Apple iTunes Music Store full review

Apple's iTunes Music Store (iTMS) is the final piece of the iLife digital-home jigsaw - joining the much-delayed online iPhoto print-ordering service to the UK and beyond. We've been able to play around with the Music Store for well over a year, but only US Mac users have had the opportunity to buy music from it.

iTMS is accessed via iTunes, and shares that application's ease of use and intuitive layout. iTMS is bright, colourful, and hugely interactive. Windows-only legal music-download services aren't a patch on it.

Before iTMS we had to rip tracks from CDs to store them in iTunes and transfer them to our iPods. Another way to increase your music collection is to download music tracks from peer-to-peer services such as Limewire and KaZaA. In essence, you're sharing your music with anyone else in the world connected to that service. As you're not paying the artist or record company any money for this music, this is illegal.

iTMS is not only legal, it's more reliable than the pirate peer-to-peer services. You can sample the tracks before purchase - the 30-second previews are excellent quality, if occasionally bizarre in snippet form. You're guaranteed decent-quality sound at an acceptable compression level (128-bit AAC). Download times are as consistent as your own connection (broadband strongly recommended), rather than relying on the speed of a PC thousands of miles away that might anyway get switched off mid-way through your download. And the music stays on the Store rather than the hit-and-miss nature of getting what you want from Limewire et al.

There are plenty of other smart features on iTMS: iMix, where you create your own playlists from what's available on the Store, that are then rated by other Store users; and celebrity playlists from the likes of Herbie Hancock, Moby and The Darkness. At the time of writing there are just five celebrity playlists in the UK iTMS - compared to 84 on the longer-established US Store. Why are we denied the delights of Sting's list of favoured songs, or Seal's choices? After all, these artists are from the UK. The reason, I suspect, is that not all the tracks on their playlists are available on the UK Store, and herein lies the greatest weakness of iTMS - the music currently available is way short of offering a decent selection.

Missing music
Apple can offer only music that it has agreed with the record labels in each region the Store operates. And so far Apple hasn't reached a deal with the UK's independent labels - which command at least a quarter of the market. Until such an agreement can be reached - the indies claim Apple is trying to unjustly shaft them on royalties - iTMS UK will be a poor relative of the much more representative US Store. And as you can buy songs only from your local Store, this is disappointing - but only partly Apple's fault. The music companies have tentatively embraced Apple's vision of legal downloading, but they're way off opening up all their music for such transaction.

Apple claims iTMS holds 700,000 tracks for download. Browsing through the UK Store, it's difficult to believe this figure for a single Store. However, as there's 49 Wurzels tracks, it could be true.

The roster of missing artists is quite something: heavyweights such as the Beatles, Stones and Led Zeppelin (although the pastiche Dread Zeppelin is there!); mainstream bands Oasis and Radiohead; and many popular acts, such as Franz Ferdinand and Badly Drawn Boy. That said, many gaps have been filled in the first few weeks of service.

No doubt, as iTMS proves itself and Apple reaches an agreement with the indies, greater availability will be reached as it has in the US. However, at present there's a long way to go before iTMS challenges HMV and Virgin - or even the unreliable but well-stocked pirates.

That said, there is a lot on offer, so you may strike lucky for your audio needs in all genres from hip-hop to classical and audiobooks. Random browsing finds some weird stuff - check-out Ecstatica's dance version of Mike Oldfield's Moonlight Shadow, for instance - and hidden gems such as Stevie Wonder's wondrous and little-known eight-minute Superwoman for just 79p.

Buying from the Store is simple - load your credit-card details, and click once to download the track that is then immediately available in iTunes (with artwork).

There have been complaints about the UK pricing of 79p a track and £7.99 on average per album. In the US - where no sales tax is applied as it is in Europe - a track costs 99 cents, which is about 56p. Taking VAT into consideration that makes the price differential about 14p a track, or £1.30 an album. Euro prices are closer to the better dollar prices. I'll give Apple the benefit of the doubt on this one, and blame the greedy UK record labels that have a rich history of over-charging UK customers for music. £7.99 is still better value than £14 for a CD if you shop at the big stores, but not much cheaper than many CDs on Amazon and other online-ordering services.

What iTMS does offer that Amazon and HMV can't compete with is speed of service. Of course, download speeds depend on your Internet connection, the time of day, and busyness of the Store. But it'll certainly beat waiting for a package from Amazon.

Another difference between iTMS music and the stuff you buy on CD or illegally download is the digital rights management that protects tracks from being pirated. Personal-use rights let you play songs on up to five personal computers, burn a single song onto CDs an unlimited number of times, burn the same playlist up to seven times, and listen on an unlimited number of iPods.

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