Wal-Mart's Music Downloads service sprang onto the online music scene this year, offering songs for a comparatively cheap 88 cents a pop and quickly becoming a hit with users (a recent NPD Group study ranked it second, behind iTunes and ahead of Napster). As with other stores offering music à la carte, you won't need to sign up for any long-term commitment; you can buy individual songs or albums whenever you have the urge.
Getting started with Wal-Mart's Music Downloads is a simple matter of pointing your browser to the Web site, choosing the songs you want, and putting them in your cart. You won't need to download any software, but you must have Windows Media Player 9.0 to play purchased music or transfer it to a CD or a supported MP3 player. (You also must have Windows 98 SE or later--Mac and Linux aren't supported.) When you're ready to buy tunes for the first time, you'll be prompted to set up an account, which takes just a few minutes. Thereafter, you can simply check out and begin downloading immediately; your purchases are automatically charged to your credit card.
Navigating Wal-Mart Music Downloads couldn't be easier. The main Music Downloads page features search boxes for artist, song, and album and provides links for certain preset searches (for example, Top 100 Downloads and Wal-Mart Exclusives). You'll also find links to premade playlists, such as Workout Mix and Stars and Stripes. The search function serves up a well-organized list of matching items. Searches are generally fruitful for mainstream music, less so for independent labels. Compared to the 700,000 tracks that Apple iTunes offers in its catalog as of this writing, Wal-Mart's 300,000-song repertoire seems piddling.
Wal-Mart's music-usage terms are pretty standard, and unlike BuyMusic.com's, they are the same for all songs. You can store and play music an unlimited number of times on up to three PCs and transfer songs as many times as you want to portable devices that can play protected WMA files. We transferred an album we'd purchased to our Cowon iAudio 4 without a hitch. A Wal-Mart rep assured us that you can deauthorize a computer if you decide to upgrade, as long as you have backed up the song and its license on a secondary computer, a portable device, or a CD. Burns to the latter are limited to 10 for each tune.
We found Wal-Mart's Music Downloads customer support more than sufficient. In addition to an extensive FAQ section, the company offers 24/7 toll-free phone support. E-mail questions are answered swiftly--we received a response in less than an hour using an anonymous address.