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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

Math Is Done: Napster To Go Doesn't Add Up

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page F07

Whether you like Napster To Go, the online store's new music subscription service, depends on whether you think of it as all-you-can-eat or all-you-can-pay.

Both descriptions are accurate. For $15 a month, Napster To Go offers unlimited song downloads -- in a copy-restricted format that can be played only on Windows XP computers and some digital music players -- but these songs expire if you don't keep paying that fee each month.

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In its "Do the math" ads, Napster asks customers to focus on the front end of this deal. Open an account, enter your billing info and start downloading. Don't stop until your hard drive is full, and you'll still have paid just $15. At any other music-download site, let alone a CD store, you'd have paid thousands of dollars for the privilege.

(You could also go on a download spree on a file-sharing service and owe nothing at all. But then you'd also be taking your chances with the often spyware-ridden software employed by these services, you'd have no guarantee of a quality download, and you'd have run up a frightful karmic debt, besides breaking the law. But I digress.)

Napster To Go's offer was once a common feature at early music sites until Apple's iTunes Music Store swept them from the market with its simple 99-cents-a-song setup.

Napster, however, uses newer Windows Media software to lend these songs a longer leash -- you can now copy them to certain digital music players.

Because this underlying software is so new, Napster To Go is the least compatible music store in existence. You can use it only on a Windows XP computer running Windows Media Player 10, and you can transfer your downloads only to a Windows Media-compatible player that includes special software and circuitry to enforce the pay-to-play deal.

So not only do these downloads not play on any iPod, they also don't work on most non-Apple players. Napster's site (www.napster.com) lists a total of nine compatible devices, seven of which need software updates. Microsoft suggests that others should work, including the latest Pocket PC handhelds from Dell and Hewlett-Packard, but Napster says it hasn't tested them yet.

The two players I tried, a Creative Zen Portable Media Center and an iRiver H10, both paired up with the service on the first try. But my song transfers weren't all smooth. On the first go-round with the Zen, the Napster software didn't file my new purchases -- I mean, rentals -- under the obvious playlist category, leading me to think that they hadn't been transferred at all. On the second test with the Zen, I somehow got two copies of a song on one album.

Fortunately, I never had a problem playing any of these files. And when I plugged in the iRiver player, all of these downloads transferred correctly.

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