Finding the track
You can't buy something if you can't find it, right? That's why searching is so important for any online music seller. I bought Rehab because it was featured on Amazon's front page, but to be fair I searched for it using the Amazon MP3 search. The term I entered was 'rehab,' and here are the results:
The results are presented in typical Amazon style: barebones but fairly easy to use. The song I was looking for came in at #17 on the 57 songs found (sorted by relevance).
The same search run on the iTunes Store returns:
As you can see, the first result is the song I was looking for.
Previewing the track
Amazon MP3 has a very straight forward way of previewing tracks, and if you're familiar with the way Amazon handles previews of physical CDs you're familiar with what they are doing with the digital tracks. You can click a play button next to a particular track to hear a sample, or hit the Preview All button and hear all the previews in the order they appear on the album.
You're all familiar with how iTunes does this, I'm sure. Double click the track, or hit the Play button on iTunes and you'll be treated to a 30 second preview of the song.
Advantage: Amazon MP3. Sure, it isn't integrated with iTunes, but that 'Preview All' button is a very good idea. If you want a quick sample of all the songs on an album you can't beat it (and the iTunes Store doesn't beat it).
Buying the track
Here is where it is all decided. If Amazon can't compete with the ease of use that is iTunes (one click and you've bought a song that is immediately downloading into your music library) then it is game over, man.
Buying a track from Amazon MP3 is fairly painless. You click on the 'Buy MP3' button, Amazon asks to make sure you meant to buy that track (you can turn this warning off), and then you are taken to a Thank You page which explains what is happening. Unless, of course, this is your first time downloading something from Amazon MP3, in which case you are prompted to download and install the Amazon MP3 Downloader (a Universal app), pictured here:
The Amazon MP3 Downloader serves as a bridge between your machine and Amazon's download service. You'll notice that whenever you buy a song from Amazon you will be downloading .amz files, not MP3 files. These are the files that the Amazon MP3 Downloader looks for. Once you have the Downloader installed it dutifully goes out and fetches the MP3 that you bought (if you're wondering why Amazon just doesn't let you download the songs straight from the browser, I would imagine they don't want people figuring out the URLs of the MP3s and then downloading them like mad. Just a guess on my part.).
The Amazon MP3 Downloader has a few preferences you can fiddle with. You can set it to look for updates of itself, tell it where to save your downloaded MP3s (the default is in the current user's Music folder in a folder called 'Amazon MP3'), and set whether or not you want it to add your newly downloaded MP3s to iTunes (it is set to do this by default, and it worked flawlessly).
Advantage: iTunes. iTunes has the huge advantage of being its own application, so it can handle everything in one shot. This also makes the buying experience seamless, you don't have to use one app to buy your song, one app to download, and yet another to play it. I will say that one you install the Amazon MP3 Downloader the process is generally painless. A very 'set it and forget it' kind of procedure that doesn't require much interaction, but it still involves an extra step that iTunes doesn't require.
Playing the track
Both the iTunes Store track and the Amazon track played back in iTunes flawlessly. Amazon, you'll be happy to note, includes high resolution album art with their MP3s (though the Amazon album art and the iTunes Store are were different). I am not an audiophile, so both files sounded the same to me, but in my heart of hearts the Amazon track sounded better only because it has no DRM and it cost me 10 cents less.
Advantage: Amazon. Amazon files will play on more devices, and are usable in more ways, than DRM protected iTunes files and generally cost less than iTunes Plus files (though the pricing on Amazon is variable, so it is possible that you could find a track on Amazon that costs more than the same track via iTunes Plus). The files, without a doubt, are prepared with a higher bit rate than anything in the iTunes Store, so audiophiles might want to check that out (my merely mortal ears couldn't tell the difference).
I would liken buying tracks at Amazon MP3 to buying something at WalMart. The decor isn't great, but the prices make up for it (no matter what you think of WalMart, you can't beat their prices). The iTunes experience is much nicer, but I am willing to deal with a slightly less polished store to save a few bucks on some downloads. I'll be checking both iTunes and Amazon when I have the urge to buy some music, and I imagine I won't be alone on that.
I am sure Amazon will be refining the experience, and I hope this forces Apple to take a look at the iTunes Store and make that experience even better. Luckily, this is a case of the consumer winning since the more options you have, the better off you are.