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iTunes Plus and EMI's DRM-free music hands-on

It's been a long time coming. So how could we resist giving the new higher quality, DRM free iTunes Plus music service a whirl? After all, we're geeks, and loaded with all kinds of audio devices (not just iPods or Macs and PCs running iTunes) which we'd like to make use of with our purchased media. Certainly you've heard of the Zune, Xbox 360, PS3, Vista Media Center, Walkman W880, Slingbox, PSP, or even the VLC media player right? Ok, then you understand our angst. So off we go, into the land of Fair Use lollipops and DRM-free candy canes. Click-on to see how it all goes down as we upgrade our iTunes music library.

The first thing we see after firing up iTunes is the "new" iTunes Plus quick link off to the right-hand side.

Clicking on "iTunes Plus" prompts iTunes to ask if you want to make iTunes Plus your default location. Sure, why not. Click through the EULA and here we are to a new wing of the store which is notably skinny, lacking most of the 5 million or so tracks on the main, DRM-locked site. Remember, it's only EMI at the moment. Hey, that Upgrade My Library button looks interesting, let's click it, credit be damned!

There it is, the $3.00 upgrade for a test album we downloaded earlier in 128kbps format.

128kbps AAC files. Surely we can do better. Let's search the store for The Good, The Bad & The Queen.

Ah ha, here are the same songs listed in both their 128kbps and 256kbps formats. We bet you can tell which are DRM-free?

Let's go back and click "Buy" so we can take our music on the road.

Click "Buy."

Processing, only a minute or so.

"Move To Desktop," natch, unless you're the trusting sort (which we aren't).

Here they come!

Almost done... look at those file sizes.

You can see the last track being swapped out for the new higher bit rate version.

Good idea.

The original 128kbps files safe and snug in this desktop folder but removed form the iTunes catalog. It says "1 item" since it contains a single folder titled "The Good, The Bad & The Queen" with all the old tracks.

See the differences: old file on the left, new on right? The updated file lacks the dreaded padlock and features a new .m4a file extension.

And twice the size. Now the real test: how do they sound? We're no audiophiles but we can certainly tell the difference. Golf claps all around. Better yet...

It plays in any device or media player with AAC support. At last.

And here we have the iTunes purchased track running on RealPlayer -- we couldn't resist.

Finally, WMP 11. Doesn't matter what you use, as long as it supports AAC playback.

All done.