Review: The New Pay Napster

The New Napster - the same as the old one, but without any of the songs!

Below is a submission by one of our readers who is a beta tester for the new subscription version of Napster -- Editor Jan 12 2002.

Just been beta-testing the new Napster.

What's remarkable about the new Napster is how similar it feels to the old one. This is still very much a file sharing technology. The best things about Napster - browsing through a real person's music collection, sending them messages and recommending them new music - are still there.

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But so are the disadvantages - broken tracks, cancelled transfers - and a complete inability to stream or preview tracks. Now we know why Napster doesn't intend to get a performance royalty license... this is a download-only service. The downside of this is that if a user downloads one song under the mistaken impression it is something else (how many songs are there called 'The Power of Love') they will have depleted one of their allotted download slots. There is the option, however, to cancel a download mid stream without depleting your download count. What was I saying about not needing a performance royalty license?....

As opposed to MusicNet and Pressplay, through which users suffered massive technical problems, Napster seems to be largely bug-free. This is an extraordinary achievement given the number of different types of software (DRM, accounts, audio fingerprinting etc) which are working in tandem as part of the application. Even on my extremely rickety set up the downloads were fast and smooth, with few problems playing tracks and downloading at the same time.

There is new functionality within the Napster application but most of it revolves around the mechanics of charging up a subscription (you get 50 tracks a month, it seems) and deducting downloads one at a time until the account needs replenishing again. Everything's all bunched together in various sub-windows and it's all a bit confusing. There are so many options it's never quite clear what section of the service you're in. There is the added complexity of moving between a Web-browser-like window and the file sharing application itself.

The option to burn songs to CD or move them to a portable player is noticeably absent. As is any option to search for MP3 files alone. There are some unencrypted MP3 files in the mush, but it sure is hard to find them. The music player built into the software seems good enough, though the playlisting feature is a bit wobbly.

Content-wise, there's next to nothing. There's a whole load of tracks from Vitaminic, which is being served into the service by a dozen, maybe more, official Vitaminic computers. Of course this won't cut it in the paying Napster service, because anyone can go to Vitaminic's site and find the same songs in MP3 for free.

Of course that rabid 'pirate as much as you can' atmosphere (which was scary but fun) has disappeared, but thankfully the quality of chat at Napster seems to have improved substantially. But even with the ability to chat with other users and browse their hard drives (albeit only the copyright-cleared .nap tracks) it is clearly tough to find tracks to download. It isn't possible to look for tracks under a particular genre (eg rock or classical). Napster will need to build in some Amazon-style recommendation engine because the 'no tracks found' message is not one Napster users of old will be at all familiar with. In fact, isn't this what the Napster site used to boast - that no longer will you come up empty when looking for MP3s?

Finally, the question you've all been wondering - does Napster recognise the files in my MP3 music collection. Right now, no it doesn't seem to. In fact it's having trouble recognizing some of the official .nap files in some peoples' hard drives. But it does seem to be scanning the folders - perhaps it is fingerprinting the files and sending information to the mainframe? Maybe as more content comes on board which has been officially licensed, some of these tracks will begin to be recognized (if a copyright owner is happy for his/her track to be distributed in MP3). This means that indie artists can't use Napster to share their own files - yet - but Napster do seem to be suggesting that this will be possible.

Users beta-testing the new Napster today (and there were less than 200, hardly the 20,000 that is being talked about) have mixed reactions. There are some disappointed voices out there. Napster needs to tread carefully now - if it releases without a large percentage of all the music content in the world, it will fail. If it blocks portability it will make life tough for itself. But in terms of the technology, in terms of how true it has stayed to the original model... Napster could be on to a winner.


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