Editors' note: Napster's service details and rates have changed significantly since this review was posted. For more information, please read the updated article at the MP3 Insider blog.
Napster has twice revolutionized music downloading: first infamously by facilitating illegal downloads, then by popularizing the notion of "renting" music through its Napster To Go subscription plan. Now it's again offering free music but this time with a catch that makes it legal. Registered users can stream almost any song in the catalog five times with the new browser interface, although those songs can't be downloaded and are encoded at a low bit rate. The full Napster client, however, offers a fully featured music shopping experience with loads of custom recommendations, community features, and experienced editorial content. Bargain shoppers will still gravitate toward Virgin Digital and Yahoo Music Unlimited, which edge out Napster on price. But if it's an all-encompassing digital music shopping experience you're after, Napster's tough to beat.
The new online service, found at Napster.com, is well arranged and offers quick access to new releases, personal recommendations, music genres, and editor-created playlists. It's organized with a tabbed interface that lets you access the new Narchive and NapsterLinks sections, as well. The Narchive is a music encyclopedia wiki, with users doing most of the writing. It had barely begun at the time of this writing but showed promise. NapsterLinks are Web URLs to songs or albums that users can insert in their Web pages (see Features for more info). Clicking one lets registered users listen to that song free online. Navigating and using the online components is pleasantly simple.
As for the Napster client, the first thing you'll notice is a more streamlined home page than with previous versions. The look is designed to make it easier to find music--a novel idea, indeed. The search bar is still on top, but now it sits square in the middle of each page instead of the top-right corner. As with Napster 3.0, you can search for music by artist name, album, or track; you can also search for a particular Napster member or search purely in your library. Next to the search bar is a Browse Music drop-down menu, where you can search through Billboard charts or independent label content, or just browse by genre. Tucked in the upper-right corner is a button for accessing your music library. Gone are the tabs from the 3.0 version; instead, you get drop-down lists for features, radio, playlists, community, and extra options. In all, it has a less cluttered look and feel than the previous version--a welcome improvement.
The playlist column is always present on the right side of the screen and displays currently playing tracks, whether from your library or streamed from the Napster service. When you connect a Napster To Go-compatible device (one labeled PlaysForSure that uses Microsoft's Janus protocol), you get a small picture of the player in a box on the bottom-right corner, just beneath the playlist column. The player also shows up in your library as a folder. As with the previous version, you simply drag and drop songs to the box, which then displays the transfer status as a percentage. But what we like best about this transfer method is that you can continue to drag tracks into the box while music is transferring, and they'll be added to the queue. Virgin Digital offers this feature, but Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited do not. You can use the latest version of Windows Media Player to transfer tracks purchased or downloaded from Napster.
The Napster client (currently version 3.6) runs only on Windows 2000 and XP. If you want a Napster To Go subscription, you'll need WMP 10 (XP only). Even if you don't, it's recommended to help speed streaming quality and rebuffering time. Subscribers can play their tracks on two portable devices and three computers with each Napster To Go account. If you want to connect an additional device, you must drop an existing one from the partner list.
Since Napster introduced its to-go service, with which you can download subscription tracks to compatible digital music players, Rhapsody, Yahoo, and Virgin Digital have all unveiled similar plans (and don't forgot AOL Music Now, currently in preview). Virgin Digital is the cheapest at $7.99 per month with no commitment, and Yahoo Music Unlimited follows at $11.99 per month. Napster, Rhapsody, and AOL Music Now all charge $14.95 a month to take your tracks to go. For all-you-can-eat tethered downloads (which can't be transferred or burned), Napster costs $9.99 per month. If you're new to subscription plans, be aware that downloaded tracks expire once you discontinue the subscription. To find out which MP3 players are compatible with Napster, use our music compatibility wizard.Music is free on Napster once again--sort of. Napster's new online service lets people create free accounts that can stream almost any title from Napster's catalog of more than 2 million songs (among online music stores, Napster and Apple's iTunes Music Store have the largest catalogs). If a track is available for subscription, it's available for free streaming. There are a few catches, though: free users can stream a song only five times, tracks are encoded at a low 32Kbps, and users need to endure ads after every third track.
The online service is nice perk, since it lets you sample new music and works with any computer, but it's not perfect. We wish it had a playlist feature, so users could build and save song lists. That would be especially helpful for subscribers, who aren't bound by the five-stream limit. AOL Music Now is browser based and lets users save playlists, but the browser version of Rhapsody hasn't learned the trick either. We also wish that users could add songs to the now playing list. Currently, when listening to an album, you need to finish listening to the tracks before you can select more songs, otherwise those new choices will simply replace the existing ones.
Rhapsody is the only other service with a free online option, but its plan is a bit different. Rhapsody lets free users listen to 25 tracks each month, so it's more limited, but there are no ads between songs, and tracks are encoded at 128Kbps. We say don't choose--get an account with each.
Napster's online service features a new area called Narchive (the worst name to come out of a committee in some time), a user-created music encyclopedia with live links to songs. Still in beta as of this writing, it's an interesting attempt to bring some Web 2.0 user-created content into a music store, and we'll be curious to see if it takes off. Entries are currently slight. Users can create new entries or add comments or pictures to existing ones. Also new are NapsterLinks, which let people insert links to songs in their e-mails, instant messages, Web pages, and even wikis, by automatically generating the right code for each. You get the code by clicking the Share It icon on an album page or by doing a search from the NapsterLinks tab. Napster gives you the option of joining an affiliate network to make money (5 percent) from purchases that go through your links. Rhapsody has similar links, but they're not formatted for different uses, so they're not as simple to insert. Rhapsody also doesn't offer an affiliate plan, but on the plus side, users don't need to create a free account to listen to songs from a Rhapsody link.