Napster should dump its "Do the Math" ad campaign before it gets embarrassing. By any calculation, its all-you-can-download Napster To Go...

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Napster should dump its “Do the Math” ad campaign before it gets embarrassing. By any calculation, its all-you-can-download Napster To Go service can’t compete with the subscription plans just launched by RealNetworks and Yahoo!


These new offerings remedy the glaring flaw of Napster To Go — the way it seems to serve the record labels’ interests a little too well.


Napster To Go’s $14.95 monthly fee permits subscribers to collect all the music they want and listen to it on some Windows Media-compatible digital music players. But if they stop paying, the music stops playing. Plus getting a permanent copy to burn to CD means buying it anew at the list price of 99 cents.


RealNetworks’ Rhapsody and Yahoo!’s Music Unlimited deliver the music-for-rent idea in smarter, fairer ways.


Rhapsody lets anybody listen to 25 songs a month free and offers a 10-cent discount to subscribers who want to buy a song. Yahoo!’s service costs less than half Napster To Go’s rate and offers subscribers a steeper discount on purchases — 20 cents off each permanent download.


Both just might tempt iTunes shoppers — well, those running Windows, as neither service works on a Macintosh.


Music for rent


Comparing the services

Napster To Go: Subscribers pay a $14.95 monthly fee to collect all the music they want and listen to it on some Windows Media-compatible digital music players. If they stop paying, the music stops playing.


Rhapsody: Offers several levels of service, including one for free (listen to 25 songs a month free and buy songs for 99 cents each). A $4.99-a-month upgrade adds a long list of Web radio stations. An $8.99 option allows playback only on computers, while the flagship $14.99 plan includes the ability to copy these files to music players that support the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows Media software


Yahoo!’s Music Unlimited: Pay $6.99 a month or $59.98 a year to listen to all the music you want and copy it to Windows Media-compatible players.


Seattle-based RealNetworks’ Rhapsody ( www.rhapsody.com/ ) is the weaker contender of the two, thanks to its greater cost and complexity. Debuting in late 2001 as a listen-only service, it now comes in four flavors, continuing RealNetworks’ long tradition of perplexing users with overlapping, seemingly redundant offerings.


(RealNetworks also still offers a download-only store in its separate RealPlayer software, which seems even less appealing now when compared with the clean, largely nuisance-free Rhapsody.)


At the low end, anybody can download the Rhapsody program (Windows 98 Second Edition or newer) to listen to 25 tracks a month free, out of a 1.1 million-song inventory.


They can also buy songs at 99 cents each from a million-song catalog.


The list of compatible players includes the usual Windows Media-based models but also Palm handheld organizers and — thanks to an update to Real Networks’ Harmony software — Apple iPods as well.


Despite earlier iPod revisions by Apple to quash Harmony, I had no issues moving a purchased album onto an iPod Photo and an iPod Mini. (I had major issues trying to repeat that feat with two Palm handhelds, the new Tungsten E2 and LifeDrive; Rhapsody didn’t even see them when plugged into the computer.)


A $4.99-a-month upgrade adds a long list of Web radio stations, plus the ability to create your own: Pick 10 artists you like, name the station, and click the play button.


The results bring the same delightful surprises as shuffling through a musically savvy friend’s iPod.


Finally, two pricier, Windows XP-only subscription offerings pile on unlimited downloads on a rental basis. An $8.99 option allows playback only on computers, while the flagship $14.99 plan includes the ability to copy these files to music players that support the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows Media software (such as the iRiver H10 successfully tested).


These for-rent downloads can’t be burned to CD and require you go online once a month to allow Rhapsody’s software to confirm your subscription status.


If you want to end those restrictions, you can buy songs at 89 cents each, 10 percent off the nonsubscriber rate. But Rhapsody hides that option from shoppers: You must hold down the Control key as you click a plus-symbol link next to a song just to see its price.


Yahoo!’s Music Unlimited service ( music.yahoo.com/ ) is much simpler to understand: Pay $6.99 a month or $59.98 a year to listen to all the music you want and copy it to eligible Windows Media-compatible players. The same iRiver H10 worked just as well here.


Yahoo! says more than a million tracks are available for rent. Songs for purchase at 79 cents (all but 85,000 of the for-rent tracks, plus 20,000 not offered on a subscription basis) are clearly labeled as such.



Looser rules



The usage permissions set in each download are looser than Rhapsody’s, allowing a song to be played on any five computers at once, up from three, and any one playlist to be burned to an audio CD 10 times, up from five.


As with Rhapsody, you can copy a download to as many music players as you want.


The Yahoo! Music Engine software needed to browse and buy (Windows 2000 or newer) throws in access to Yahoo!’s LaunchCast custom radio station. This provides more ways to define your tastes than Rhapsody’s equivalent, but the software DJ behind it serves up too many obvious, overplayed hits.


You can fine-tune a LaunchCast station by rating each track played from one to five or blackballing it entirely. But a few days of this has yet to cut down on the boredom factor.



Music on IM



Yahoo! Music also allows subscribers to play — but not copy — songs to each other over Yahoo!’s instant-messenger service. Chat partners who don’t subscribe to Yahoo! Music get only a 30-second snippet.


But with the number of Yahoo! Messenger users trailing behind those using the America Online and MSN instant-messaging networks, you may find few fellow listeners online.


As if it’s trying to reverse that, the Yahoo! Music installer pushes you to switch a batch of Internet settings, such as your browser’s start page and search engine, to Yahoo!


Yahoo!’s Music Engine software, notwithstanding its clean looks and generous feature set (you can copy CDs to your computer in almost every format in existence), shows its unfinished, beta-test status too often.


It frequently coughs up error messages, incorrectly displays the usage rights of songs imported from an existing collection and presents one of the worst-organized help files around.



Enticing prices



Even factoring in those defects, Yahoo!’s pricing is still enormously enticing.


Rhapsody’s brilliant custom-radio station and iPod compatibility may also lure some iTunes shoppers.


Apple seems to think that’s not going to happen; its officials routinely say that nobody wants for a music-for-rent option.


But if Yahoo! or Rhapsody take off, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple come out with an “iRent” service of its own.