Online Music: An Ensemble Of Options

It has been a long time coming, but the era of using the Internet to buy rather than steal music has finally arrived. There's a rapidly growing number of online services -- including a legit reincarnation of Napster -- that will best anything you'll find at a record store.

That's because these services put you in the driver's seat. Unlike most music stores, the online services let you sample any song or album gratis, not just the select few that the labels want you to hear. Usually, you can buy songs à la carte for less than a dollar each, or an album-full for $10. You create your own albums, mixing the tracks you want, and burning your play lists onto CDs or copying them to a portable audio player.

There has never been a better time to give online music stores a spin. I tested four of the biggest services: iTunes, BuyMusic, MusicMatch, and a trial version of Napster, scheduled to go live on Oct. 29.

The clear leader is Apple's (AAPL ) iTunes Music Store. Apple introduced the first online download service to win popular appeal and now offers 400,000 songs, each for 99 cents. The service is elegant, easy to use, and now works with Windows 2000 or XP as well as Apple's OS X. You don't even need a Web browser to sample and buy music. It's all done through the iTunes software that copies and arranges tracks on your computer. One big drawback: If you want to take your music on the road, the iTunes songs will play only on Apple's iPod player.

MusicMatch, long a leader in streaming music, is giving Apple a run for its money. It just released a new version of its popular Jukebox music streaming software that is an iTunes knockoff. Now, besides listening to Internet radio with Jukebox, you can choose from more than 200,000 songs at 99 cents each. One nifty feature: If you subscribe to its $3 to $5 a month personalized radio service, you can buy a song when you hear it on Jukebox.

BuyMusic is another shameless iTunes copy, but with a key twist: It offers the best deals, with some songs selling for as low as 79 cents. But you pay a price for the bargain. I found BuyMusic's performance sluggish, in both searching and downloading music.

The newest contender is Roxio's (ROXI ) legal version of Napster. The big draw for now? Napster has the biggest catalog, some 500,000 songs. It also offers a $10 monthly subscription that gives you temporary copies of songs. When you cancel your subscription, the songs you downloaded disappear from your hard drive.

For me, the choice comes down to two of the four: iTunes, for elegant ease of use, or BuyMusic, for low prices. There's no reason you can't use both, just as you would Tower Records and discounter Best Buy (BBY ). Search and sample songs on iTunes, then see if BuyMusic can beat the price.

By Charles Haddad

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