Napster to Go
The Napster To Go service launched officially last month to ignite a flurry of "rent versus own" debates concerning the digital music market. We spent some time with the service recently to check out first-hand what Napster To Go has to offer, and to decide whether or not the subscription music model might find success in the marketplace. In this article we'll report our trials and tribulations during the setup process, go over the notable features, and wrap up with some thoughts on the value of the subscription model as implemented by Napster To Go.


Set up

Napster To Go compatible players

Firstly, you'll need to make sure your Napster To Go compatible player is actually ready to go. We first tried the service with a Creative Zen Micro player, only to find out the device wasn't compatible without a firmware upgrade. However, the only compatible firmware was in beta and laden with warnings of possible instability and malfunction — not the most welcome information for someone who's just plunked down hard-earned money for a player. As it turned out, the firmware upgrade we performed ended up crashing in the middle of the process, after which the player was unrecognizeable by either the Creative software, the operating system, or any version of the firmware updater we threw at it. The Creative support site was about as helpful as if we'd called up the local hardware store to ask for advice, and it was a Saturday so no live phone support (60 days of which came included with the player). Instead of waiting around until Monday we opted to return the unit and give the iRiver H10 a shot instead.

The iRiver H10 was recognized by Napster to Go right off the bat with no need for a firmware upgrade. However, after setting up the software and spending time downloading a whole bunch of tracks, we discovered something very annoying — they wouldn't play. The playhead would just sit at 00:00 for about 10 seconds or so, then advance to the next track, only to keep repeating the process. The MP3 files we had uploaded to the player from our own collection worked fine, but none of the WMA files downloaded from Napster To Go would play on the device.

Not surprisingly, we found no helpful information on the iRiver site. A Google search led us to some CNet reviews from folks who had had the same experience, but no solution. Further Googling led us to some obscure message board threads that advised completely reformatting the player to fix the non-playing problem with Napster To Go. We then had to find some other obscure message board thread to describe exactly how to reformat the player — after which, playing Napster To Go tracks finally worked (we had to re-transfer all of the music files after the reformat, of course). So, if you're trying to use Napster to Go with the iRiver H10, and you're seeing the same problem, check out this thread and follow the second set of instructions (there are two on the page) to reformat your player, then re-transfer your NTG files and try again.

Yes, it was really that kludgy. But a full day and two players later, we were finally up and running with Napster To Go.

Napster software

After you install the software you'll have a 14-day trial period to try it out. The first thing you'll need to decide is how to manage your music library. You've got two choices: Manual, or Automatic. With the former, you drag and drop songs and playlists as desired. The latter will sync your Napster library with your player every time you connect it to your PC. You'll probably want to avoid the latter if you plan to use the service on more than one computer (home and work, e.g.), if you plan on having more music in your library than the available space on your player, or if you plan to import a large library of music you already own for management via NTG (you can use NTG as a central media management server by importing already ripped or downloaded tracks from your PC, which can be pretty handy in and of itself). We chose the manual method so we could pull in tracks by hand from several different machines.

Using Napster To Go on multiple machines didn't end up being as difficult as we actually expected. The only thing to be aware of is that you'll be asked to make a new "Device Partnership" each time you connect to a different machine, and make the Manual/Automatic choice again. Also, the playlists you have on the device will be cleared, although the tracks themselves will not be removed. To get the playlists back, you'll have to re-sync them. This could be pretty annoying for some, if you've meticulously set up playlists you want to have at all times. It wasn't annoying to us because it was superceded by the even more annoying fact that the iRiver H10 plays everything alphabetically, anyway (albums, playlists, artist track lists), so we never even bothered making playlists on it.

The biggest drawback to the Napster software was that it was prone to crashing, and not infrequently. After a few hours of usage, the software would either completely crash, or transfers to the player would stall in the middle. How much of the bugginess was a result of the interaction with the iRiver H10 in particular is hard to say, since we never did get the Creative Zen Micro to work with the software for comparison. Sometimes there would be a dialogue box thrown up to say "the player has stopped responding," while other times the "transfer to device" pane would just stop incrementing the percentage transferred. Disconnecting the player and restarting the software would fix the problem, but it was annoyingly too frequent, on each of the three machines we were using it on.

Features walk-through

Interface

We found the interface attractive and easy to use. The software is far more feature-rich than the iTunes Music Store. There are numerous pathways available for finding new music, some of which we'll detail below. Overall, we had absolutely no trouble finding our way around and figuring out what was what.

Selection

With over one million tracks and counting, there's plenty to explore. The biggest issue here is the relative lack of independent artist representation. Whereas the iTunes Music Store licenses tracks from indie clearinghouses such as CDBaby.com, Napster prefers to work with signed artists on established labels. There are a number of smaller, independent labels included in the catalogue, but there is a clear preference for the majors, and we'd love to see that change in the future.

It wasn't unusual to run across occasional "Buy Only" tracks, but it didn't really seem too overwhelming. Most artists had at least some subset of music available for download/transfer to portable devices (hint: if an album or playlist has a mixture of downloadable and buy only tracks, click on the "Download" header to sort by downloadability, making it easier to select and drag just those tracks that are portable).

Ease of finding new music

The Napster service offers a ridiculous number of ways to find new music. Only the Playlists to Go feature is unique to the Napster To Go service in particular, but pretty much any method you can find to load up a playlist can be used to fill your portable audio player. Once songs are listed in a playlist, all you have to do is select them (use CTRL-a to select all tracks in a playlist) and drag and drop them into the "transfer to device" pane at the lower right of the interface. Even Napster "radio" can be used in this way — just "play" a radio station to create a playlist, then select all the tracks and drop them on to your player. In browse mode, you don't have to create playlists to transfer tracks — just select the songs from the album's track listing and drag and drop those to the "transfer to device" pane.

Here's an overview of some of the methods you can use to find new music to take with you:

  • Search by artist, album, track, Napster member, or within your own library
  • Browse by genre or subgenre
  • Browse top artists
  • Browse recently added tracks
  • Browse Billboard charts by season, going all the way back to 1955 (optionally broken down by genre)
  • Browse Napster charts of top downloads, top streams, top artists and top albums (optionally broken down by genre)
  • Browse what other members are streaming right now (optionally broken down by genre or subgenre)
  • Browse other members' music collections
  • Send and receive music recommendations from friends via email, or via "bookmarking" another user's library
  • Browse from the Home page
  • Surf from genre pages
  • Surf new releases
  • Prepared CD compilations (which can be taken to go by first creating a playlist)
  • Playlists to Go
  • Pre-programmed "radio" stations (can be taken to go by creating playlists)
  • Create a custom radio station based on your entire existing music library
  • Build a custom radio station based on three or more tracks of your choice
Napster shines with additional features

What really makes the Napster service shine is the added value provided by the album reviews, artist biographies, sections on music history and specially created features like the "ffwd" new music spotlights and "foundation" genre overviews. Other special features include the Napster Live section, where artists have recorded tracks specifically for the Napster online audience, the Tribute feature showcasing the careers of landmark artists, and the artist blogs feature (which they call "blahgs" for some reason). This is what makes the difference between Napster being just a place to download tracks, and being a full on musical, historical, and cultural experience. We enjoyed spending time on the site (though it's not really a site, per se), reading reviews, learning about new genres, and being able to tap into the immediacy of hearing what we were reading about right away. There's a big difference between being limited to a 30 second clip, and being able to drop in a 2-hour playlist of full tracks because you've decided on a whim to explore jazz.

The subscription model

The subscription music model isn't going to be for everybody. If you absolutely must own every single piece of music you ever listen to, then Napster To Go is not for you. Likewise, if you only care to hear music you already know about and like, you're better off elsewhere. But the NTG model is extremely attractive to folks like early adopters and heavy music fans, who have an insatiable need to be exposed to new artists. It will also be of use to anyone seeking to broaden their musical tastes by getting relatively inexpensive access to entirely new genres and artists. All of which can live happily side by side with the pay-per download model. Sometimes you want the buffet, and other times you just know what you want. It's all good.

Thinking of the Napster To Go model as "renting music" is short-sighted. What you're really paying for is the complete service of being able to centrally store and organize your music collection online, where it is accessible from anywhere you can access a Windows PC, as well as all of the embedded features available to help you find new music in a way that's personalized to your tastes. Some people prefer to maintain their own digital music collection entirely locally, but there's enough of a time and materials cost in that process such that there will be plenty of folks who will gladly pay someone else $15 a month to host and manage not only their current collection, but their future collection as they access it through the service — as well as the management layer on top of the whole works. Store your collection locally and it's only available locally (though a crop of services such as Orb Networks aims to change that). If your collection lives on Napster's servers, it's more easily available to you wherever you are. The Napster To Go service fills the gap by porting your collection to your portable device, obviating the need to be near a PC for access. If Napster were smart, they'd already be trying to get in on the musicphone action as we speak, to create the truly seamless "celestial jukebox" experience as envisioned. Music is moving away from being based in a physical medium that itself must be owned. Music no longer need be seen as an object, when it can more accurately be described as an experience. The iTunes pay-per-download model is still an object model. The Napster To Go model is an experience model, and some people are really going to dig that.

Overall review

It took a bit of elbow grease to get everything working, and the software of both Napster and the players used proved a bit buggy and prone to not infrequent crashes. Despite this, once we got it working, we found Napster To Go to be a great service. The "buffet" music model is not going to please everyone — there is still a clear market of people who truly want to own all of the music they spend money on. But there's no reason the two models can't co-exist, as music lovers and early adopters will find a great deal of value in the portable subscription model.

Our major concern is that, if our setup experience is at all typical, it could seriously turn off potential users of the service. We just could not say we had an easy time getting Napster To Go working with two out of the three players Napster is strongly promoting as the optimal devices for use with the service — and we're geeks. We can only imagine the average user might give up long before we did, and wander over to some other service they might have heard about. Hopefully we just got really unlucky (twice...), and hopefully Napster is going to be able to get some more compatible players online ASAP, because it would be a shame if the kind of bugginess we experienced were the dealbreaker that prevented people from signing on to what is a reasonably priced and fun service for finding new music you'll actually like, keeping it all organized, and taking it with you wherever you may roam.