While most services have always been legitimate, some have found that path after years of a bit more…interesting business models. Yes, I’m talking about Napster, which is now a legitimate service owned by Best Buy. It takes a different approach than some of the other services, but how well does that work?
Concept and notes to the review
Napster is messy at the moment. Napster Beta is the Beta of a new layout, a completely new way of browsing the site. The old layout is still around as well as country specific Napster services for UK, Canada, Germany and Japan. In the help menus there are mentions of Napster software and Napster To Go and Unlimited services, but the only place this is actually mentioned on the Napster page is by going to your account, where you’ll be asked to read a user manual to find out about Napster To Go and contact customer support to sign up(!). Best Buy owns Napster and used to be partners with Rhapsody, so I’m guessing Napster is their way of moving on by themselves. Otherwise it’s the dumbest placement of a sign up page I have ever seen. Either way, this review will focus on Napster’s streaming service and MP3 store, and only the new layout- not the old Napster, and not the To Go service. This means the part of Napster that let’s you stream music online and buy songs as MP3 downloads.
Requirements and software
As I said, Napster is an IP nightmare- if you try visiting the site without a US IP it won’t even bother telling you that you can’t use the service; it will simply send you to free.napster.com which has some tracks available for free. You can sign up using a proxy and use PayPal to pay, and once you’re logged in you can disable the proxy and still use the site. You can’t however get into the site to even log in without a proxy, so using this service on vacation for instance will be a nuisance. As for software, there is a Napster Download Manager and a software simply called Napster. The latter is related to the subscription service so I’m not going to go into it- in any case you don’t need it for the services reviewed here. The download manager is a very small application that works exactly like all other download manager’s out there; it will download the music you buy and let you auto-import to iTunes or Windows Media Player. Whenever you click to buy a song and confirm the purchase, download manager will start and handle the rest.
Napster charges $7 per month for 5 songs and unlimited access to streaming and if you pay for 3 or 12 months at a time the price is $5 per month. This means you have access to all of their 8 million songs to play without commercials or in preview form as much as you want- as long as you do it online (no saving to your computer). On top of that, music can be bought for money instead of credits where songs range from $0.69 to $1.29- like iTunes. Since you’ll run into more songs at the two highest price points than the lowest, the monthly subscription should be a no brainer- 5 songs and unlimited streaming is a very nice deal. Even if you don’t need the streaming, you can consider it a plan for full track previews.
Napster Beta is basically the ultimate showcase for web 2.0. Everything has been redesigned to look super smooth, with only the minimum amount of text and instead focus on album art and nice visual markers. The main page as well as the genre pages have a various new music and suggestions splattered on them in the usual manner, just with huge album art instead of the normal thumbs. This gets a bit tiresome to look at as you have to scroll a lot even on high res screens, but it does look nice. Hovering over the album art anywhere on the page brings up three buttons; play/add to queue, add to playlist and buy.
The entire browsing experience is very minimalistic- too much so in some cases. There’s no main navigation bar that stays with you at all times, and you can’t even browse subgenres- you more or less have to know what you’re after to get by, or at least a starting point. Album and artist pages make the sidebar disappear altogether, so you have to use the back button or a link to the main page if you want to get back into actually browsing.
The artist and album pages both look different from what you’re used to with other music services- though that can be said for the entire Napster experience, really. You have links to similar artists or albums- recommendations that have proven to be quite accurate and helped me find some new music. For albums you also have album review if available and for artists you have bio if available. There are song lists on both album and artist page, and with the artist page you can sort them alphabetically, by date or popularity as well as switch between albums and songs. For artists you can also use something c
alled Automix, which gives you 1 hour worth of the artist randomly mixed.
One extremely nice (though CPU intensive) feature with artist pages is a full screen album browser that lets you see the artist’s albums as a movable wall of album art that you can interact with. The feature seems to be stolen from J. River Media Center 14 (review coming at a later date) but it does look awesome. As for usefulness it doesn’t score that high, but it’s a very nice demo of what you can actually do in a browser- I’m impressed.
Napster also offers something called Napster Radio and Napster Playlists. These features are basically just lists of songs that will stream as normal songs- for playlists you get specific songs as a playlist while the radio will stream various songs based on the station you’re listening to. Lastly, there’s Napster Billboards which is essentially just a list of the most popular music at the moment.
As I said the whole browsing experience is a lot more minimalistic than with other services but in my opinion it works well. There are fewer sections, but most of the things are there. Also, unlike Rhapsody, the search feature actually works, even if it’s unable to correct bad spelling (ah Google, where are you when I need you to find Eläkeläiset for me). The screenshots is really the only thing that does the Napster store justice, so take a look at those.
The browsing experience is really different from any browser based music store you’ve ever seen- it’s easily as smooth looking as a dedicated application and it doesn’t look like the internet at all. Since Napster allows you to stream as much music as you want, there’s a player on the bottom of the screen at all times which looks better than most dedicated music players. You have album art, progress bar, volume, shuffle and repeat as well as a collapsible queue list that works like the playlist list of any dedicated music player. The entire site is a mix between flash and normal web methods, which circumvents what you’re used to from the internet normally; for example, the player will stay on the bottom and work just fine (with a half second skip) when you reload the page or click a link. Hover effects, minimizing parts of the page etc all work in a way completely different from what you would expect from a web based service. In essence, Napster works as good as or better than a dedicated music application and does so in a web browser. This means that having the service completely browser based isn’t as farfetched as it might seem. Running this all day in a dedicated window is very usable, and it’s not all that resource intensive either, although some browsers like eating ram for no reason and might need a restart to work properly (*erhm* Firefox *erhm*).
You can also browse and buy music on the go from a mobile device, but it seems you still have to log into your account on a computer to actually download anything. I tried this with an Archos 5 Android and it completed the purchase just fine but didn’t prompt me with any way of downloading the file. In other words, not that useful.
Napster uses 192kbps for streaming music when available, but some tracks might stream in 128kbps. As for MP3 downloads, they are normally 256kbps CBR. This is the same as Rhapsody, but less than Amazon, eMusic and iTunes, though not by much and should still be more than enough for most people. As for tags, all were in place- however the album art was overly big in some cases. 700×700 for one file, 1024×1024 for another- that might create trouble for some players. 600×600 is more than enough.
For those that haven’t read my music store reviews before, below is a constantly updated chart of 20 artists picked by myself and others and number of songs available for each one. This isn’t scientific, and there are issues with double listings, listing the same artists in different ways etc, but it’s the best I can do to give some indication of the available selection. Napster claims to have 8 million tracks, which is 3 million less than iTunes but still a very nice collection, which means you should be able to find most of the stuff you’re after on Napster.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Napster is going through some changes and is very messy at the moment- Napster Beta, old Napster, Napster To Go and Unlimited being mentioned here and there. I chose only to review the new Napster as that’s what the main focus of the company is right now, and definitely the most interesting service and the one that will continue into the future. The price is really good, giving you 5 MP3 tracks and unlimited streaming for $5/$7 a month /depending on how many months you pay for at once). On top of that it has the most interesting music browsing experience of all the services I’ve reviewed so far, utilizing the web browser in ways I didn’t think was really possible- at least not while still being usable. Amazon has more choices for browsing (subgenres etc) as well as better quality and a lot of free music and sales, eMusic is a lot cheaper for Indie music and older tracks and iTunes still has the best overall selection, but Napster is definitely a nice service that solves everything in a really nice way with the new Napster Beta browser based UI. Besides it’s the cheapest streaming service out there as far as I know, with both Rhapsody and Spotify costing more.