Price: Downloads comparable to iTunes pricing; Rhapsody Unlimited, $13/month; Rhapsody To Go, $15/month
Who it’s best for: Longtime Rhapsody fans who don’t mind the quirky software or who want easy access to music over the web, especially using something other than Windows
Verdict: The old-timer of music services is showing its age and doesn’t have much to tempt new fans. But it still has a huge selection of tunes from major and minor labels, and if you have a PlaysForSure device or you want the ability to play subscription tunes in a browser via Rhapsody Online, it’s a perfectly good option.
Zune Marketplace (Microsoft)
Price: Downloads comparable to iTunes pricing; Zune Pass subscription service, $15/month
Who it’s best for: Anyone who likes the all-you-can-eat music plan concept and the nonconformist appeal of toting an anti-hip Zune device
Verdict: The Zune Marketplace has a superb selection at prices that are typically comparable to iTMS; the $15 a month subscription deal includes 10 song credits per month, which makes it a much better deal than Rhapsody.
When RealNetworks and Microsoft have tried to compete with Apple as a straight download service, the results haven’t been pretty. That’s why both companies have made subscription-based all-you-can-download services the heart of their business. Both companies have access to impressively large music collections, but their offerings differ dramatically.
Rhapsody’s subscription service comes in two flavors: for $13 a month the Rhapsody Unlimited service lets you download DRM-protected tracks on up to three PCs for playback using the Rhapsody Player. For an extra $2 a month, you can buy the rights to sync those tunes with up to three compatible portable devices, like the Sansa Fuze or the Ibiza. Rhapsody subscription accounts also work with TiVo DVRs, Sonos multi-room audio systems, and Logitech Squeezebox players, among other home audio devices. If you choose not to sign up for a Rhapsody subscription, you can still preview up to 25 tracks a month in full.
One advantage of the Rhapsody subscription model is that it doesn’t require you to install the Rhapsody software to access your collection or listen to new tunes. You can sign in to your Rhapsody account using a web browser on Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS X, or most mainstream Linux distros and fire up a web-based player that works just great. (But forget about Windows 7 for now. The Rhapsody software works fine but I was greeted with an “incompatible OS” error message when I tried playback in a browser.)
I never signed up for a Rhapsody account, but I have one now thanks to Yahoo’s decision to sell its subscription-based music service to RealNetworks last year. That meant my ultra-cheap two-year Yahoo Music subscription plan (less than $5 a month, paid for in advance in July 2007) became a Rhapsody To Go subscription. I’m pretty sure I won’t renew it when it expires in July.
Rhapsody’s biggest competitor is Microsoft’s Zune, which charges a similar monthly fee for its Zune Pass subscription. The big difference? That $15 monthly charge includes 10 credits good for downloading an unrestricted, high-bitrate MP3 track from the large Zune selection. Assuming you can find 10 tracks to download per month (and if you can’t you shouldn’t be a subscriber), that brings the effective cost of the all-you-can-eat portion down to about 5 bucks a month.
The end-to-end Zune experience is pretty slick as well, as I noted last November in a hands-on review. No long-term commitment is required, which means you can up for a month, listen to as many albums as you want, in full, during that month, and then cancel. It would almost be worth the $15 for unlimited music at a single party. And the Zune service offers one feature that its big corporate rivals don’t: You can download previously purchased tracks again. Your Zune account keeps a history of purchases and subscription downloads, and you can restore the entire collection to any PC where you sign in using the Zune software. (But you should keep good backups anyway.)
Download prices on the Zune Marketplace are no bargain, and Microsoft complicates matters by forcing you to buy Microsoft Points (800 points for $10) that can then be used for purchases. One album on my list wasn’t available at the Zune Marketplace, and two of the remaining six were, shockingly, more expensive than the same titles on iTMS.
Of course, the Zune world is Microsoft-centric. You must install the Windows-only Zune software to play Zune Pass tracks or to download from the Zune Marketplace. You can’t play subscription tunes from a web browser, and you can only sync music with a Zune player. So if you use Linux or you’re wedded to your iPod or iPhone, the Zune system has little to offer. But if you’re a Windows user willing to play within Microsoft’s bounds, the Zune Pass is a great deal.
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