Quick look at four music services: iTunes, Zune Marketplace, Amazon and Rhapsody

A picture of the Zune in its second version.

Image via Wikipedia

There’s no doubt that the iTunes Store is the most popular on line store today.  Being popular does not always means the best, however.  Today, there are many on line stores to choose from and I have had the opportunity to use four of the more popular stores: iTunes, Zune Marketplace, Amazon and Rhapsody.  All of them require software to be installed under Windows.  Amazon’s store uses a download manager, but once the content is downloaded, you can use any MP3 player, either PC based or device based.  The files are not DRM’ed and are easily moved from device to device. More on Amazon in a bit.  (Disclaimer: I am an Amazon merchant.)

What they have in common

All four services offer un-restricted MP3 downloads and all offer video downloads.  I’m going to stick to audio only as I have not purchased video content from two of the services.  All four services give you the ability to sample content before purchasing.  If you have a Zune Pass, you can listen to the entire track.

Differences

Two of the four services, Zune Marketplace and iTunes, restrict what they can sync to and iTunes installs a bevy of unwanted software components.  Rhapsody relies on the awful Real Player to even use.  Only Amazon allows online browsing of the catalog in a browser.  Zune and Rhapsody feature a subscription service as well.

The Services:

itunesStore iTunes is one of those things I love to hate.  It is mostly a personal thing as I resent the restrictions and unwanted software that come along with iTunes.  Personal feelings aside, iTunes is a competent media manager and the iTunes Store offers the best selection of audio (and video too) of all of the services.  There is a rather comprehensive podcast section as well.  If you cannot find a track on iTunes, it probably is not available anywhere else.  iTunes offers end to end integration with most iPods and all current iPhones as well as the iPod Touch.  Forget about using the software for other devices (there were a few that had native sync years ago, I do not know if they still work) as Apple has pretty much shut out all but Apple devices.  The user experience is OK, but not great.  Each new release of the software gets more and more complicated with the latest release actually moving things around to the point where it is even more confusing that ever.  iTunes does allow for household sharing of content, but you can still only sync to ONE device. 

Zune4002 Microsoft recently released a new Zune, the Zune HD, and, with it, a new version of the Marketplace software.  The new version is gorgeous.  They added a  new ‘Quick Play’ screen that features a dashboard and ‘pinnable’ items.  The dashboard shows most recent items played, new items, pinned items and the DJ.  The DJ is a new feature that analyses your content and recommends similar content.  This feature is akin to the iTunes Genius.  Both work OK, but can come up with some odd recommendations.  Zune also offers movie rentals and purchases.  The Zune Marketplace also allows sharing of content, like iTunes, but only to three computers.  You can, however, sync up to three devices, a plus if you have several devices in your home. Zune also offers a subscription service.  For fifteen dollars a month, you can download all of the music you want.  Stop paying and you stop playing those tracks.  Microsoft gives you ten download credits a month, which allows you to keep ten of the tracks for good.  In most cases, you will get a nice MP3 track.  Since Microsoft has yet to convert all of its content to MP3, it is possible, however, that your track will come in the form of a Windows Media track.  Also, Zune’s music library is considerably less than iTunes or even Amazon.  Many tracks are not available separately, meaning you have to purchase an entire album if you want a specific track.  Some tracks are excluded from the Zune Pass.  From time to time, tracks may even disappear from the Marketplace.  On older tracks, it seems like a crap shoot as to whether or not they stay part of the Zune Pass.  One major drawback of the Zune Pass: if you don’t sync your device at least once a week, some of the Zune Pass content will ‘expire’.  When a track expires, the file stays, but the media usage rights go away.  Often, just re-syncing will restore those rights.  Even with the limitations, the Zune Pass is well worth the money.  I’ve discovered songs and artists that I would not have even bothered with before.  It has also allowed me to relive older songs without having to buy them.  In those cases, it reminded me that my memories of the 80’s are much better than much of the stuff I listened to then.

Amazon’s on line store is pretty nice.  They have a great selection and the prices are pretty competitive with the other services.  The tracks are all MP3 and are not protected, so they play on anything that can decode 256k MP3 files, which means pretty much most things on the market today.  Amazon has relationships with many manufacturers and, as such, the Amazon MP3 store is integrated into many devices software.  My Palm Pre, for example, has an Amazon Store applet that allows me to browse and purchase tracks right on the device.  There really isn’t much to say about Amazon as it is really just an on line store and does not have a native Windows or Mac client.  You do have to use a download manager under Windows, but it stays out of your way. 

Rhapsody is an iTunes want-to-be.  It is both an on line store and a subscription service.  We had the Super Pass which allowed for ten dollars worth of music a month. The problem with Rhapsody is that the software, based on Real Player, is junk.  Browsing the store was a real chore and the interface makes iTunes look like gold.  It is a confusing mess.  Within ten minutes of installing it, I wanted to rip it out.  The selection was decent and the MP3 files sound nice, much better than the drivel Real used to peddle.  What I’m not really sure about is why you’d want to deal with this poor excuse for a front end when there are nicer alternatives around.  Even iTunes is easier to use than this.  I’m afraid I’m going to be very unfair in my comparison because I gave up after about 45 minutes.  We’ve cancelled the Super Pass-which was just as much a hassle as using the software was.  Rhapsody does feature a subscription and is, like Amazon, integrated with many devices.  I hope the user experience for those devices is better than the Real Player based software.

There is one additional service that I have used in the past: eMusic.  eMusic is a subscription service, but you keep all of the tracks that you download.  I liked eMusic OK.  The software was easy to use and the files were never DRM’ed.  The problem with eMusic was selection.  Oh, there were a ton of tracks, but most were older catalog tracks or tracks made by artists OTHER than those who made them famous.  I have not tried them recently, so I cannot say how they are now.

Personally, I am torn between Zune Marketplace and Amazon.  As I have two Zune’s, and use the Marketplace everyday, I’m really fond of the software, though my enthusiasm for the Marketplace itself is not as much as you might think.  Having had quite a bit of issues with syncing material that I purchased, I’m not as in love with the Zune Marketplace as I once was, however, it is still, overall, a much better experience than either Rhapsody or iTunes.  The Amazon Store offers a great selection and is pretty easy to use.

As with anything, this is really a matter of personal taste and convenience.  If you have only Apple devices, then it is really a no brainer.  iTunes for you.  If you have a Zune, it is the Zune Marketplace that makes the most sense.  However, both of those devices can be used with any of the services’ MP3 tracks.  Rhapsody does seem to be the least desirable, mainly because of software.  Zune and iTunes offer good media management and Amazon is the easiest to use. 

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