Editor's note: Since the time of this writing, Sprint has since lowered the download price to $0.99 per track.
Unless you're a Sprint customer with a compatible phone, you've probably never heard of Sprint Music Service. While Verizon has followed in Apple's marketing footsteps by launching an aggressive ad campaign for its V Cast Music service (at the time of this writing, in fact, several Web ads could be found on CNET), Sprint has been far less visible in the promotion of its service. Not that V Cast's $1.99-per-track cost is much more enticing, but Sprint's $2.50-per-track pricing plan wouldn't exactly fly in an ad campaign anyway.
So what do you get for your 250 hard-earned pennies? Namely, instant gratification. And we have to admit it's quite a luxury to be able to download a song wirelessly whenever you think of it, wherever you are. But keep in mind, that's exactly what it is--a luxury. This isn't the way you're going to be downloading all your music. For one, it's expensive: Think $22.50 for 10 tracks, and most albums contain more than that. Second, most phones don't come with a ton of memory, though you can upgrade--at more of an expense to you, of course. Our Samsung MM-A920 test phone came with a 32MB TransFlash card, and we filled it nearly all the way up with just 11 songs. Finally, you probably don't want to waste all your cell phone battery life playing back tunes, and music playback will drain juice quicker than if you're just making calls. Also, you have to stay connected to the Sprint Music Store to play your purchased tracks, so if you're out of reach of Sprint's network, you're out of luck. For most of your music needs, we recommend a stand-alone MP3 player and purchasing music online; with Wi-Fi and a laptop, you could purchase songs anywhere as well.
The Sprint Music Store doesn't have much in the way of features, but you do get a PC download of each song you purchase on your phone. Unfortunately, the same doesn't go for ring tones. You can't use a track purchased from the Music Store as a ringer for your phone; instead, you must pay an additional $2.50 for a shortened version to use as a ringer--seriously lame. Also, note that unless you subscribe to one of Sprint's Power Vision packages, you'll be paying extra for airtime every time you log on to the Music Store.
If you want to download your purchased songs, simply log on to the service's Web site, and you're taken directly to a list of your songs, each of which has a download icon next to it. The tracks you save to your PC are protected WMA files (Windows Media DRM 9) encoded at 128Kbps. This isn't top-notch quality (192Kbps is the best for WMA), but it's much better than the 32Kbps AAC+ files that are saved to the phone. Initially, we tried to play our first track in Rhapsody, a DRM 9-compatible player, but it couldn't find the license. It turns out you need to use Windows Media Player to play all the tracks first so that it can find the licenses for you; it knows where to look, apparently. After this first play, however, you can use any media player capable of playing protected WMAs, such as Rhapsody. You can also transfer the track to an MP3 player with protected WMA support, such as a Creative Zen Micro Photo, though you cannot transfer them back to the phone in this format; the Samsung MM-A920 supports MP3 and AAC but not WMA.
On the phone, the Sprint Music Store interface is pretty simple. Once you open the music browser, which is a featured option in the menu, you get two tabs: Store and Player. Under Store, Sprint lists a Featured Music section with three tracks, as well as a Categories section that narrows things down with options such as New This Week and What's Hot. We gravitated toward the search function and found our desired songs and artists that way. The browser took about 9 seconds to return for results. That's not bad, but it was definitely slower than a PC music service such as Rhapsody. Download performance was also OK. Bloc Party's "Banquet," which is 3 minutes, 21 seconds long, took about 50 seconds to download to the phone.
Under the Player tab of Sprint Music Store, you'll see an All My Music option and any playlists you've made, as well as a Create Playlist option. Once on the music page, you can view tracks by song name, artist, or genre. Starting up the player takes about 4 seconds, as does switching between tracks while they're playing; the wait is more than what we're used to from a stand-alone MP3 player, but it wasn't too bad overall. At least there were no skips or pauses during playback, and you can view album art while you're listening. The best part is that you can close the phone while the music player is running and use the control pad on the front to access the basic music functions. Whether the Samsung MM-A920 was open or shut, music coming through the speakers was unspectacular--tinny overall with little bass response. Connecting a stereo headset helped considerably, but we still recommend listening to the bulk of your music on an MP3 player.