Apple's ITunes Music Store is a winner

If you're hunting for music, tunes in quantity are available on peer-to-peer services, such as Kazaa, which offer millions of songs. You can't predict the quality of downloads there, however. And Hollywood continues to pressure these sites since it considers them illegal.

New services from America Online Inc., Apple Computer Inc., and FullAudio Corp. offer dependable, fast, and fully legal downloads of good-quality music files as enticements to pay. FullAudio's MusicNow and MusicNet on AOL, which are subscription-based, have useful features. But Apple's ITunes Music Store, which offers over 200,000 songs at US$1 each for immediate download and burning, is by far the best of the three services and may be the beacon that finally draws users to pay for play.

The Music's Core

ITunes Music Store requires no subscription fee--all you need is a Mac with ITunes 4 software. You can listen to a 30-second sample of any track for free; however, the other two services let you listen to a full song as much as you want before deciding to buy. Music Store's tracks cost US$1 each, and some entire albums are available for only $10. I downloaded 17 tracks of Jimi Hendrix's First Rays of the New Rising Sun for $5 less than the CD costs on Inc.

Music Store's slick graphical interface and impressive browse options make finding what you're looking for easy. But what counts here is that you really own the tracks you buy: You can burn them to disc, transfer them to an IPod portable player, or even share them with up to three other Macs. The extent of Apple's liberties are unheard of for major-label downloads.

Music Store has some big names, but it suffers from a relatively small catalog. Although many high-quality artists are represented, not all their songs are available. And a version for Windows users isn't expected until year's end.

PC Friendly

If you want to use your PC for unlimited downloads and streams for a US$10 monthly subscription fee and tracks that cost US$1 each, try FullAudio's MusicNow (you can burn the files to CD or transfer them to any portable player that reads WMA files). The service is integrated into Windows Media Player, so you can easily mix the new tracks that you've downloaded with your existing digital music library. MusicNow is built around different channels, such as Parking Lot, which features all jam bands. The service's streaming radio offers its best song selection--far more titles than the assortment available for on-demand streaming, download, or purchase.

You've Got Music

MusicNet on AOL is a great improvement over the first-generation MusicNet. You choose from three monthly subscription levels: Download and stream 20 tracks for $4; download and stream unlimited tracks for $9; or download and stream unlimited tracks, plus burn 10 tracks, for $18. You must be an AOL subscriber, however, so factor in that monthly subscription fee.

MusicNet's strength is its catalog--more than 300,000 tracks. But MusicNet trails the other services in digital rights. Though you can burn ten tracks a month, unused credits do not carry over. And currently, you can't download tracks to a portable player.

FullAudio's MusicNow is a good choice if you like listening to high-quality radio and rarely want to buy tracks. MusicNet on AOL is a convenient, but expensive, way to access a lot of great music. Apple's ITunes Music Store is so well designed, it may provide enough incentive to listeners for them to enjoy paying for music downloads.

Apple ITunes Music Store
Simple pricing and user-friendly digital rights; but so far, Mac-only.
Price when reviewed: US$1 per track

America Online MusicNet on AOL
Great selection; prohibitive cost.
Price when reviewed: US$4 to $18 per month, plus AOL subscription charges

FullAudio MusicNow
Fantastic streaming radio, but limited purchase choices.
Price when reviewed: US$10 per month, US$1 per track

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