Apple makes tracks
iTunes Music Store breaks the mold and sells
By Ron Harris
SAN FRANCISCO -- It's too bad 97 percent of you will have to wait until the end of the year to check out Apple's new iTunes Music Store. It flat out rocks!
For now, the music service from Apple Computer Inc. only works on the relatively few computers running its Macintosh operating system.
But iTunes Music Store proves again that Apple has cornered the market on style and user satisfaction.
The service offers unparalleled flexibility for legitimate music downloads, a beefy selection of musical genres and, best of all, no subscription fee and no limits on burning songs to CDs.
Snagging music from the Internet hasn't been this simple since the Napster days. And now I no longer feel like a scofflaw.
You can search by song title or artist name, or simply browse by genre through the 200,000 tracks Apple already has offerings from the five largest recording labels.
There are nice windows that scroll sideways and display highlighted "New Releases" and "Staff Favorites." I chose to forgo the staff-recommended "Harvest" by Neil Young and search for something with a little more punch -- the rap group Outkast's "Stankonia."
Bingo! In seconds I had a direct hit, and a click later, I was downloading. It took less than 10 minutes using an Apple iBook and a DSL connection at home.
The sound quality was superb. Apple uses the AAC compressed audio file format, which seems to outperform the more prevalent MP3s.
These files can be burned to CDs by clicking the "burn" button. The results worked fine in the iBook's and my other CD players.
If you've got an MP3 player that doesn't support AAC, you can rip the tunes off your newly burned CDs. I'm not sure if that part is legal, but it worked.
I also compared the Outkast AAC files with a store-bought copy, and I couldn't tell the difference in sound quality.
I'm told that audiophiles pumping compressed digital music files through expensive stereos systems can hear hums, clicks and other imperfections not found on store-bought CDs. So I asked an audiophile acquaintance and fellow newbie Music Store user for a second opinion.
"The quality of the downloaded music is quite good," siid Edward Kiruluta, of Seattle. Kiruluta burned CDs from the first songs he downloaded with Music Store and played them through his $4,000 Super Audio CD player, part of a $12,000 stereo system. He was quite happy that he could make his own CDs without use restrictions.
The music selection is good, but still incomplete.
Using the "power browse" feature, I couldn't find anything from DJ Tall Paul, an internationally known techno music stalwart, or from several other dance music artists. I could send a request to the iTunes team, but it wasn't clear what it'd get me.
Free file-sharing networks like Kazaa and Gnutella still have Apple beat when it comes to selection. For all of Apple's ease-of-use, it may take a much bigger catalog -- including indie-label artists -- if the company wants to attract "switchers."
An example: Kazaa helped me find Tori Amos covering Nirvana.
Music Store didn't.
But for the ethically inclined, Apple does have the pricing half right -- at 99 cents per song and $9.99 per album.
The per-song price is spot on and reminds me of strolling into Tower Records and getting a chart-topping hit for a buck on vinyl 45s.
The $9.99 album price doesn't work for me, though. Most of the albums I own are two hits and eight misses.
One nice touch: When I tried to "accidentally" download a song I had already bought, a pop-up box asked if I really wanted to buy the same song twice.
The Apple service requires the new, version 4 of iTunes and QuickTime 6.2. Both programs are free to download from Apple's Web site, though iTunes 4 needs Mac OS X version 10.1.5 or later.
Once I had bought three albums and two singles, iTunes neatly filed them in a personal library for searching and categorizing as I wished.
I plugged in one of Apple's fancy new 15-gigabyte iPods and it synched with my iBook. All of my newly purchased music was quickly transferred to the $399 portable device.
Unencumbered downloading, burning and transfer to portable devices is the key to success here. The sound quality was excellent.
What's not to like?