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A Big Plus From Apple

(Movies on iTunes, which come with far stricter use limits than music, aren't available in iTunes Plus.)

The immediate benefit of that expense is no longer having to count computers. Instead of being limited to playing an iTunes Store download on five machines at once, you can copy at will.

You could even give a song to a friend. But Plus downloads, like all iTunes purchases, come stamped with the name and e-mail address of your iTunes Store account. So if you share one online, the music industry's lawyers can know who you are.

Here's a better reason not to upload an iTunes Plus song to a file-sharing service: Don't be a jerk. This is the fairest download option a major music label has yet offered.

The legitimate fun with iTunes Plus starts if an iPod isn't your only portable media device. Any gadget that supports the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) file format can play iTunes Plus downloads.

For example, Plus songs worked on a Sony PlayStation Portable, a Microsoft Zune and (with tweaking) a Treo 755p. They also played in non-Apple programs: the Zune software, RealPlayer, and music and video applications for the Linux operating system.

ITunes Plus music videos come with an extra advantage. Unlike with regular iTunes videos, you can extract their soundtracks as separate files for use on non-video-capable devices such as the iPod Shuffle.

Apple advertises better sound quality for iTunes Plus, but you may not hear it. Although the downloads capture double the detail of the sound in a standard purchase, they don't sound twice as good. Listening to my iPod on the Metro, I couldn't distinguish between regular and Plus versions of songs.

Plugging a laptop into a stereo system allowed distinctions to surface. Instruments were slightly clearer and more distinct in iTunes Plus. For example, an orchestra's string and horn sections sounded more like separate performers.

Only the most extreme audiophile, however, should be able to hear any difference between iTunes Plus and audio-CD copies of the same music.

The second-worst problem with iTunes Plus is the larger size of the files, turning a 1,000-song iPod into a 500-song device. But as disk space keeps getting cheaper, this issue will wither.

The worst problem with iTunes Plus is the scant selection of tracks. All come from one record label, EMI. Apple has invited others to join the venture (many independent labels seem inclined to do so), but none have shown up in iTunes Plus.

That leaves EMI with a substantial advantage over its competitors. Until now, there hasn't been much of a reason for people to prefer music from one major label over another. Now there is. EMI's rivals need to take the hint -- soon.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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