[ This is the second part of my Napster review. You may read the first part here. ]
This part of my Napster review will cover the following topics:
– The Now Playing functionality
– Library and playlist functionality
– Community features
You can try out Napster for yourself and follow along here if you like 🙂
THE “NOW PLAYING” FUNCTIONALITY – Grade: B-
The “Now Playing” section of Napster is the area to the left of the main Napster screen which shows the track currently playing, and the other tracks queued (prior to and following the currently playing track).
On the whole, Napster handles this section of its player better than all other music services. In particular, this is because most operations on Napster add to, but do not mess up the Now Playing window. Whereas on other systems, selecting an album to play or a specific track will often REPLACE the contents of a Now Playing window, on Napster, the newly selected tracks are merely inserted at the point of the currently playing track; after they’re done playing, the user is returned to his “regularly scheduled program” so to speak, and this is as it should be.
Napster’s Now Playing Window (henceforth referred to as “NPW”) also offers some other goodies as well:
– Nice right-click functionality, allowing the user to download, buy, or burn any (available) track, or bring up an artist-info page. “Build a radio station” is also available when 3 or more tracks are highlighted (more on radio features later). Lastly, users can add any track or group of tracks in the NPW directly to an existing or new playlist. Very handy!
– Reordering and deleting tracks is super-easy, too, involving a simple drag-and-drop or hitting of the delete key.
Of course, the NPW could be improved in several ways:
– It’s nice to see the album art and the artist, track, and album names below, but alas, these info-bits are not clickable. Ideally, one should be able to click on that artist name, for instance, and have the artist page brought up.
– Unlike Napster’s “Pressplay” predecessor, there are no visual (icon) indicators next to each track which show whether they are streams or previously-downloaded or purchased files. This is a major bummer :-(.
– Information is not always very clear, especially when listening to songs by more than one artist, or songs from soundtracks. Often times, you’ll see “Original Broadway Cast” but no musical name. Ack!
– when the NPW is minimized to a small toolbar (which in itself is a quite cool feature), one cannot right click to add track or download or anything :-(. This is a major oversight, IMHO.
LIBRARY AND PLAYLIST FUNCTIONALITY – Grade: C
Napster’s Library and Playlist features are wonderfully intuitive in some manners, but horribly UNintuitive in others, and currently a bit on the buggy side. This feature set really deserves a split-personality A- and D, but to keep things simpler, I’ll simply give it an overall “average” grade.
What’s to like?
– You can create an unlimited number of playlists, even with long names! Each playlist is limited to 260 songs, but that’s still pretty generous. And you can have any given track in more than one playlist simultaneously.
– Your playlists are (optionally) available to all members (see the COMMUNITY section of this review for details).
– One’s library is viewable in quite a few different manners… by artist, by album, by track, and more.
– The service thoughtfully breaks up one’s library into alphabetical artist chunks (Artists A-E, etc.) as one’s library gets bigger.
– You can import your existing WMAs and MP3s, integrating them into your Napster playlists and even CD burns!
– You can jump to any song or artist within the relevant section of your library just by typing the first few letters. It’s one of those very-obvious but still quite-useful and sometimes overlooked features in programs like this 🙂
What’s really annoying?
– Artists are sorted by FIRST name, and there’s no way around this!
– If your library is larger than 260 tracks (and this will happen, trust me, after about 1 day of use, or after 1 minute of importing your existing tracks), you can’t play a random sampling of your music.
– You can’t import OGG or WAV files or anything other than MP3s and WMAs.
– You can’t easily delete an album with a single click; you have to delete all the tracks associated with that album first.
– Here’s a frustrating doozy: You can’t do any searches for songs within your library!
– There’s little quantification. You can’t see how many artists your library has, how many tracks you have (napster or imported or total), or even how many tracks you’ve selected for a playlist. This is something that’d be insanely easy to implement (“You’ve selected 147 tracks…”) and very useful/interesting.
– There’s an absolute lack of any DJ-type features in Napster. You can’t tag songs with mood or sub-genre, or even retag secured Napster tracks at all! You can’t set up a playlist that’s 60 minutes long for burning, either. In this context, WMP, MusicMatch, and iTunes are lightyears ahead of Napster.
– You can sort by any column in your Library (which is good, but basic), but you cannot filter, and you cannot move, add, or change the order of columns.
COMMUNITY FEATURES – Grade: C
You’ll notice I’m giving a lot of Cs here. That’s not to suggest, as you’ve hopefully guessed, that I think Napster isn’t an excellent value, or even a laggard in its field. But rather — at least in its legal version one (“2.0” is a bit of a misnomer) — it’s got a LOT of room to grow and improve.
Anyway, Community Features is another area in which Napster deserves a schizophrenic grade set of B and D, perhaps, and here’s why…
– It’s wonderfully fun to share playlists with other members, and also peer into their accounts (with their permission, which is ‘on’ by default) to see and stream from their playlists and even their entire Library! I’ve discovered some super-fun music this way.
– As part of this, it’s also possible to right click on any track and see which other members have this track in THEIR library. This really enhances the discovery process, and like the aspects described above, is just sheer giddy fun seeing how many other folks share a love for an obscure track that you happen to enjoy.
– Napsters boards already boast a decent set of genre topics. Perhaps more impressively, Napster has seen it fit to allow both harshly critical opinions AND even circumvention info to be expressed on the boards without censorship.
– Napster offers the ability to send short messages (mails) to other members, and even share playlists with people off of the Napster network (though they need to use Napster to LISTEN to your playlists).
– Napster’s boards are running on horribly, disgustingly outdated “Ultimate Bulletin Board” (UBB) software… from 1998-2000! This is really unforgiveable. The boards allow for no editing, no notifications, no post previews, no signatures, pretty much nothing, frankly, other than very very basic posting with a few niceties like boldface type and hyperlinks. What WAS Napster thinking, especially when there are fabulous (and often free!) options abounding in the message forum space (phpBB, InvisionBoard, etc.).
– Napster’s mail system is similarly unpleasant. New-mail notifications are so subtle as to be practically unnoticeable (one’s small inbox logo glows slightly and changes color). Each mail is limited to 512 characters… barely a full paragraph! There are no read-receipt options, or, frankly, any options other than reply / send / delete available. I don’t expect a full-blown mail system in my music software, but a few additional features and a larger per-message allowance would be nice.
– Community browsing is also a bit limited, though not as severely. For instance, I’d love to know which other members have tunes by the somewhat-obscure a cappella band “The Bobs,” but I’m only able to look up matches by individual tracks, not by artist, so I have to check each of the Bobs’ tunes individually to see if any of my Napster colleagues have those specific songs. Bummer :|.
– And while this isn’t a huge problem for me, I’m a bit disappointed that there are no instant messaging or real-time chat capabilities within Napster currently.
In speaking with a customer service representative, I was told that community features are not a particularly high priority for Napster right now. “We’re really working the hardest on improving the music component, and getting more songs online” he noted, and quite understandably at that. I do think, however, that if Napster wants to compete against Free (e.g., KaZaA), they need to pay more attention to the differentiation aspect of community. After all, people can get songs themselves still pretty easily on free networks nowadays, but many may be willing to pony up money for a better EXPERIENCE… which, IMHO, includes Community.
Well, I have now decided to end this part of the review here, and continue in the next few days with the following topics:
– Music information and non-music offerings
– Overall user interface
In the meantime, I think it bears repeating. Go out and try Napster now! I really don’t think you’ll be sorry 🙂
Edited to add:
The third and final part of my Napster review is now posted here.