Two weeks ago we featured an early pick on iTunes for Windows, but today iTunes’ main competitor Napster 2.0 was released for a free download. We had a play with it and here is what we think about it and how it compares to iTunes. The installation went over without a hitch. It installed both the Roxio burner software as well as the application itself. When you start Napster, you are asked to create a free account. Without it, Napster won’t connect to anything. I don’t know how secure it is to give your email address and name, but I did so for the sake of this article, and immediately afterwards, I was able to browse the home page of the app. Napster 184.108.40.206 is using IE and Macromedia Flash to render its pages.
Napster’s UI has three categories: Home, Browse and Library. Clicking on any of these buttons will reveal a set of subcategory buttons. For example, for Home, it will reveal, “Music”, Radio, Magazine and “Message Boards”. Under Music, you can browse the homepages of each kind of music (e.g. classical, alternative, pop etc), while the front page has a link in the footer about “Videos”. Clicking on this link (for example) will take you to a page where you have options to choose from as many as 40-50 full-length video clips. I found myself wishing that there were more.
Clicking on “Radio” will do absolutely nothing until you pay Napster and become a subscription member. The Magazine has a few interesting articles, but it is mainly a marketing tool and will probably not be considered very relevant to the media player/purchaser. To some, this feature become handy for company/product announcements. Clicking on the “message boards” tab again asks the visitor to become a *full* Napster member.
The “Browse” family of buttons are a “live” representation of Napster’s status. There, you can browse artists and albums, you can search for the latest added songs, see what people are streaming most at any given time and also check out the charts and the Napster member collections. The software allows you to browse according to the music genre, which makes it easy to locate the kind of music you want. It is important to note here that I really liked the ability to view Charts, as it can search “live” both Napster’s most downlodable, most streamed, top artists and top albums. There is also an option to do the same for.. Billboard’s charts! When in Billboard mode, you can search by year and find the song you like, then see the numbers of weeks in the US charts, its position etc. This was among my most favorite features, as it turned Napster into a music “encyclopedia” of sorts. When in “Members’ collection”, you can view again by a whole list of Napster users by genre then browse their collections and their favorites. I am not as sure about the usefulness of this feature per se, but it might come handy if you’re actually part of the Napster community and know some of these people as online buddies.
The third main button, the “Library”, includes a list of your personal favorites. These include artists, albums, Playlists, your purchased tracks. You also get a download status, your History of the tracks you played, your buddy’s nicknames, as well as a messaging service. (looks like email between you and your Napster buddies). Additionally, you get a way to copy your songs to the Napster portable device, the DRM-enabled “Samsung Napster Player.”
On the right side of the window, you get a mini player (this is where your 30-second songs are previewed.) Quality seemed pretty good utilizing 96 kbit WMA. Every time you click on a song to preview it, the image changes into the picture of the album or single. Below the image, you get a list of all the songs you ever previewed with Napster 2. You can save it as a playlist, shuffle it, or clear it and start all over again. On the same sub-window, you can also select Radio stations (if you are subscribed). Clicking on any song in that list will start playing it, while you can also drag-n-drop them to your Library’s tree-view.
Napster 2 has two views: the full view and the mini-player one. The mini-player view is a disaster in my opinion. It takes the whole screen horizontally, as you can see from the shot below. On my 1600×1200 screen, it is just not a “mini” mode, but a long ugly strip. And when I am out of the mini mode, I have to resize back my windows manually (I always have OE at 800×1170 and IE at 800×1170, side by side, that’s my default setup on Windows daily).
Burning with the embedded Roxio engine is actually very easy, you just drag-n-drop entries from any of your views (from the Library, or the Browse pages) and then you hit “Burn”. Searching for artists also seems to work well, it finds more songs than iTunes does (e.g. Napster has at least one Madonna song), but it has a bad categorization. For example, I don’t consider “I will always love you” from W. Houston to be Dance, but I did find it under that category when searching. However, overall, the experience is similar to iTunes in terms of searching for artists, listening to tracks, as well as finding the most popular of a specific artist. Prices are comparable to iTunes as well: $0.99 for a song, $9.99 for a whole album.
Napster was very stable for me, the only problem I noticed was that I wasn’t able to connect to the server for some specific song previews (Vangelis, EarthWind&Fire etc). It would tell me that the server is busy and that I should try again later. I never had such a problem with iTunes.
Napster is more of a “community”-driven music store, while iTunes is more of a personal music player with the addition of a Store. iTunes’ primary function is to play all music, while Napster’s is to sell. That’s the biggest difference I found between the two apps. For example, when I installed iTunes, it found my local Music folder and it automatically added it to its Library. The software also allowed me to play several radio stations and have visual effects. Napster on the other hand is tied to the store, you can only listen to what you purchased from it or its previews, and you have to pay for radio support. It feels a lot like “use Napster to buy a song, and then play it with Winamp”. Napster is a fine shop, it has a few enhancements over iTunes (mostly on charts abilities, community support — plus it seemed to have a much faster UI than iTunes’), but it would never be my default music player. Plus, it has very weird memory consumption patterns. When Napster is minimized or in the background doing nothing, it only takes 3-8 MB of RAM (and that’s nice), but when you use it a bit and play a few songs, the RAM usage skyrockets to between 33 and 48 MB. That’s too much in my opinion, I have never seen iTunes using more than 32 MB on the same PC.
Napster works well and seems to be a complete product. However, the competition with the popular iTunes might prove troublesome to Napster LLC.