril for the company but shifting the burden to the users. Today, the RIAA continues its legal assault, despite heavy criticism from virtually all reasonable thinking people, against those who use these decentralized music filetrading services. The purpose seems obvious: get your music from legal online outlets or else risk inviting the RIAA’s wrath.

Curiously, Napster holds the distinction of being the only service thus far to cross from the digital dark side. Users that signed up before Oct 29 should have five free tracks waiting, so check your email for the notification that should look something like the picture below.

After downloading and installing the software you’ll be asked to enter in your login details which are conveniently included in that email. One thing about the installation process that I liked is that it wasn’t as intrusive as iTunes for Windows which required rebooting and was a bit greedy towards file associations. To Napster 2.0’s credit, it only adds a desktop shortcut icon. Click on that icon, choose your login details and you should be prompted to redeem those five free tracks like the emails indicated? Right?

Wrong. For my experience, anyway, I received no such prompt. I did see a nice ad to sign up for the Napster 2.0 Premium Service.

The free tracks weren’t the only reason I signed up, but if this was for other users who signed up and they experienced the same thing I did, then there is going to be confusion about how to actually redeem those five free tracks. I’ll come back to this, as personally, I was more interested in seeing what made Napster 2.0 different than its competitors.

The first thing Rhapsody and iTunes subscribers will notice is the familiar two-pane interface. It looks very much like iTunes and Rhapsody fused together with even the same looking Rhapsody burn icon and more like iTunes in the layout of how the artists will show up at the top and the tracks available for downloading at 99 cents per track.

Rather than trying something innovative like the original Napster, they have simply heavily borrowed — or been inspired, depending on one’s perspective — the user interface. A bit disappointing for those looking for something fresh and different, but a welcome addition for those wanting something easy to get into, familiar, and quickly start searching/shopping for music.

The search is conveniently placed at the top and allows the common searching by artist, track, album and an additional option: member. This is a unique feature that allows for searching through other (premium subscribed only?) members selected Artists, Albums and Playlists. Users can bookmark and keep tabs on their friends collections by saving to the Saved Members folder. The only problem at launch I see with this feature is it is so early that there are a lot of members with no content selected. Napster doesn’t identify which members actually have content and which don’t, nor who is a premium member or not, so maybe this is something they will add in a future version. Want to see what I enjoy listening to? Go ahead and do a member search for “tdavid”

Fundamentally, it’s either a shopping cart music experience like iTunes or a subscriber-based streaming music service like Rhapsody,: the choice being left up to the user. If you want to “buy track” (or “buy music” for the entire album) then you just click the music, confirm the purchase, and then enter in the necessary payment info.

And what about this Premium service that Napster’s want us to pony up the $9.99 a month for? It is basically the same as Rhapsody’s service, you’ll get to listen to full-length tracks, not just those arguably useless 30-second snippets, stream your music from any Windows-based computer that has the software (but no simultaneous logins), listen to Napster’s pre-programmed radio stations. Skip forward or back, look through all the tracks on the station or download your favorites. Premium subscribers are also able to read and post at the messageboard that is included. Why non-subscribers can’t at least read the messageboard is somewhat irritating. $10 was worth checking into the pay side of the new Napster, so I proffered up the plastic.

“Don’t just sit there…” Good sense of humor, Napster, but not very logical because after being ten bones lighter in the pocketbook I’m going to do anything but sit there.

Maybe there would be an answer in the messageboards about how to redeem those five elusive free tracks? I posted on the messageboard and asked for help. Did I already complain that non-subcribers couldn’t read Napster’s messageboards? I don’t see a lot of folks paying for the privilege to post at Napster’s messageboards. And another gripe with the messageboard is where is the refresh button? To refresh the forum while inside the Napster GUI one has to go to another forum and then come back. I notice that it is using Madrona Park’s popular UBB messageboard script, so it’s just a matter of tracking down the actual URL of the board for a true browser messageboard experience.

Update: the hidden URL is here

Most websites inside a quasi-browser GUI suck (Real’s browser comes to mind). This would also allow viewing of the board by non-subscribers I’m guessing.

One neat feature that Premium members can access is the streaming option. This allows users to be able to find out in real time what other Napster members are streaming. The list can be alphabetically sorted by Artist, genre, song, member, chronologically, etc. This could be an interesting way to explore new music and artists in the same genre.

Since I am already a paid Rhapsody subscriber, it’s ultimately going to boil down to the available music selection keeping me as a subscriber. I don’t see many other folks subscribing for multiple streaming services, so whether to choose Napster of Rhapsody for the streaming service is all about selection. Napster boasts to have over a half-million songs (see pic below), which I believe would make their catalog the largest. The question for each individual user invariably will be: do they have the music selection that fits my tastes?

Buyer Beware

Napster also adds another wrinkle in that some of the songs in their catalog are not fully available for streaming, leaving only the 30 second clips. All songs available for burning at Rhapsody are available for streaming, at least in my experience. This might come as a shock to some Premium subscribers, especially if they are familiar with Rhapsody’s streaming option.

Now the band Accept might be a bit obscure so I also looked at another artist: Van Halen. Surely all these online music services would have the same music available from Van Halen? Nope.

Napster: 7 albums (1 is a partial album with only 3 tracks)
Rhapsody: 13 albums (4 of which are partial albums)
iTunes: 9 albums (3 of which are partial albums)
Buymusic: 5 albums (7 actually listed but two have no tracks available for purchase)

I looked through many artists, not just these two, but for my particular music tastes Rhapsody is still the winner for overall selection at the present time. That’s not to say that Napster isn’t promising with its features and it is way too early to declare its music selection inferior; it’s off to a good start and compares to iTunes in the selection department.

Other features

Napster offers some other goodies to non-subscribers like a free magazine that is actually laid out and written well. It has a free pdf crossword puzzle, articles and reviews. If this is something that will be published frequently, this is a good idea.

Overall, I’d say Napster has it’s strengths and is promising. People are going to download it because of the name and curiosity, but whether they stick with it or not is going to depend on the music catalog which at the moment is good, but not the best. And what will people say about Napster? Probably Napster’s own Premium-only messageboard holds the answer with quotes like:

“I as well am feeling disappointed with the service and I’ve only been using it for two days! There are songs and artists that I wanted and was so looking forward to getting with Napster, and lo and behold, they aren’t here. I’ll cancel after a month, I am sure …” – S8nswench12709

The number of Premium members they are going to generate for their optional streaming service remains to be seen but  it seems from their interface that several of Napster’s unique features depend on this paid subscriber base (the search by members and what’s streaming now features for example).

Time will tell if Napster is able to grow this subscriber base or abandons this model in favor of the iTunes pay-to-download model. In the meantime they could have — and already are, based upon comments on their internal messageboard, having — an identity crisis with some users. At least they are doing things legally this time around, which should help make version 3.0 a more realistic possibility. Grade: B

This review originally appeared at makeyougohmm.com

Related entries:
Rhapsody review

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About TDavid

  • Eric Olsen

    TD, extremely useful, clear and fine, thanks! Love the screen shots – you rule.

  • BJ

    Great review. Especially now that Emusic is going to be useless, I’m going to have to check out other options. Two questions for the crowd:

    Anyone know anything about Audio Lunchbox? I think that’s the name – supposedly it will be more indie-focused.

    Also, as for Napster being the first to cross over to the darkside (or from it, depending on your perspective) – isn’t Rhapsody somehow descended from the company that used to have Audio Galaxy?

  • Thanks Eric and BJ for the feedback.

    As for the dark side reference, it is significant because Napster has kept its name and thus branding. I’ve heard rumours that Kazaa is thinking about going legal all the way but don’t know if that will ever pan out or not. From those who have used the service (I never have) I’ve read that there is a lot of crap on there these days.

    I’m not familiar with Audio Lunchbox, but maybe somebody else here can answer that.

  • LZM


    Los Angeles: Audiolunchbox.com, the only PC and Mac friendly music download store on the Internet to offer solely independent label artists on multiple formats, has officially launched. The easy to navigate site offers over 150,000 songs by the end of November for .99 and full albums for $9.99 from such indie record companies as Epitaph, Artemis, KOCH, Trust Kill and Razor and Tie, among many others. ALB offers the latest information on both new and established indie artists, plus the coolest digital music gear. ALB’s search engine recommends similar artist and tracks based upon your tastes and searches. Unlike the majority of download sites, ALB’s music is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which restricts how many times the user can burn a song or transfer it to another computer. No DRM means that once a user purchases an album or track they can burn or transfer the files an unlimited number of times. If you’re looking for true freedom in downloading fresh independent music, check out http://www.audiolunchbox.com today!

  • Eric Olsen

    well, it’s a commercial but at least it’s on topic

  • Eric (#5), I think LZM (#4) was answering BJ (#2). 😉

    TDavid, great article. I actually see more that I like in Napster than I did in Rhapsody, per our ongoing disagreement, and maybe more in Napster than in the iTMS, too, though I will have dig more closely and I will be bummed about it not being on my Mac.

  • I enjoyed reading this review, and in particular laud you for being less lazy than I was in my review by actually including screen shots 😉

    That said, I’d still like to humbly invite you and others to check out my pretty comprehensive three-part Napster review.

    Also, I think it’s worthy to note that Napster now (finally!) offers a three-day free trial and five free CD burns if you end up joining:

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Adam, why don’t you join Blogcritics and you could repost the review here – that would be cool.