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MSN Music Falls Just Short of iTunes' High Marks

Microsoft's downloads can be played on up to five computers at a time. You can burn any one playlist to at least seven audio CDs before you must rearrange those songs. (Labels can allow a higher limit if they choose; I was able to burn one two-song playlist 11 times before I quit out of boredom.)

You can also transfer each track an unlimited number of times to digital-music players that support Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format and copy-control technology -- i.e., not the iPod. I had no problem moving songs to two Creative Labs players, a Zen Portable Media Center and a MuVo MP3 player.

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Moving songs from one computer to the other is far simpler than in the Napster and MusicMatch stores; simply copy the files over, then type your user ID and password the first time you play one of them. You shouldn't have to log in again to play any other downloads moved to that PC, but I had to a few times.

MSN downloads can be played in the MusicMatch and Napster programs, but not the Mac OS X version of Windows Media Player. You can also play downloads in older versions of Windows Media Player, but you lose some usage rights -- the seven-burn limit is absolute, not a minimum, and applies to tracks instead of playlists.

All this is enough to surpass the Wal-Mart, Napster and MusicMatch stores. But MSN's real competition is iTunes -- a benchmark Microsoft doesn't quite meet.

I won't knock MSN for not being iPod-compatible; Apple has chosen not to support other stores' download formats, and there's little Microsoft can do about it. But I will knock MSN Music for not offering the elementary ability to print out CD covers, as iTunes does.

MSN Music is a U.S.-only shop, unlike iTunes, and doesn't offer any gift certificates or purchase allowances, although those are planned for later.

MSN Music also doesn't -- yet -- have any equivalent of Apple's AirPort Express, which lets you play your downloads through your stereo via a simple wireless link. But a family of devices called Media Center Extenders should offer that option later this year.

Lastly, there's this missed opportunity -- none of the CD and DVD players that read Windows Media Audio files off data CDs can play MSN Music downloads.

If you're not going to shop at iTunes, you'd do well to direct your online-music budget toward MSN. But for this store to start winning market share from iTunes, Microsoft has more work to do.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.


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