Comprehensive review of the new Napster 2.0 service — PART ONE

arts and entertainment, technology

[ Napster is free to download, and they offer a free trial on their premium service ]

I’ve now had a chance to play with the new Napster 2.0 service for quite a few hours, and I thought I’d share with you my detailed thoughts on the service.

If you’re not already familiar with the basics of the new (legal) Napster, I encourage you to skim my earlier intro-to-Napster-2.0 entry, or even read the surprisingly informative Napster info page.

I can tell you now, however, that you absolutely, positively…

…should sign up to try out Napster 2.0 (henceforth, “Napster”). By reserving a username now (even without entering your credit card data!), you’ll be promised free five burns when the system is out of beta.

Okay, on with my review 😀

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MUSIC AVAILABILITY – Grade: B-
Napster laudably offers over half-a-million tracks. That’s a heck of a lot! Unfortunately, many of them are only available for purchase, not for Premium member streaming. In both various broad and narrow searches, I found easily as much as 20% of the listed tracks were “Buy only.” As with many of Napster’s shortcomings, this is undeniably not the fault of Roxio (Napster’s owner), but rather a challenge associated with negotiating the byzantine layers of artist and publisher song permissions. However, to the end consumer, this doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter. It’d be like a restaurant noting that several key dishes are unavailable from its menu, or only available at an extra price due to supplier problems. Not our problem.

Some of the noticeable holes, at least for me, were in music from smaller / independent labels and albums which contain music from a group of artists, such as movie or musical soundtracks.

It would be both thoughtful and good marketing, therefore, for Napster to have a “Click here to be notified via e-mail when this [artist | album | song] is available.”

This is not to say, however, that even the most picky listener could possibly ever become bored with Napster. Even if only 300,000 tracks are streamable (and I’m betting that that’s a conservative guess), there is still an unbelievably vast number of tracks, artists, and genres to explore and enjoy. Therefore, I do sometimes have to remind myself to appreciate that the glass is not only more than half full, but also delightfully large. Even when comparing Napster to KaZaA, for instance, it should be fairly noted that often KaZaA did not and still does not always have the most obscure tracks one might wish to procure.

SOUND QUALITY – Grade: A-
Indeed, one of the great blessings of Napster as compared to KaZaA is that listeners are guranteed a consistent and quite impressive sound quality. While some purists and/or Microsoft-haters have railed against Napster’s use of secure Windows Media Audio files (which, actually, are problematic from other standpoints), Napster’s 128-rate WMA files sound impressively clean and crisp to my musician ears, and certainly FAR better than the typical 128-rate MP3s most commonly found on peer-to-peer services. Furthermore, I’ve heard not a single skip or recording blemish in any of the hundreds of tracks I’ve listened to.

PORTABLE AND NON-PORTABLE MUSIC FILE DRM – Grade: B-
Compared to the simply awful buymusic.com service, Napster’s Digital Rights Management (“DRM”) system is both consistent and generous, allowing use of the files on three different computers for both non-portable and (99 cent) portable downloads. Furthermore, portable downloads may be burned to CD on any unique playlist up to five times, seemingly reasonable for personal use. And of course, once a track has been burned to CD, it can be ripped and handled without any restrictions whatsoever.

However, even the minimal DRM on the portable (paid-for) downloads is unduly restrictive and frustrating in some ways. When I buy a CD, it’s pretty clear from a legal standpoint that I can’t make 400 copies for my entire neighborhood. But no one blinks an eye if I let a friend borrow it for a week. In contrast, though, with Napster I learned that even after “buying” a track, I was merely procuring a license to use it personally; I could not share the track even with my parents via e-mail.

Of course, I COULD just burn a CD, then rip the CD, but why make me go through all that effort? Why can’t the recording industry actually trust its users to do the Right Thing? After all, it’s clear that the tracks will end up on KaZaA regardless of any DRM, so why punish those who wish to use their purchased tracks within reason?

SEARCHING AND BROWSING – Grade: C
I’ll get the bad out of the way. Searching on Napster is really awful. Let me count the ways:
– No power search: You can’t search by a combination, say, of artist AND album.
– Very UNintelligent AI: “Housejacks” turns up 0 hits. “House Jacks” nicely turns up 18 hits. A search for the (just slightly incorrectly spelled) “piazolla” offers Astor Piazzolla tracks far down on the list, after such odd matches as “Brad Paisley” and “Isabelle Granet Pascale.” Uh, yeah, they all have names that start with “P,” but… 😀

Browsing also suffers from at least a few maddening problems. There’s absolutely no way to easily look for musicals or movie soundtracks other than by name. And if you just want to scroll through available artists or albums alphabetically, well, sorry, you can’t.

In contrast, iTunes is leaps and bounds ahead of Napster in these areas. iTunes, offering the best of ‘both worlds’ of search, allows users to do “anything” searches easily and quickly, for instance, letting folks type in “queen” and having the service intelligently list artist, album, and track matches in order of descending relevance. But iTunes keeps power users happy, too, offering a screen that lets folks search for narrow artist + track combinations and more.

Luckily, Napster’s searching and browsing options aren’t all bad, however. Users can quickly access a menu of genres (pop, dance, jazz, classical, etc.), and from there, be presented immediately with a corresponding sub-genre list (e.g., for dance: trance, experimental techno, funky beats, etc.). From there, a list of artists is presented, with their albums listed hierarchically underneath. A single click shows any tracks on an album, and a double click instantly plays an entire album. Now that’s handy!

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Okay this is already getting pretty long, so I’m going to stop here for now, and present an additional review section in the next day or three. 🙂

Still to come… thoughts on Napster’s:
– Overall user interface
– The Now Playing functionality
– Library and playlist functionality
– Non-music offerings
– Community features
– Radio
and
– Pricing

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Feel free to give feedback on my review so far, and let me know if there are areas you’d like to know more about, or areas in which you disagree with me.

[ Now read PART TWO 🙂 ]

[ Napster is free to download, and they offer a free trial on their premium service ]

5 comments… add one
  • James Parks Nov 12, 2003

    Wouldn’t it be great if Napster used a Google-Powered search engine?  On google, if you misspell a word, google asks “Did you mean to say…” and offers a link to search the correct spelling.

    Google, inarguably in my opinion, is the most reliable form of searching.  Could Napster implement that power into a music search?

    By the way, my Napster name is ‘autumnwarriors’

  • I agree on the Google part, but I mean honestly. Napsters business is music, and their it definately provides the superior product. Google’s business is searching, so I’m sure that they have spent truck loads of money on that very intuative ‘spell checking’ feature that they have, and it wouldn’t be easy to reproduce.
    Another problem I’m sure is that Google catches words found in a dictionary most of the time, not people names. I imagine this adds an extra twist to the problem.

  • Hello My name is Jan 29, 2004

    fuck you assholes. ya ll dont know nothing

  • Matt Hendrickson Jan 30, 2004

    And it appears you know even less! Don’t you know you’re not supposed to used the double-negative in a sentence?

    So in other words, we know a lot? Cool! Thanks, my grammatically-challenged friend!

  • Matt Hendrickson Jan 30, 2004

    And it appears you know even less! Don’t you know you’re not supposed to used the double-negative in a sentence?

    So in other words, we know a lot? Cool! Thanks, my grammatically-challenged friend!

What do you think?