Review: Napster And Rhapsody For OS X And Linux? Sort Of

With the launch of new Web-based services from two major online music subscription providers, Mac and Linux users can finally get in on the all-you-can-download action. But are these services any good?

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

July 26, 2006

3 Min Read

Napster.com
In Napster's case, the answer to the "Is it any good?" question is a resounding "no." Although the company touts its Web-based music player and accompanying free service as an option for Mac and Linux users, the company doesn't provide these groups with an upgrade path from its free service to a worthwhile paid subscription.

In practical terms, the process of installing and using Napster's Web-based player is very simple. After completing a quick registration form, users can play any song in Napster's million-plus title catalog for free -- but each song can be played only three times.

Its music player, which is embedded in either Firefox or OS X's Safari, is a Flash-based application. Flash music players are a common sight these days; not surprisingly, the player performed well on a number of test systems, including Windows XP SP2, Mac OS 10.4.7, and an Ubuntu 4.0 Linux distro.

I was, however, surprised to find that the player's sound quality -- never a strong point when you're talking about Flash -- was even worse than usual, and significantly lower than Rhapsody's Web-based player. According to a Napster news release and various other sources, the player streams at just 32 kbps -- very low-quality audio, even compared to many of the free Shoutcast or other Internet radio streams that are now so easy to find online.

Shelling out the $10-per-month subscription fee does improve the situation for Mac and Linux users somewhat: You get unlimited plays of all songs in the Napster catalog through the Web player, and the audio stream uses a higher bit rate than the free users get.

However, by using the Web player rather than Napster's Windows-only client software, Linux and Mac users are denied most of the service's basic features. For instance, the Web player lacks the essential ability to create and save playlists. In fact, the player doesn't even allow users to queue songs, instead forcing them to load and play tracks one at a time. In other words, Napster's Web player lacks even the most basic features that a paying customer would expect from this type of service -- or, for that matter, from any PC-based digital audio player.

It's clear that Napster intends its Web player to serve solely as a marketing tool, rather than as a profit center in its own right. Napster strongly encourages users to share song links via blog entries, e-mail, or text messages; when the recipient clicks on a shared song link, Napster uses the same Flash-based player to deliver the song (and another ad).

While its lack of features renders Napster's Web player worthless as a "destination" app for paying customers, it poses no problem for users who simply want to hear more than a 30-second sample (a la Apple's iTunes Music Store) before they purchase tracks. Linux and Mac users looking for a decent subscription service, however, should look elsewhere.

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