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TUAW Review: Napster MP3 store

As we noted yesterday, Napster has now rolled out the world's largest DRM-free MP3 store. In the spirit of the Amazon MP3 review we ran last year, I thought I would take Napster for a spin to see how the service works from a Mac-user's perspective.

The first thing to note is that this is a download service. While Napster continues to run its subscription-based service (with downloads limited to Windows computers with Microsoft DRM), you do not need a subscription to purchase MP3s from the Napster Store (though you need an account, of course). Once downloaded the files are just straight 256kbps MP3s that should play without problem on any of a variety of devices. With that in mind, let's have a look at the Napster experience.

The Store

The first snag Mac users are likely to run into is this one:


The Napster Store is not compatible with Safari. They helpfully suggest Firefox, but since Camino is my secondary browser I tried that and it worked okay. The music store interface seems to be AJAX and is frankly rather sluggish. There is a search box at the top that allows you to search by artist, album, track, or all. Results are returned in a tabbed interface as you see below.

You can choose individual tracks or the Album tab to reveal complete albums. Next to each track or album name are two buttons, one labeled ":30" and the other "MP3." If you hit the ":30" button you'll get a pop-up windows with a player interface that will, after a short delay, play a 30 second snippet of the track. If you hit the ":30" button for an album the player will feature 30 second previews of each track in the album. When you hit the "MP3" button either the track or album will be added to your shopping cart.


Once you have selected the tracks you want to buy you can then hit the green "Purchase" button to complete your transaction. You will naturally have to have a Napster account to purchase the tracks, but you do not need a subscription. Payment can be made either with a credit card or through PayPal.


It's at the point that things start to get very clunky for Mac users. Once you have purchased the tracks you must download them one at a time! You will be presented with a list of your purchased tracks with a "Download" button next to each one. You must click the button and wait for the download to start before you click the next one.


What is particularly stunning is that you must actually wait for each download to start before you hit the next download button. In my testing I hit two of the buttons in quick succession and only received the second track. The button next to the first track track changed to read "Downloaded" (even though it had not), and I was not able to retrieve that track. The tracks download like any other file you might download with your browser and so they all ended up in my Downloads folder.


Note that you can download more than one track at a time, so long as you wait for each download to start before you hit the button for the next one. Frankly, this seems like an unconscionable bug. However, lesson learned, I successfully downloaded the rest of the album one track (and click) at a time.

Since I live to serve I took it upon myself to purchase a 52 track album of bluegrass gospel as my test album. Therefore, it took 52 distinct clicks to download the album. Once it downloaded I copied all the tracks to iTunes via drag and drop from the Finder. The entire process took a ridiculous amount of time.

The Music

The MP3s themselves are mostly (though not all) encoded at 256kbps and have embedded album art. Most of the ID3 tags are filled in. The only thing I noticed missing is total number of tracks. So for instance here it says that "He Will Set Your Fields On Fire" is track number 23 but fails to include that there are 52 total tracks.


While it does not appear in the comments field in iTunes, if you do a Get Info on a Napster MP3 in the Finder you'll find that it includes a comment: "Purchased from Napster."

Conclusion

While the Napster MP3 store has a good selection and okay prices, I cannot recommend it at this time for Mac users. The downloading scheme is completely untenable. Requiring the user to click a download button for every single track is completely inane. On Windows there is apparently a Napster downloader to automate the process, but there is no Mac counterpart. The Amazon MP3 downloader, on the other hand, is very easy to use and blows the Napster user experience out of the water.

At this time I think I will continue to make Amazon MP3 my first stop in downloading music. I'm willing to pay the inconvenience "tax" versus the iTunes Store in exchange for the 256kbps DRM-free MP3, but only because, in the case of Amazon, the tax is not that high. Napster, on the other hand, is a bear. While I can just barely imagine using it to download a 10 track album not available on the other services, it is far and away the third choice in music downloading. If Napster really expects to compete with Amazon MP3, much less iTunes, it's going to have to make a much, much better showing than this.



As we noted yesterday, Napster has now rolled out the world's largest DRM-free MP3 store. In the spirit of the Amazon MP3 review we ran...