Despite the proliferation of subscription-based music rental services such as Napster, Rhapsody, and ZunePass on other platforms, Apple has repeatedly downplayed their value for iPod and iPhone users, and the iTunes Store has continued to grow in size and popularity without a similar official option. Not surprisingly, third-party iOS developers have stepped in to fill the gap, first with last year’s release of Rhapsody for the iPhone and iPod touch, and this week, with the debut of Napster.
Both applications offer 9- to 10-million-track rental libraries with $10/month subscriptions, using interfaces that are optimized for the iPod touch and iPhone, not the iPad. Each offers a one-week free trial so that you can determine whether you want to continue using them, and you may well want to do so—each enables you to access any track you want via streaming, and store a collection of tracks directly on your device for offline access. Today’s special edition of iPhone Gems focuses on the latest versions of these two apps, which will have broad appeal to music lovers, though with some noteworthy caveats, including sound quality.
Rhapsody International’s Rhapsody (Free, version 2.0.5) is the more established application, having been in the App Store since mid-2009 and received upgrades since then to support background playback and downloading of tracks for offline listening. As of now, it hasn’t received a full Retina Display upgrade for the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, so album art from its huge collection of tracks ranges from horrifically chunky—sub-original iPhone-screen-quality—to higher-resolution, though almost always a step behind Napster’s visually.
In fact, Rhapsody’s entire interface is relatively spartan, without the sort of graphically pleasing menus that Apple uses for the iTunes Store and Napster uses in its application. Richest visually as a point of entry is the icon-hinted Music Guide, which lets you tap your way through genres, new content, “top” charts, and Rhapsody radio stations that play tracks from different eras, genres, and artists. A search feature lets you do independent rather than unified searches of artists, albums, and individual tracks, such that a search for Kanye Stronger would fail but a search for Kanye or Stronger would succeed in bringing up scrollable lists of choices—some with lots of scrolling. Apple’s unified iTunes search makes it easier to find the track you want quickly; Napster’s search feature is similarly limited.
But Rhapsody has some strengths relative to its rivals, too. Even though its huge song library didn’t seem to have as many brand-new releases from major artists we care about as Napster did, it had some back catalogue titles that Napster didn’t offer: the comedian David Cross had three full albums on Rhapsody and only two on Napster, for instance. We also liked the fact that Napster’s free trial was a hassle-free option that didn’t require credit card, address, or other detailed personal information in order to sign up and start listening to music.
The story becomes a little more complex when you actually start playing tracks through both services, however, particularly if you hope to stream music to multiple iOS devices. Whereas Napster allows three devices to be registered to one account, Rhapsody’s free trial and $10 plan only allow one device per account; you need to upgrade to a $15 per month subscription for three devices to work at once. Napster lets you save individual songs or entire albums to your devices without a hassle, but Rhapsody requires you to create playlists of tracks, then download them, for listening offline. Finally, Rhapsody has a small advantage in sound quality relative to Napster, but both services pump out tracks that are only a little better than what you’d hear on a static-free FM radio station—fine for the devices’ built-in speakers and low-quality headphones, but not the sort of audio that audiophiles would get excited about. That’s what you get for $10/month rentals with these services: all the music you can eat, but at far less than pristine CD quality.
For the time being, both applications support multitasking for background music playback on iOS 4.0 devices but not on the iPad, which will need to wait until the November release of iOS 4.2 before music can play in the background. Downloads of tracks for offline listening pause when you exit the app on an iPad, and resume along with the music from wherever you left off when you load Rhapsody again. A small blue banner appears at the bottom of most menu screens during the free trial period to remind you how many days remain, with a suggestion that you sign up; it can be closed with an X button, but reopens when you restart the application, a minor annoyance.
If audio quality wasn’t a distinguishing factor—and between these services, it’s only a small one—Napster LLC and Best Buy’s Napster (Free, version 1.0) would be a nearly across-the-board winner relative to Rhapsody on the iOS platform. With a fully Retina Display-optimized interface for iPhones and iPod touches, Napster even displays high-resolution album and artist images when it’s running in emulation mode on the iPad, losing only the upgraded resolution of its other interface elements when running at “2X” normal size. It seems as if Rhapsody is capable of performing similar feats on the iPhone 4, iPod touch 4G, and iPad, but is saddled with some very low-resolution, old artwork that looks comparatively weak regardless of platform.
The extra year Napster spent in development also gave it some real advantages in outdoing Rhapsody in providing a smoother user experience. Napster’s primary screen is found under the “Explore” tab, which focuses your attention immediately on new, popular, and historically popular tracks, including 54 years of seasonally sorted Billboard top charts and genres. While there’s a lot of overlap between the historic content and what can be found in less expensive, non-subscription applications such as Top 100s by Year, the focus on new releases—updated every Tuesday—is a biggie. Today alone, Napster offered day-of-release access to Maroon 5’s brand new album Hands All Over and a new Bon Jovi single that wasn’t on Rhapsody, though neither service offered access to last week’s Akon debut “Angel,” which can be found on the iTunes Store.
Specific track names aside, what we found was that while the iTunes Store’s selection of tracks for sale may well eclipse Napster’s collection of tracks for rent—Napster alternately touts 9- and 10-million song libraries on its own pages—the Napster catalog comes surprisingly close, even with new releases from major artists. Its archives may suffer a bit by comparison with both Rhapsody’s and the iTunes Store’s, but it achieves a nice balance of new and old content that enables you to stay largely current and explore past albums, as well. Best of all is its offline downloading feature, which lets you simply tap a button to download an entire album—multiple albums, really—to your device for later listening; your last 100 tracks are automatically stored for offline listening, too. While you give up the high-bitrate quality, digital booklets, and possibly video content of iTunes Store purchases, you get the ability to listen to as much as you want of whatever songs you want.
As with Rhapsody, however, there are some caveats. Rhapsody provides you with a full track scrub bar that lets you skip to wherever you want in a song or spoken word track, but Napster doesn’t, so you start at the beginning every time. If you’re listening to a 10-minute-long comedy track and want to skip around, you can’t with Napster but can with Rhapsody, which provides more iPod-like in-track controls by comparison. A small difference is Napster’s lower focus on artist information—it includes photos but not text descriptions of performers, which are found on every Rhapsody track—and audio quality is diminished a little on Napster, as well. Music tracks we heard on both services were slightly clearer on Rhapsody, but spoken word tracks were very similar, and neither was close to true CD quality. Napster’s main advantage during playback is the high-resolution album artwork, which looks comparatively great on any iOS device’s screen.
Another couple of small issues are also worth noting. Whereas Rhapsody has a hassle-free signup process that makes creation of a free trial account easy, Napster requires you to provide address and credit card information in order to even start the trial period, then auto-bills you if you haven’t cancelled before the period has expired. We’re not fans of this sort of sign-up system, but it’s so common as to be all but unavoidable… except if you want to use Rhapsody, instead.
There’s also some confusion about Napster’s collection of different monthly plans, which on the web interestingly include passes with song credits that let you keep some of the tracks permanently rather than losing them at the end of your subscription or trial period. While the Napster application points you directly to a $10 monthly streaming only plan without download credits, the web site makes references to other plans that may or may not be available to iPod, iPhone, and iPad users. It looks like Napster and Best Buy still have some last-minute issues to sort out with their iOS-specific offerings, but if download credits are optionally added to the mix—and audio quality is better than what we’ve heard through the application—Napster could have a very serious iTunes Store competitor on its hands.
While both Rhapsody and Napster offer iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad users the opportunity to stream millions of tracks at any time—and store bundles of them for immediate offline listening—Napster’s overall experience strikes us as a little better than Rhapsody’s for the time being. Each service has its advantages, with Rhapsody benefitting from marginally better sound quality and what appeared to be a wider collection of older albums, while Napster features superior album art, more new releases, a better download system, and a superior user interface, apart from its lack of in-track scrubbing. Rhapsody earns our B rating, and Napster our B+, both at our “general recommendation” level—good with room for improvement.
Is either of these services worth $10 a month? Our general recommendations mean that we’d say “yes” to either one, but with caveats. If you’re a serious music fanatic and love to be able to listen to different tracks all the time, either one of these apps will give you the sort of extended previewing and exploration options that the iTunes Store lacks, albeit at a level of quality that won’t satisfy discerning listeners for the long term. Your monthly rental fees won’t eliminate your need to make subsequent purchases if you really want to enjoy the tracks you discover through good headphones or speakers, but they will keep you entertained and expanding your base of knowledge in a way that merely browsing the iTunes Store can’t match, and even the broader Internet doesn’t make nearly as easy. At a minimum, we’d recommend giving either or both apps a free trial so that you can determine whether either one is right for you.