Catching up with online music services

Q: I need help on a good music program. I would like to buy (not free sites such as Limewire) and download only music I desire. I hear folks talk about iTunes, but that and VCast seem to be directed to my cellphone. I want to download to my PC. Other people talk about Amazon, Walmart, iPad, etc. I am not a computer expert, but all these different sites have confused me. Here's what I need: Your expertise on a site that has a big choice of music so that I can buy, download and put on a CD.

—UConn Bob

A: Online music choices are constantly changing. New services pop up (Hi, Sony's Music Unlimited), some disappear (R.I.P., Walmart Music and Yahoo Music), and the ones that are left standing are always expanding or otherwise tinkering with their offerings. Yeah, it's an overwhelming topic, especially if you want to listen to music on the go. You mentioned VCast, which is only for Verizon Wireless subscribers with certain phones.

But since you just want to download to your PC, things are simpler.

We'll look at some of the bigger music services. First, the commonalities: Songs cost 69 cents to $1.29, though you'll generally pay 99 cents or $1.29 for the most popular songs. Albums go from $5 to nearly $20, depending on the album and the file format: Amazon's and eMusic's MP3 files will be cheaper than their competitors' songs, which will have better sound quality because they are less compressed, digitally.

Some of the services below offer free trials, ranging from seven days to 30 days, but be careful: You'll have to enter a credit card to start your trial, and after the trial period, your card will be bill automatically if you don't cancel, so don't forget to cancel any service you don't want.

Amazon MP3 Store

Good: Searching for and downloading music is as easy as typing in the song you want, listening to a snippet to hear if it's the version you want, and clicking on the "Buy MP3" button. Your purchase, an MP3 file, will download to your desktop. Download and use the free Amazon Cloud Player to play back your music through your PC speakers.

Better: To speed things up, you can download the free Amazon MP3 Downloader, which will automatically move your purchase into Windows Media Player on your PC, so you can better organize your songs. Make sure you have the latest version of Windows Media Player by going to and typing "download windows media player" in the search box.

Best if you: Later decide to take your music on the go; every portable music player can play music that's in the MP3 format.

Not so great if you: Are an audiophile. The MP3 format doesn't sound as crisp and clear as music you'd buy on a CD, but if you're listening on your PC's tiny speakers, you'll hardly notice.

Apple iTunes Music Store (click the "Download iTunes" button)

Good: With the biggest catalog of songs to sell, iTunes Music Store will have songs that competitors won't. The iTunes software makes it super easy to organize your music, burn it to a CD, and transfer to an iPod, iPhone, iPad or Shuffle, if you have one (or more).

Better: The AAC format of iTunes purchases sound better than MP3 songs. Something to think about when you want to listen to your music on something better than your PC speakers.

Best if you: Love the Beatles. It's the only music store that has the Fab Four.

Not so great if you: Later buy a portable music player that's not an iPod Touch or other iDevice. If you don't have AAC or MP3 versions of your songs, the songs won't transfer to an iDevice (though your iDevice can download software that will play certain music wirelessly. See Napster and Rhapsody below).


Good: Napster gives you a choice to buy your songs or "rent" them. Pay $50 a year (an average of $4.17 a month) and you can listen to any song, any time you're connected to the Internet, without downloading the song permanently to your computer. This is called streaming, and it's something iTunes doesn't do. The yearly subscription can cost less than buying: If you listen to 100 songs or 1,000 songs, you still pay only $50 a year, but if you buy 100 songs or 1,000 songs at 99 cents a track, you're out $99 to $990. As long as you pay your subscription, your computer can play your Napster music.

Better: Don't feel like searching for songs? Napster radio channels will automatically play music from any genre you pick. If you later decide to pay $96 a year (an average of $8 a month) for the option to listen to music on your phone, you can save your favorite songs to your phone to listen to them even when you can't get a data signal. While Rhapsody offers similar services, Napster is slightly cheaper.

Best if you: Want to listen to a lot of music without paying a lot of cash.

Not so great if: Napster goes out of business and you didn't buy any of the songs or albums you listened to; you'll have nothing to show for all those months or years of subscribing. That's what happened to me and a ton of others when Yahoo Music called it quits a few years ago. Also, if you buy songs in the .WMA format, they won't play back on an iPod Touch or other iDevice.

Rhapsody and Sony's Music Unlimited (click "Music Unlimited")

Good: Similar idea to Napster, though priced differently. Rhapsody: The lowest you can pay is $9.99 a month, but that gives you the option to use Rhapsody with most smartphones. If you're computer-only, though, Napster is $50 a year (an average of $4.17 a month). Sony: The lowest you pay is $3.99 a month, and the highest is $9.99.

Better: Unlike Napster, Rhapsody lets anyone listen to 25 songs a month free, without any obligation. Sony plays on its PlayStation 3 video game console and Bravia TVs that can connect to the Internet.

Best if: See Napster above

Not so great if: See Napster above.


Good: The people at eMusic like to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack. They have a lot of the mainstream hits, but they really shine with indie music you might not have heard before. Their prices are lower—you can get many songs for 79 cents—and their pricing model is different. You pay a predetermined amount each month or quarter or year—starting at $11.99 a month -- and that determines how many songs you can buy during that period. So, if you pay $11.99 a month, you have a month to download $11.99 worth of music. If you don't spend all that $11.99, though, the balance doesn't carry over to the next month. The eMusic folks call this pay arrangement a membership.

Better: If you pay more upfront and get a bonus allotment. Spring for the $15.99 membership and get a $1.00 bonus, so you can download $16.99 worth of music in a month. Pay the $162.99 yearly membership and get a $40.89 bonus so you get a year to buy $203.88 worth. See the membership scale on eMusic's website here. If your account is running low, you can buy booster packs to get more music. The topper is you're not obligated to renew your membership every month or quarter or year, so you can take a break whenever you want.

Best if you: Want to limit how much you spend on music over a certain month or quarter or year.

Not so great if you: Want to buy just about any song you can think of, because eMusic's library is not as big as its competitors.

Have a question about your computer, cellphone, camera or any gadget? Let us know! E-mail Eric Gwinn at, and you could be featured in an upcoming Gadget Q&A column.

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