A comprehensive review of the new Napster 2.0 service – Part THREE of three

arts and entertainment, technology

[ This is the final and third part of my Napster 2.0 music service review. If you haven’t read the other parts, I encourage you to start at part one of my Napster review — Adam ]

In this final section of my Napster review, I’ll be covering these remaining topics:
– Radio
– Music info
– Non-music offerings
– Overall user interface
– Pricing and value

If you’re not already a Napster user, I encourage you to download and try out the software for free as you read along here πŸ™‚

In contrast with my earlier entries, I’ve decided to stop assigning ‘grades’ to various components of Napster’s service. There are just too many variables involving user interests, connection speed, and so on, to make such subjective judgements applicable for all readers.

Napster radio is both fabulous and infuriating.

– Unlike ANY other legal service, Napster allows you to not only skip to previous and upcoming tracks with ease, but even enables you to scan to any point within any song. So, for instance, you can look on “your” radio station and see the tune “Brand New Day” by Sting coming up in three songs… and decide to fast forward to the middle section of the song with just two mouse clicks!
– You can do anything with “radio” programmed songs that you can do with searched-for or browsed-for tracks! Every single song you get on a radio station can be added to your own custom playlists, and — depending on the permissions of any particular track — downloaded and (for an extra fee) burned as well.
– The “Radio” system on Napster is basically equivalent to the Playlist feature (discussed earlier in my blog), meaning that the learning curve is minimal. You can even load up a Napster-provided “radio station,” remove a few un-favorite tracks, save it as a custom playlist, and share it with other Napster users.

– Someone’s not minding the quality control very well over at Napster. While, as a swing dancer and jazz aficianado, I was grateful to see Napster featuring a “Lindy Hop” radio station, I was hugely annoyed to discover that some of the tracks on the station were repeated as many as four times in just a few hours of listening. Given the thousands of swing songs that are available, even in Napster’s library alone, this sort of repetition is inexcusable.
– Further diminishing the excitement of the Napster radio stations is the fact that at least several I’ve tried don’t seem to be grabbing music from a very large pool. Listening to the 80’s pop station over three days, I heard pretty much the same tunes each day, just in a different order.
– In contrast with Rhapsody, Napster only streams songs that it has on-demand licenses for. On one hand, Rhapsody’s contrasting practice can get annoying (“Gee, I love that song… but ack, I can’t replay it or bookmark it!”). But on the other hand, Napster’s practice may be considered by some to be limiting, since streamable but not-on-demand artists like the Beatles and Metallica will currently not appear on Napster’s radio stations.

On the whole, Napster’s radio system FEELS like a sophisticated playlist offering, and as noted from my opinions above, this can be either a great or a not-so-great thing. In a bit of a generalization, those wishing to sit back and be entertained with a broad assortment of carefully picked tunes would be better off with Rhapsody or MusicMatch for their radio needs. But those wishing to engage in a more interactive experience would absolutely come out ahead with Napster.

Napster thoughtfully offers a handful of well-written and useful reviews for a variety of albums and albums, and — in common with other music services — uses AllMusic Guide notes for the bulk of its reviews.

While Napster’s additional in-house reviews occasionally push the service ahead of its competitors in this context, on the whole, Napster’s music-info offerings fall flat. Here’s why:

– Napster has unwisely decided to favor anti-copying over user convenience, and IMHO, that’s a loser of a decision every time. Specifically, even though the music information text is contained on what amounts to an HTML page, Napster hijacks right and left mouse capabilities, rendering users unable to copy and paste any of the review text or album track listings… even in Fair Use contexts! In fact, it’s not even possible to print specific info screens. πŸ™

– Unlike with both Rhapsody and MusicMatch, when Napster doesn’t have rights to feature an artist, an album, or a track, it simply pretends that the person or material doesn’t exist. This can be absolutely maddening, both because it hampers searching and it also leaves gaping holes when someone is just trying to see, for instance, how many albums an artist has recorded, or how many tracks he actually recorded on a given album. On Rhapsody, this info is somewhat hidden, but easily available. On MM, not only is the info listed, but users can use unavailable-artist lookups to find similar-but-available music from other artists!

– Lastly, Napster has a really hard time looking up info on even some tracks it DOES have, when those tracks are part of a compilation or co-authored musical. For instance, right-clicking on a track and selecting “BROWSE ARTIST” in the Buffy the Vampire musical recording, Once More, With Feeling generally results in Napster ignoring the request, instead of it looking for other similar music from the “artist” (in this case, the composers of that particular musical). I’ve had similar problems with jazz compilations, especially when more than one artist is listed for a given song. Ideally, Napster should either pick one, or ask which one I want to read about.

I’m sorry to admit that I haven’t spent much time exploring Napster’s videos or magazine. At a cursory glance, the magazine seems detailed and engaging, with quite a bit of diverse information. The videos, on the other hand, while a nice touch, are a bit too “lo-res” for my taste.

I’ll note up front that I should cut Napster some slack on this. While Napster 2.0 is a bit of an ‘upgrade’ from the earlier PressPlay service, it’s still obviously a major rewrite, and definitely not based upon the more long-lived (and almost-too-simple) original Napster interface. So basically, this is Napster 1.1, and given this, they’re doing quite decently πŸ™‚

The thumbs up:
– Most everything is pretty intuitive with the current interface. Clicking, right-clicking, dragging, and double-clicking all seem to do what one’d reasonably expect, and while that might seem like faint praise, in comparison with many other Windows programs, it’s not.
– The HISTORY window, allowing you to see every track played and purchased, is a very helpful and also interesting feature. And it’s not just for show; right-click functionality on this page is superb, allowing one to add tracks to playlists, download tunes, and more.
– In fact, with few exceptions, the interface is generally consistent; when you right-click on a track, you’re likely to see the same (allowed) features and options no matter where you are in the service… your library, the NOW PLAYING screen, results from a search or a browse, etc.
– Napster smartly and politely presents a plethora of confirmation and warning screens, and better yet, it gives you the choice of disabling most of them via option settings. In fact, speaking of option settings, Napster offers more settable preferences than many other competing music services, and that’s much appreciated!

The thumbs down:
– Very few keyboard shortcuts
– Spotty status/info communication in some respects; for instance, there are no icons next to the NOW PLAYING tunes to tell you if those tracks are downloaded or streaming… the only way to find out is to right-click on each individually. Also, in general, mouseovers could be used more frequently and more effectively, both to convey status and other information.
– The minimized player mode (with, alas, a near-invisible button to trigger it) is a neat idea, but it’s barely functional, with no right-click options available whatsoever (e.g., you can’t download or buy/burn a song, nor is there even any extended mouseover info on the track currently playing. Bummer!)
– Finding artist and album info can occasionally be quirky or difficult.
– Checking for a track in someone else’s collection is common-sensically available by right-clicking on a track in a browse/search results screen, but is oddly not possible by right-clicking on the same track in the NOW PLAYING screen. Oops!
– Status/option info throughout the service isn’t as contextually intelligent as it could be. When you select multiple tracks, it should say “tracks” not “track(s)”, and when you don’t select any non-napster tracks, it shouldn’t present you with a checkbox asking you if you want to delete non-napster tracks. Context, context, context ;-).
– And there are the little touches that are missing; unlike with MusicMatch, the Napster taskbar entry doesn’t tell you what’s currently playing. And unlike with Rhapsody and (sometimes, though quirkily) with MM, Napster doesn’t support the nifty Microsoft Internet keyboard’s previous/next/play/stop buttons, nor the MS Mice’ forward-back buttons for browsing.

Here’s the bottom line: At $9.95 a month for the Premium service, Napster is an outstanding value if you spend any appreciable time in front of a Windows XP/2000 computer and can listen to music while you do so. You’ll be amazed and perhaps a bit alarmed at just how many hours you can joyously spend “surfing” music… both listening to current favorites and exploring new tunes and even new genres. You’re likely to even get silly and see how many songs on Napster have the word “chicken” in them (157 at last count) or just how many songs you can find performed by Count Basie, or what the Alternative CCM subgenre is (hint: Jesus would approve)… and so on. Or you might just spend all night skimming through Billboard Chartbusters by decade.

Indeed, if I might be so bold — even when taking into considerations all my criticisms in my composite review — you might find Napster Premium to be like Tivo: not that interesting or critical until you play with it and are faced with living without it. It’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself (and, in case I haven’t mentioned it earlier, Napster marketing execs are nuts for not offering a free trial!)

But what if you’re not a geek-tethered-to-a-computer, or you just don’t like listening to music very much via your tinny computer speakers (and don’t feel like forking out dough and time to hook up your computer to a nearby stereo system)? Well, then, Napster Premium may not be such a hot deal for you.

That’s because, even with a Premium membership, as stated earlier, you’ll still have to pony up 99 cents per track or $9.95 for (most) albums for the privilege of copying tracks to a portable music player or burning them to a CD. And you can do that even without being a Premium member.

Indeed, this is one area in which I think Napster marketing and accounting wonks seriously need to go back to the boardroom and do some significant rethinking.

Pricing tracks the same for both Premium (even long-term Premium) members and regular “uncommitted” members is both bad PR and bad business. Even a modest “Buy nine, get your tenth track free!” program or something similar would highlight Napster’s commitment to really offering its Premium members MORE.

Right now, Premium members get:
– Unlimited streaming / tethered downloading (either great or not-so-great as detailed above)
– Access to Napster Radio (a mixed value)
– Ability to read and post on the Napster Message boards (currently lagging seriously behind free music-related boards on the Web, both in terms of content and usability)

But Napster could and SHOULD offer so much more for its Premium members, such as:
– The aforementioned ‘loyalty’ discount on purchased tracks
– Access to videos, music clips and info before anyone else
– Special contests (for backstage passes, musician memorabilia, etc.)
– discounts or additional free tracks with purchase of a Samsung/Napster player (how about “Pay for or commit to a (non-cancelable) two-year Napster membership, and get the Samsung Napster player for $49.95.” Hey, it works for the wireless phone companies, right? πŸ˜‰
– Priority customer service
– Live chats with musicians, DJs, directors, etc.

After all, let’s face it — folks can still easily get nearly any track they’d find on Napster via :cough: services like KaZaA (and can escape legal wrath pretty easily with just a click or two on particular options). Also, Napster is facing stiff competition from services like iTunes, Rhapsody, and MusicMatch… and no doubt soon from Amazon and Microsoft.

Napster’s saving grace is in Community and Loyalty. Indeed, due to the stranglehold of the recording industry, Napster can probaly ill-afford to compete on price alone, so it must focus on adding value in ways that are not easy to duplicate by competing services.

I sincerely hope that Napster will be a success, in addition to, not just instead of the many other current and future services. The arena of online music is one that should and hopefully will exponentially expand in the coming years, and I am optimistic that both artists and consumers will be the winners.

In the meantime, I’ll once again urge you to download and try out the Napster software for free, and I heartily welcome your feedback below!

1 comment… add one
  • Actually, my school (Penn State U) is going to be offering Napster as part of their free software available to students. So each and every student is going to get a membership to the service free of charge.

    I imagine the goal here is to get students to lay off of the illegal downloading of MP3’s, but honestly I don’t see this helping them with their bandwidth issues..steaming media hurts..

What do you think?