I’m now 5 weeks into my summer job and being in a job that allows for using an MP3 player I have been searching around for stuff to listen to the last few weeks. Music is all good and well, but when it’s 6 hours a day 6 days a week you do get tired of your “favorites” playlist rather quickly.
My way of thinking has always been to happily pay for something as long as it’s a reasonable fee for something I can actually use. 10 years after the first MP3 players reeked havoc in the music industry one would think that there’s been some steps made in the right direction when it comes to legal content for our beloved players, but has it really or are we still more or less left to illegal downloading if we want the good stuff? Read on for a look at what’s available in the realms of legal content now in 2008.
Of course the most obvious type of content for a MP3 player is music. Such sites as the old Napster and AllofMP3 have certainly done their part to make the history of music downloading rather colorful, but nowadays things are starting to become a bit more…civilized. DRM has been an issue for a looooooong time, but it seems now that download stores are beginning to learn. I do not under any circumstance encourage people to buy DRMed music, simply because it gives the companies an incentive to continue offering it. DRM is a real pain in the behind because it limits the number of times you can transfer files to a device, you need devices that can actually read the files and you might be left with a problem if the DRM servers go down. MSN Music tried doing this earlier this year, but turned around and promised to have the servers up until 2010. If they had closed them (like Yahoo is planning on doing now too) anyone that had bought music from them would no longer be able to authenticate the files for transfer to portable devices and other computers.
Not supporting DRM is not the same as illegally downloading music, as there are plenty of places to download DRM free music. For US residents, the logical place to go is Amazon. For UK residents, play.com has opened a MP3 store as well. The problem is that a lot of people (me included) live outside the major countries that have big sites like Amazon and play to take care of them. No one seems willing – or able – to sell downloads internationally, and that’s one of the big problems at this time. Relying on small stores in each individual country to supply their own country with music is not the way to do it in my opinion – yes it does help include local artists but Amazon and such sites should still find a way to go international (which I think they are planning).
Music subscriptions are also still going strong. Basically you pay a monthly fee to access a library of songs with DRM that will work as long as you keep paying the monthly fee. Rhapsody To Go is one such site. The idea is good, but personally I want to own my music and not be bound to paying the monthly fee forever and ever to keep using my music. Still, if you’re one of those people that listen to anything and hence have loads of music that would cost thousands to buy legally, it’s a nice compromise that will allow you to have your music legally without having to take up a second mortgage. Rhapsody does let you buy music as well on to of the subscription, so if theres something you really like that you have downlaoded on your subscription you can make it yours forever.
Free music is a trend that’s been catching on the last year as well, with known artists giving away their music for free downloading. When buying music through download stores you do support the record labels more than the artists and so I think that any artist that are willing to share their work directly deserve a listen. it might not be to your liking, but it shows that the effort is appreciated. personally I’ve found some new artists to like simply from listening to their free downloads and then later gone out and bought the CD or donated to support them. A friend of mine pointed me to a site called Jamendo, where artists allow people to download their music legally and free. Definitely worth a look. Legal MP3 stores is a good step in itself, but if we are to really hope for the future, I’d cross my fingers for more artists doing this and dropping the greedy record labels all together. Either way, there are ways of getting music in MP3 format legally without getting broke and I do encourage people to do this if it fits your economy and you don’t have to go out of your way to do so.
Turning away from the greedy record labels and into the world of user created content, podcasts is a really nice thing to get into. For those of you who are unaware what podcasts are (and from my experience that’s actually quite a few); podcasts are more or less radio shows that instead of being aired live are recorded to audio files and posted, for free, on the web. You can find podcasts of all sorts of topics, from MP3 players to gardening tips. I’ve used a lot of podcasts the last few weeks and so naturally have searched around quite a lot. It seems the podcast community got a little tired of the whole thing around late 2006, as a lot of shows I saw on various sites suddenly shut down around then. Still, there are a lot (and I mean a LOT) of shows still going strong and podcasts are by no means dead.
My favorites are MobileTechRoundup (technology podcast) and the Sci Fi Guys (Sci Fi and fantasy podcast). Both of these keep a very high standard and if you are into what they cover I can personally highly recommend them. There are of course a lot more podcasts out there, good and bad, but luckily there are a lot of sites that keep track of podcasts such as Podcast.com. Having tried a lot of them I always go back to Podcastalley because it’s simply the easiest to use in my opinion.
Once you know what you want to subscribe to, you can get the content in several ways. You can of course use a normal RSS reader and download manually, but checking for updates and doing so manually is annoying if you have a lot of podcasts. Luckily there are alternatives. First of all, i have to bring up the issue of Podcast Ready, a nice looking site that offers some (in theory) nice ways of managing content. Having tried the site on 4 different web browsers and two different computers, it freezes up the web browsers when you do anything at all EVERY SINGLE TIME. This isn’t acceptable from a big website, so take my advice and stay away because it makes the service unusable.
The alternative I’ve been using for keeping track of feeds is Juice, an open source podcast downloader. I have in all honesty been looking for an alternative as it’s not a very good piece of software, but once you get around its somewhat peculiar ways of doing things, it will download your podcasts. If anyone has any good tips for podcast downloaders, leave a message in the comments. Both iPods and Zunes have this feature in their own software, so if you have either of those players you should be fine. Last month we also showed you a special hardware for podcast downloading, the CastGrabber.
My personal choice for keeping track of podcasts however is Nokia Podcasting for Nokia cellphones running Symbian S60 V3. With my E51′s Wifi it auto updates and downloads my subscribed podcasts automatically and it also checks off what podcasts I’ve listened to in the list. With podcasts the sound quality of the device doesn’t really matter and so these two features are enough for me to prefer my cell over an MP3 player. I’d really like to see an MP3 player with really good podcasting support, including Wifi downloading, but so far no luck. There are however some manufacturers that does seem to be aware podcasts exist. With SanDisk, both the Sansa Clip and the Sansa Fuze are able to separate audiobooks and podcasts from the music on the player, change playback speed and delete on the device. If you go out of a podcast in the middle of it to listen to music, it will let you continue where you left off when you go back to the podcast section. The Zune is also considered a very good device for podcasts and as I mentioned it has software supporting it too. Still, no down
loading on the player itself and that’s the feature that I think is most important for podcasts.
Audio books are either hit or miss with a lot of people, as there are people using them all the time and people that never even considered doing so. If you are to buy them in stores as CDs, they are extremely expensive and the CD format itself isn’t very portable anymore. Luckily there are legal ways of getting audio books downloads online.
Of course the first thing to mention here is Audible. Audible is basically a giant online site for audio books that charge reasonable prices for audio books and also offer some monthly plans to bring down the prices ever more. They do however use a special file format that not all MP3 players can play back, but a lot can. Again, the Sansa series is supported and with the audio book separation mentioned above it works very well. You do require special software to download and transfer files, but luckily it was way less annoying that I feared and it also works when the player is in MSC mode (shows up as external storage). What annoys me about Audible is that even though it all works well and the prices aren’t too bad, they lack a plan where you pay a monthly fee to download as many audiobooks as you want. The Gold and Platinum services give you 1 or 2 credits (respectively) each month, with one credit being one book (with some exceptions). Sure that’s fine for casual listeners, but they don’t really seem to care much for those that use a lot of audio books as they won’t get much cheaper even if you buy 100.
If you don’t want to pay for the audio books you might like Librivox, a site with public domain books read by volunteers. Of course there’s way less content there than Audible offers, but it’s free. A commenter also mentioned Podioooks which is also a site offering free audio books. Another free way of getting books would of course be a library and some libraries offer audio books online. Even if yours doesn’t, theres always CDs that can be ripped – even if it takes longer. Remember this is only legal if you delete the files when you return the original copy, and even then I suspect some countries wouldn’t like the method.
Lastly there is audio theater. Audio theater is basically audio books, but using one actor per character instead of one person reading everything – like a TV show without the video. A great site offering free sci fi and fantasy audio theater is DarkerProjects, which have several really good shows going with new episodes on a monthly basis. I do recommend starting out with older shows as waiting a month per new episode is a bit boring, but the quality of what they offer is worth it – after all they are normal people doing it on a hobby basis and for free.
There are surprisingly few sites that really offer video content for portable players. One of the biggest problems is of course format support, as few MP3 players use the same format for video. Amazon Unboxed offer video content for playsforsure devices (compatibility list), but this doesn’t cover nearly all devices, there has been some audio sync problems and again it’s only for US residents. Video is undoubtedly the area of legal downloading that’s come the shortest in the last years as we don’t have anything that’s even close to acceptable outside iTunes and iPods. Manufacturers need to get a grip, agree on a standard for videos and hence make it possible for downloads to be offered. The way it is today is like trying to sell coffee beans when all coffee machines use a different type.
Bottom line is that there is plenty of legal content offered but the stores that offer such content for a price still have a long way to go before people will stop downloading illegally. The good thing about such sites as Audible is that even if you have to pay for the content and go along with their rather useless software, you do get to choose for a gigantic library and not have to worry about enough seeds to get your stuff. For online music stores, I’d say the 30 second samples are the biggest advantages compared to torrents and such, but what would really be useful is a non-DRM version of the iTouch/iPhone iTunes store that used for example Amazon MP3 as a source for browsing and downloading music directly on the player via Wifi, but that requires a level of cooperation we’ve yet to see in this business unfortunately. Maybe if the record labels stopped trying to sue everyone who don’t want to spend money on their DRM crap, they’d start using their time and money on creating systems that allowed people to be legal when it comes to their content.
What do you readers think about this? Have we made any headway in the last years with services such as those mentioned here? Also, if you know of sites and services not mentioned – leave a comment.