Understanding music streaming services
Perhaps the most obvious form of online music is in the form of the a la carte download, which is a track or album purchased outright from an online music store like iTunes. These files can then be enjoyed through the computer or transferred to a variety of devices for portable listening. Another much less popular medium is the paid music subscription (available from services such as Rhapsody), which gives users unlimited access to millions of songs provided they stay up-to-date with a monthly fee. And then you have the subject of this quick guide: streaming music services.
Streaming music services, which are also known as Internet radio or online music recommendation engines, are very popular in their own right, and for good reason: they're free (and legal). There are two other major benefits to these services. For one, most of them depend upon or at least provide pre-programmed stations or playlists, which means in just a few short clicks, you can rock out to tunes for hours on end, without putting in much time or effort. However, an even more compelling reason to use streaming music services is for the recommendation and discovery aspects. Features such as algorithms, filters, and social graphing are used to "push" music based on your listening preferences, and you'll often hear things that you might not have been exposed to otherwise.
Of course, these services do have some limitations. For one, they're streaming, which means that (with one notable exception) you have to actually be connected to the Internet in order to use them--not necessarily a huge deal these days with a network in nearly every home and constantly connected smartphones in so many pockets. The other downside is that many of these services are ad-supported, and due to licensing restrictions, there can tend to be repetition in playback or a limited selection of tracks for full, online streaming.
Still, it's free, so there's really no reason to avoid checking out the many services out there. On the next page, you'll find a selection of some of the major players, as well as their pros and cons. And don't think you'll need to be tethered to your computer: the last page outlines several devices--both portable and not--that can be used with each service.