Big-Time Music Services Arrive

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Windows users finally have a variety of reasonably priced sources for digital music: ITunes is at last on Windows, Napster is back, and Musicmatch has been up and selling since fall. These services may not yet lure devotees of free peer-to-peer file sharing, but each is worth a listen.

Look for even more options soon: MTV, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart, among others, should launch similar stores.

Sweet and Sour

All three stores share the same basics: Tracks cost 99 cents, and most albums cost $10. Songs can be played on up to three PCs, transferred to an unlimited number of portable players, and burned to CD as often as you like, provided you occasionally change the playlist. They have comparable mainstream collections despite a disparity in total number of songs (more than 250,000, 400,000, and 500,000 for Musicmatch, ITunes, and Napster, respectively).

Apple's ITunes Music Store is by far the best designed, and it lets you stream songs from the shared collections of other users (PC or Mac). However, Apple lets you download tunes to IPods only--leading many observers to conclude ITunes' real purpose is to sell IPods.

Integration with the powerful Musicmatch media player (which still gets raves) gives the Musicmatch Downloads store an edge, despite occasionally sluggish response times. Like ITunes, Musicmatch shows the benefits of combining all tasks--buying, organizing, and listening--into one app. Also, for $5 per month it lets you stream tunes and custom stations (Napster's version is $10 per month).

Napster 2.0 offers ways to find new music beyond artist and genre, such as Billboard charts, recent additions, and streamed stations.
The reformed Napster will make a splash, too. It has lots of ways to find music, such as an archive of Billboard charts from 1955 onward, and unlike the others it lets you download purchased tracks to another PC easily. Its interface takes getting used to, however, and its portable player lacks some features (see "Hard-Drive Music Players" for more).

Each store is good for occasional buys and should convert users who sometimes got tracks off Kazaa. But none has nailed it. For now, if you want a song you may try online first, but you'll probably end up at your local store to buy it.

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