One of the Big Four music services is Napster. I'd consider the largest to be the iTunes Music Store (which I shall refer to as iTunes from now on even though I understand the difference between the software and the service), followed by Rhapsody, Amazon.com, and Napster. Recently, Napster revamped their pricing and membership plans, and it seems to have created a great deal of confusion. As a Napster subscriber myself, I've taken the time to sort it out and perhaps I can explain what's changed more clearly that Napster themselves has done.
First, let's talk about how the service USED to work. Previously, you could create a Napster account for free, called Napster Light, that allowed you to listen to a limited number of full length songs and then buy whichever ones you liked for 99 cents per song. After you'd used your allotment of full length previews, you were limited to the same 30 second previews that iTunes Music Store has made famous.
For a while, these were DRM-protected Windows Media player format files that prevented you from playing the songs in your iPod or MP3 player (although you could burn audio CDs and re-rip the songs as long as you accepted the drop in quality). Eventually, however, Napster began selling MP3 files not encumbered by DRM protection, allowing you to use purchased tracks in any manner you wish. Play them on your computer, put them in your iPod or MP3 player, burn audio CDs, whatever you'd like.
Napster also offered two subscriptions. The basic Napster subscription charged you a monthly fee and then removed the limit on the number of full length songs you could listen to. You could still purchase albums or individual tracks as MP3 files, but you could ALSO download the PROTECTED songs, without limit, and play them offline. The catch was, the protected subscription downloads would play ONLY on your computer. You could not play them in your iPod or MP3 player, nor could you burn an audio CD with them. So, pay each month for the ability to play unlimited full length songs, download those songs without limit or additional charge as long as you accept the restrictions, and buy unprotected MP3 versions when you want to do more with the music.
Simple enough, right?
Napster-To-Go was the same plan EXCEPT that your downloaded subscription tracks could also be played in MP3 players that were compatible with the style of protection Napster used (something called "Plays4Sure"). iPods were not supported. You could still buy unprotected MP3 files, of course, and do as you please with them. But as long as you kept your subscription current and connected your computer and device with the Napster service on a regular basis, you could play as much music as you wanted, offline, for one flat monthly rate.
So what are the plans, now?
Napster Light has discontinued the ability to play full length songs. This free plan now lets you listen ONLY to 30 second previews, and then purchase any MP3 albums or tracks that you like. In doing this, Napster Light has become exactly the same as iTunes or Amazon.com. It all boils down to which service you prefer using now, as the value is precisely the same. Each will tell you their service offers better reviews, recommendations, and whatnot, but that's really for you the consumer to decide.
The base Napster subscription has been replaced by Napster Pass. This new plan costs $5 per month, sold either by the month or in three month and one year packages. You can listen to an unlimited number of full length songs while connected to Napster.com, and you will get MP3 credits to download tracks equal to the amount of your membership. That is, the monthly plans get 5 credits per month, the three month 15 credits for that period, and the annual plan gets 60 credits for the year. On the surface, that seems like a good deal, right? You can get your full length songs and you get MP3 credits for your membership price! What's not to like?
What you've lost is the ability to download files to your computer and play them offline. Subscribers who traveled with laptops full of music that they would play while not connected to the Internet are affected, as are those who downloaded songs to their computers serving as jukeboxes to their home entertainment systems. The latter preferred the downloaded songs, since those were immune to Internet slowdowns or hiccups.
Napster-To-Go is unchanged, but includes no MP3 credits for the $15 per month you pay.
So if you've been a Napster subscriber who downloaded large numbers of songs to your computer for offline playback, you can choose between upgrading to the slightly more expensive Napster-To-Go plan, or accept that your offline playback will no longer work.
If you're someone who has been using iTunes or Amazon.com to listen to 30 second song previews before purchasing the albums or individual songs, then Napster Pass does have something new to offer you. If you essentially prepay for some MP3 downloads, you get access to full length song previews in exchange.
Users of the Napster Light free service have lost something, as have Napster subscribers (other than the "To Go" versions). They will have to decide how angry this makes them, and whether they will continue to use Napster.
Oh, and why have three separate prepayment deals? Because your credits don't roll over. If you are on the monthly plan and don't download five songs, you lose those credits. People who are a little more sporadic in their music downloading habits should consider the longer periods to avoid losing credits.
Thus we have the new Napster. Is it a good deal or not? You tell me.