Review Roundup: Five Music Subscription Services Challenge iTunes - InformationWeek
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Review Roundup: Five Music Subscription Services Challenge iTunes

The new generation of subscription music download services is poised to give Apple's iTunes a run for its money. Which service is best?

Music is everywhere these days. Thousands of tunes are immediately accessible via your computer and your mobile player. However, the advent of music subscription download services has fueled a debate among aficionados. Is it better to rent all the music you want for a monthly fee that's about the same as the cost of a single CD, or buy the music outright without limits or conditions –- for more?

It all started three years ago with Apple's iTunes music service, which was an immediate hit because of its famously large selection of legal 99-cents-a-tune songs and full-CD prices of about $10. iTunes remains a star—according to Nielsen/NetRatings, traffic to the iTunes music store surged by 241 percent in 2005, and recently the service reached its one billionth download.

Online Music Services

•  Introduction

•  How To Choose

•  AOL Music Now

•  iTunes

•  Napster

•  Rhapsody

•  Virgin Digital

•  Yahoo! Music Unlimited

•  Conclusions

•  Price Comparison Table

However, the next generation of music services, which started emerging in 2005, may trump that hand. Subscription download services let you pay a flat monthly subscription fee of between $5 and $15, which is less than the typical cost of a full CD. For that fee, you can download all the available music you want and play it on your desktop computer or personal media player.

But you can play the music only if you pay the monthly fee; the digital rights management (DRM) software prevents playback if you stop paying the "rent." And you can't share with friends or burn CDs with subscription service music. To do that, you still must buy the music outright.

Because the subscription services provide virtually unlimited downloads, those who don't care about burning CDs report feeling like the proverbial kid in a candy store after they subscribe. However, those who do care about actually owning music often report a look-but-don't-touch reaction.

I reviewed five leading subscription download services as well as iTunes and found that, no matter where you come down in the buy-or-rent debate, these services generally work as advertised. But there are some issues to examine before you dive into the subscription services.

Sidebar: The Cellular Option

Cellular operators, eager to increase revenues generated by their high-speed 3G cellular data networks, are starting to jump into the music download business.

With these services, you can download music directly to compatible cell phones while you are out and about. The cellular operators are hoping that the sheer convenience of mobile music downloads will offset the high price they are charging and their comparatively small selection.

Sprint (shown here) and Verizon Wireless are offering music download services.

While Cingular has said it will launch a music service later this year, the only two U.S. cellular operators currently offering music download services are Verizon Wireless and Sprint, which launched its service with its Sprint Music Store last fall. It charges $2.50 per tune for music delivered directly to the phone with a second copy available for free download to the desktop. In addition, users must pay between $15 and $25 a month for Sprint's Power Vision media service.

Verizon Wireless' music service, launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, is part of its V CAST media service, which also delivers streaming video and games to users of compliant phones, for $15 a month. Verizon's downloads cost 99 cents each to your PC or $1.99 when downloaded directly over-the-air to your phone in addition to the monthly V CAST fee.

Besides their higher prices, both cellular operators claim the availability of only hundreds of thousands of songs from a handful of major labels, compared to more than a million songs from thousands of labels offered by the full-fledged subscription services. They both claim, however, that the selection will increase over time.

While Cingular has yet to launch its music service, it does offer the Motorola SLVR, an "iTunes phone" that lets users download iTunes songs from a desktop PC. The phone does not, however, connect directly to the iTunes service.

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