iTunes — a review of the music service and music player

arts and entertainment, technology

After checking out the following music services — Rhapsody, MusicNow, PressPlay, MusicMatch and Napster 2.0 — I have now spent some time playing with iTunes.

As with MusicMatch (“MM”), iTunes must be looked at from the perspective of a player and a service.

The iTunes Player
Let’s get the player out of the way first. It dramatically pales in comparison to other players out there, including WinAmp, MM, and even Windows Media Player. It substitutes simplicity for flexibility and power, and that’s not even good for non-power users, IMHO.

NOTE: I’ve tempered my negative opinion of the player a bit. See the addendum at the end of this review for details.

Installation
Pleasantly straightforward and acceptably speedy on a broadband connection. My only gripe is that iTunes forced a QuickTime thingy into my systray (without giving me an initial option to refuse), and this IMHO is simply unacceptable. I was, however, able to disable this by right-clicking the qt icon, selecting PREFERENCES, then unchecking the ‘load at startup’ option.

Selection
Seems to be about on par with MM and Rhapsody, and a bit behind Napster overall. However, iTunes did seem to have some newer releases (the “Avenue Q” soundtrack) that were missing on the other services, and, like Napster, it does offer some ‘exclusives.’

Ease of downloading
This is an absolute tie. Each of the services offers both one-click and one-click-with-confirm download options. Each service allowed me to download a tune quickly, easily, and for just under a buck.

Burning, moving to a portable player
I have not yet tried burning an iTunes track to a CD, but like with the other services, the process appears to be intuitive and painless.

Unfortunately, unlike the other services, iTunes portable music player support is severely limited. Specifically, iTunes lets you move your music to any player… as long as it’s an iPod. I wonder if this will change over time?

Searching for specific music
iTunes wins, and by a mile. First of all, it defaults to “search all” mode… meaning you can type in an artist or a song or an album, so you can just search for whatever comes to mind without having to mess with options. That rocks! Even better yet, iTunes has a power-search mode, which IMHO is so damn obvious and so necessary that it’s completely baffling why no other service has implemented this yet.

Discovering new music
In contrast with searching, iTunes falls in dead last when it comes to discovering music. While Napster offers amazingly cool tools to see who else is streaming or has downloaded tracks or albums you like and also lets you check out others’ complete music collections, iTunes offers nothing of the sort.

iTunes also does not offer any options to pay a flat monthly fee to listen to hundreds of thousands of songs in their entirety.

One saving “discovery” grace of iTunes is that its 30-second clips start almost the instant you click a link… much better than most of the other services, and even a hair faster than the already-laudable Listen.com service. It’s a shame that any music preview gets canceled if you happen to click on any other iTunes link while it’s playing (e.g., if you check out info on another artist, the preview you’re playing will halt).

Music sound quality and compatibility
I can’t really tell the difference, frankly, between the purchased and downloaded clips from MM, Napster, and iTunes, but this may be due to the fact that I don’t have an excellent sound system, and I haven’t downloaded songs that’d really test the range of music out there. I will note that others (rightly or wrongly) have suggested that AAC (which iTunes uses) is a superior format, soundwise, to WMA (which all the other services use).

Unfortunately, AAC is not nearly as well-supported on Windows. I tried playing my downloaded iTunes clip on the default Windows Media Player 9, and it didn’t work. The newest MM player wouldn’t play it. And my friend’s 2.91 WinAmp choked on it, too (though apparently the next version in that series — 2.92 — will play these files, and I’m betting WinAmp 3.0 can manage the files, too).

Radio
iTunes piggy-backs onto some unspecified Internet radio source. There’s no original iTunes programming, and many of the Internet radio sources linked to are of very, very poor sound quality (low bandwidth streaming). Luckily, iTunes does not bill itself as a great place to listen to Internet radio; it’s merely an extra. MM has the best radio service by far, followed by Rhapsody, and then Napster; Napster has the most FLEXIBLE Radio implementation, but it’s hobbled by oft-repeated tunes and less-than-stellar music choices.

CONCLUSION:
iTunes for Windows is definitely for you if…
– you have an iPod or plan on getting one
– you have a strong preference for AAC over WMA
– you already know and like the Mac iTunes (the Win version is almost identical, I’ve been told)
– you want to take advantage of iTunes’ exclusive tracks
– you often are trying to search for specific, hard-to-find tracks

Otherwise, I’d recommend that you check out…
– Rhapsody, for the cleanest and most intuitive interface
– MusicMatch, for the best radio and most powerful player / music service combo
– Napster, for the biggest selection, best portable player compatibility, and most robust community features

Best yet, check out all the services for yourself! Like me, you may find that you wish to keep one or more on hand, depending on your interests and needs on any given day. Overall, I think Napster is the strongest offering at this time, but I actually plan to keep MM and iTunes around, too 🙂

NOTE:
I will post a comprehensive Napster review (perhaps broken up into several parts, because it’s already so long!), beginning within the next three days, so make sure to stop back here 🙂

Related entries:
BuyMusic… run away, run away!
Mini-review of Listen.com’s Rhapsody
Review of MusicMatch’s download service
My concept of an ideal music service

Edited to add:
The more I play with the iTunes player, the more it grows on me. While I’m still hugely frustrated by the lack of right-click functionality, the drag and drop is much better than most Windows programs, and iTunes also offers considerably more keyboard shortcuts than many other players.

Additionally, it IS just the first Windows version of the client, so I should cut it some slack.

So my earlier total-pan of iTunes should be tempered a bit 😉

5 comments… add one
  • J. Daniels Oct 23, 2003

    Nice article,  one suggestion go through and check your spelling, no big deal just an observation.

    Example… I have spent now spent some time playing with

    one too many “spents”.

    Good article though.

  • Adam Lasnik Oct 23, 2003

    Actually, my spelling is just fine… it’s just that I have a bit of inadvertant word repetition :D.  Seriously, though, while I didn’t catch any other similar errors, it’s embarrassing that I made such an annoying goof… and so early in the review, too!  I appreciate you pointing it out.

  • Anonymous Dec 10, 2003

    You totally skipped key features of iTunes which disappoints me.

    * Smart playlists
    * LAN music sharing

    On another note, must you use “IMHO” so often?

  • Adam Lasnik Dec 10, 2003

    I’ll cut out at least two of the four IMHOs above if you’ll include your name on my blog comments 😉

    Regarding the smart playlists… that is indeed something I should have tested and covered.

    But—like probably 99% of other home users—I don’t have a LAN, and so I was not in a position to test out the LAN music sharing. 

    I do realize that college students and people who are permitted to use this feature while at work may have some interest in the LAN music sharing, but—particularly given Napster’s centralized full-track streaming of many hundreds of thousands of tracks—I personally find this iTunes feature less than compelling.

    —-

    On a separate note, one thing that either I’m being stupid about or iTunes completely missed the boat on is a NOW PLAYING list.  I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how to multi-select a bunch of songs from my library and send them to a queue (“Now Playing”).  This is intuitive and obvious on every other single music player I’ve ever tried (Sonique, WinAmp, WMP, Real, MM, Napster, etc.)—what’s up with iTunes?

  • Richard Little Jan 9, 2004

    Just form an ordinary playlist called “now playing”. Drag the songs you want to listen to one by one into the list and they’ll play in the order you’ll drag them in.  You can start the playlist playing after you drag the first song in and keep adding/dropping songs for as long as you want.  Unlike the music store, the playlist won’t stop if you switch back to the library view.  Just be careful not to double click anywhere since then you may start something else playing!

What do you think?