- Review: Napster 2.0
by Brad Hill
The beta launch of Napster 2.0, an upgrade of Pressplay 2.0 by parent company Roxio, occurred on October 9, 2003. Napster 2.0 was promised to provide both a straight a-la-carte service and a hybrid subscription/track-purchase service. This review focuses on the hybrid service as experienced by Pressplay subscribers who are rolled into the new program. As is well known, Napster 2.0 bears no functional resemblance to the defunct Napster P2P client. The new Napster is an authorized, server-based, interactive listening environment enhanced by per-track and per-album purchasing. Napster 2.0 competes primarily with Rhapsody and MusicMatch, and secondarily with iTunes Store and BuyMusic.com.
* A fastidious client, laser-quick musical performance, and velvety operation wrap the user in a deliciously addictive environment. Rebranding aside, this upgrade could be considered Pressplay 3.0 — an evolution rather than a revolution. But a substantial and significant evolution it is, with an expanded catalog and streamlined interface that sets important new performance standards. Napster’s generous interactivity blows away MusicMatch, and mounts a more serious challenge to Rhapsody than ever before.
* Value proposition of subscription-plus-.99-tracks is barely acceptable, and in fact inferior to the old Pressplay, where users could bulk-purchase tracks at a sub-.99 discount. Album purchases ($9.99) are the biggest change from Pressplay.
* Updated pecking order: Rhapsody, Napster, MusicMatch, iTunes Store, BuyMusic.com. (EMusic, always uniquely off to the side in these reviews, will fall off the cliff on November 8. MusicNet is unworthy of ranking until the next significant update.)
* Sign in to Pressplay; new version download required.
* Uninstalls current version of Pressplay; downloads and playlists not lost (promised and delivered).
* Installation Wizard includes setting download folder and connection speed. Highest connection speed (Cable/DSL) provides 96Kbps streaming (presumably of WMA files).
* A cleaned and neatened version of the old Pressplay. More than that, the Napster client is a marvel of music-program design, beautifully concise and a pleasure to play with. Six information panes coexist without clutter or confusion. This sharp and beautifully organized gem even makes Rhapsody look thick and musty.
* Can no longer detach Now Playing window. (Even though it’s called a “Remote Control.”)
* With the exception of the undetachable Now Playing pane, all important Pressplay client features are carried forward into Napster. Importantly, the “radio” stations still display completely interactive playlists that allow shuffling, manual selection, and seeking within tracks.
* While playing a radio station, users can initiate a stream from another window without removing or disrupting the radio playlist. The new track is simply inserted into the playlist.
* Library organization is effective without being innovative. Napster continues using Pressplay icons for indicating the status and rights of tracks.
* Napster is generally quicker and more fluidly operable than Pressplay was. Creating playlists, adding to them, accessing them, digging into your library — all is fast and intuitive. Dragging tracks from one pane to another is smoother and more inviting.
* Downloading tracks (as distinct from purchasing them) is handled more transparently than in Pressplay, which constantly nagged the user with confirmation and progress reports. During testing, aggressive simultaneous downloading and streaming proceeded without a stutter.
* Napster provides the finest streaming performance I have seen to date. Initial buffer time was consistently 2.5 seconds on an XP machine connected via residential DSL, with two other networked computers sharing bandwidth. In the same environment, intratrack seek time was a blistering 1.5 seconds. The entire track is available for seeking as soon as the initial buffer is complete, a blockbuster improvement over Rhapsody, despite the latter’s massive hard-drive cache.
* Member sharing, Pressplay’s biggest and most novel strength, is fortified and enhanced in Napster. Recommendations cross-referenced against member collections are displayed on every album page, a dynamic feature. Drilling directly into member collections from cross-referenced genre lists continues to be supported. From any track listing in a member collection, you can link to other users who have downloaded that track, and view their entire collections. In the library settings, you can save other members and follow the progress of their collections. Through Pressplay’s life and into Napster 2.0, member sharing is the one feature that competes effectively with similar functions in KaZaA and Grokster.
* Overall, client performance receives the highest marks in attractiveness, ease of use, musical responsiveness, intelligence, and sheer pleasure.
BROWSING, BUYING, AND BURNING TRACKS:
* Genre and sub-genre browsing and keyword searching are implemented with no changes from Pressplay 2.0. the new client organizes everything more clearly, and keeps the keyword search engine visible at all times.
* Napster carries through the Portable Download concept of Pressplay 2.0 with 99-cent track purchases (download or burn). Bulk purchases at discount have been eliminated.
* Some tracks are “buy only,” represented by 30-second streams at a crappy bitrate. Others are stream-only at full bitrate.
* Two ways to acquire tracks: download purchase (previously a Portable Download in Pressplay), and burning through the client.
* Purchasing tracks is a stone-simple, two-click process. Bulk purchases (without discount) are easily accomplished by highlighting a group of tracks in an information pane or the Now Playing pane, and right-clicking to the purchase selection. After one confirmation window (which can be disabled), downloading transpires as transparently as with free downloads. In the Windows file manager, free downloads are not distinguished from purchased tracks. In the Napster client, they are distinguished by icon, and by a dedicated Purchased Tracks folder.
* As one might expect from a Roxio product, track burning is implemented …
* I was not able to rip burned tracks to MP3 in MusicMatch, but was able to do so in AudioCatalyst.
Napster 2.0 does not compete with P2P on any terms. As a hybrid subscription/purchase service, Napster must be compared to Rhapsody and MusicMatch. BuyMusic.com and iTunes Store lack a meaningful listening, auditioning, and interactive environment, and shouldn’t be compared with hybrid services.
* RHAPSODY: Rhapsody tracks are 20 percent cheaper than Napster tracks. Napster has a larger pop catalog, while Rhapsody is far superior in the classical department. (Napster has made no progress on Pressplay’s disastrous classical tagging issues.) Interactivity and playlisting are roughly equal, with Napster’s foldered playlists either a help or a hassle, depending on preference. The Napster client offers the first important challenge to Rhapsody’s groundbreaking look-and-feel. Napster’s streaming performance and unlimited rental downloads beat Rhapsody’s sluggish streams, greedy cache, and server-only file accessibility. Napster’s member sharing is a uniquely strong feature set. Customized station-building is roughly equal in the two services, but Napster’s wide-open interactivity of station playlists slaps Rhapsody in the face. Overall, the edge goes to Rhapsody, largely because of its industry-leading 79-cent track purchases. It’s a close call now, though.
* MUSICMATCH: MusicMatch recently launched a paid-download service to complement its RadioMX subscription (and free) online listening environments, that was clearly and substantially inferior to both Pressply 2.0 and Rhapsody. It’s no surprise, then that Napster dominates MusicMatch on almost every point. MusicMatch’s area of strength is music discovery, which it pounds home with the Artist Match and Artist ON DEMAND portions of the Plus and Platinum subscription tiers. Napster uses member sharing as the prime music discovery tool, supplemented by editorial recommendations and an in-client magazine. Napster arguably discovers music better than MusicMatch, but that call is a matter of style and preference. MusicMatch values a relatively passive experience, and presents diminished interactive tools as a result. With pricing at the same level, Napster’s state-of-the-art client and irresistible control of the music make it the clear choice for users who have come to play.
Pressplay was good. Napster is beautiful, fun, musical, addictive. In the context of inadequacy — all these hybrid services are too expensive and force the user through hoops to end up with an MP3 file — Napster has issued a powerful beta launch that seems perfectly ready for prime time. Will it succedd where Pressplay didn’t, based on brand clout? Unlikely. Disregard the (likely seeded) message boards. Nobody will believe that this Napster bears the slightest relationship to the unique values of file-sharing. If the stand-alone a-la-carte service (scheduled for launch October 29) gains traction, well and good for Napster. Until proven wrong, I continue to maintain that per-unit online selling, absent of monthly-paid interactivity, is a regressive model that’s bad for consumers in the long run. Track prices must come way down, or the server-based listening experience must become portable, for these two polarized worldviews to meet and catalyze the market. In the meantime, those who appreciate the value of music-as-service should give Napster 2.0 a long look.