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The Rhapsody MP3 Store isn’t exciting to look at, but it gets the job done…sometimes.
Digital music stores used to ignore the iPod, but that has changed. Today, vendors like Amazon offer à la carte downloads of high-quality MP3 files that lack digital rights management and play on almost anything, iPods included. Now RealNetworks has added the browser-based Rhapsody MP3 Store to its Rhapsody music subscription service, offering another way to buy your tunes DRM-free. Unfortunately, the store just isn’t ready for the big time.
Rhapsody MP3 sells most albums for $9.99, and individual tracks cost 99 cents. Music is divided into genres on the store’s main page, and you can search the catalog by artist, keyword, track name, or album—but expect big headaches here. Search results are arranged in alphabetical order—when they’re arranged in an obvious order at all—and can’t be re-sorted by album, price, or even artist. Worse, searches may not find music that’s actually in the store. We couldn’t find some albums by name; they only turned up through a search for their artist. Amazingly, some bands couldn’t be found until we clicked on the band name that the search field’s auto-complete feature provided; simply typing the band’s name and clicking the Search button didn’t work. Rhapsody MP3’s design doesn’t do customers any favors either: lengthy search results—and longer albums—are broken up so that you’ll have to load another webpage just to see a few more tracks.
On the upside, if you find what you’re looking for, you can preview entire songs, instead of the 30-second snippets you get on the Amazon MP3 store and iTunes. It’s a great feature, but without membership in one of Rhapsody’s subscription plans, you get only 25 full-song previews a month. Restrictions aside, full-song previews are great for investigating new music with no risk; we’d like to see them in other stores soon.
Once your shopping cart is loaded, completing a purchase requires you to sign up for a free Rhapsody account if you don’t have one already. You’ll have to live in the United States too; Rhapsody MP3 isn’t available overseas. A Mac version of Rhapsody MP3’s download manager application isn’t available anywhere, so you’ll have to settle for downloading a ZIP file containing your MP3s and adding them to your music library by hand. The store’s MP3 files are encoded at 256kbps at a sample rate of 44.100KHz and include album art. Happily, buying and downloading music was problem-free. If you need it, Rhapsody MP3’s online help should get you past any minor snags in the shopping process. However, Help was no help in determining why the store’s parental controls refused to work for us, and multiple emails from Rhapsody’s customer service didn’t resolve the issue.
Digital window-shopping is a fact of life, and a store’s value can depend on your enthusiasm for bargain hunting. For example, most of David Bowie’s catalog is for sale by album only on Rhapsody MP3, but Bowie is available by album and by track (and cheaper) on Amazon. However, his Sound and Vision box set is less expensive on Rhapsody and isn’t even available as a complete album on iTunes. More often, though, we found that Rhapsody MP3’s selection and prices can’t touch those of either iTunes or Amazon, and we don’t think struggling with the Rhapsody’s clunky interface to save a few dollars—or to find out you won’t—is worth the hassle.If it was the only DRM-free music store on the block, Rhapsody MP3 might be worth a look, despite its problems. But given the strengths of the competition, there’s no compelling reason to spend much time or money in the Rhapsody MP3 Store.