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  • The Night Owl Review: Rhapsody on the Mac

    December 10th, 2005

    I’ve made no secret of the fact that I can see some benefits in a subscription-based music service. Although I want to own my tunes, being able to sample entire tracks makes it easier to decide what to buy. Like most of you, I do not like buying whole albums, for example, only to find that two or three songs are really any good, and that the rest of filler. The 30-second samples you hear at the iTunes Music Store are sometimes only marginally helpful, but there’s no denying Apple’s tremendous success in building and marketing the thing. But wouldn’t it be nice to have that one extra feature?

    Well, up till this week, the largest competitors for iTunes, which do offer a subscription option, were not Mac compatible. RealNetworks has addressed this in a clever way, which is not to develop a new Mac jukebox application compatible with Rhapsody, but to move it onto the Web. That way, Mac and Linux uses gain access to the “Rhapsody Unlimited” version of the service without having to download anything.

    For $9.99 per month, any of the songs available for rent are streamed to your Mac, just like a radio show. But the word “Unlimited” isn’t quite true, because you can’t burn CDs or download to your music player. Yes, Real has hacked Rhapsody to work with iPods, with varying degrees of success, but that doesn’t help if you can’t use the feature. Mac users also cannot purchase songs, at least not yet.

    In its Web-based form, the service works with Mac OS 10.3.9 and 10.4, and supports Safari or older versions of Firefox. When you set up your account, you need to download a browser plugin that’ll open a player window when you choose a song to play. Audio is streamed at the full 128K rate, so you’ll need broadband to retrieve the live stream.

    Real boasts a music library of 1.3 million tracks, compared to two million on iTunes, and not all of those tracks are available to subscribers. For example, the rousing finish to Neal Diamond’s best-selling album, “12 Songs,” contains a version of Delirious Love featuring Brian Wilson doing his best Beach Boys-style arrangement. You can buy the track from iTunes, but you can’t hear it via Rhapsody Unlimited.

    No, I didn’t go the whole hog and check for other missing selections. Folks who have gone before me have already commented on the frustrations in finding a track they want to listen to, but isn’t available for rent. That’s a limitation of the contracts between these subscription services and the music companies, and when it comes to the latter, I do not expect rational behavior.

    In any case, other than the missing features, I haven’t much to complain about. Audio quality is perfectly serviceable; my Mac’s Bose speaker system is good, but not revealing enough to demonstrate any obvious differences between encoded music from Real and Apple. You’ll no doubt find it good enough, and $9.99 per month is cheap enough to warrant a trial. In fact, you don’t even have to pay for anything, because you can hear up 25 songs per month free of charge. You’ll also notice the site has ads, which I suppose finances the gratis offering.

    For now, you have to consider Rhapsody Unlimited an intriguing subset of the service available to Windows users, and Real hasn’t committed to developing a version of RealPlayer that will support all features of the service. I suppose that will depend on whether the online version appeals to Mac users. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you can’t capture the stream in a recording, as I was able to do quite successfully with Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro. If you’re patient enough, you can probably build a library in that fashion, but now that I’ve said that, I suppose I should expect a nasty letter from Real’s legal eagles about my dastardly deed. And, no, I do not support music piracy, so consider this just an experiment to see if it could be done.

    The conspiracy minded among you might even wonder, as I am, whether Real, now that it’s buried the hatchet with Microsoft, is now the latter’s stalking horse. Having failed to garner a substantial market share in the Windows universe, the two companies have been attracted to the possibilities of the reinvigorated Mac platform. Is Apple truly vulnerable on its home berth? Well, for now, I do not regard Rhapsody Unlimited as a replacement for iTunes; not even close. Call it a companion, for now, because I’m still going to buy tracks I want to keep from Apple, or just purchase the CD at a regular brick and mortar retailer. But maybe if Real gets a decent number of new members from its cross-platform experiment, an iTunes subscription alternative might be in the offing. But I’m not expecting miracles.

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