AOL teamed up with iTunes last month to offer a music download service to its broadband subscribers. The ISP launched its service at the same time as Apple opened its music download store iTunes in the UK. The main advantage for AOL subscribers is that tracks can be bought from iTunes with their AOL account. In theory, this saves having to set up two accounts, one with iTunes and one with your ISP.

We started our trial by downloading iTunes's software. As expected an option to open our account using our AOL screen name appeared. We entered this with our password and clicked proceed. After several attempts, we kept receiving error messages saying our screen name and password had not been recognized. Eventually we gave up and clicked to open an account with iTunes. Having entered our address and credit card details, iTunes ordered us to return and add our work telephone number. Finally, our account was approved but we noticed that it had our AOL screen name. This left us confused as to whether our account had opened via AOL or via iTunes and whether both would be charging our credit card for downloads. AOL says only iTunes and not the ISP collects money from subscribers when tracks are purchased but we'll be keeping an eye on it.

With our account up and running, we found the software easy to use. There were hitches but we overcame most of them. We purchased four tracks at 79p each but only one downloaded so we clicked on Advanced and then Check for Purchased Music. This found the three tracks we had purchased and downloaded them for us. Clicking Advanced and then Check for Purchased Music would be a good habit to get into. One concern was keeping track of your spending. iTunes has what must rate as one of the most useless spreadsheets for tracking purchases: it gives you information on everything except how much you have spent, which would be difficult to call an accident. The day after our purchases, iTunes sent a receipt via our AOL email address. We recommend setting up a folder for mail from iTunes. Claims about exclusive tracks, both on iTunes and for AOL subscribers, seemed wide of the mark. If iTunes has genuine exclusives, then why do record companies have a problem protecting the exclusivity of their music online?

What did let iTunes down was its lack of compatibility. AOL broadband supports PCs, not Macs, and iTunes is an odd partner for PC users. We already had tracks downloaded in WMA format from Napster and wanted to make playlists using tracks from both iTunes and Napster but neither would import tracks from the other. Our WMA compatible portable player would not play tracks purchased from iTunes which were AAC files, a sub-format of MPEG-4. Apple was unwilling to loan us an iPod which, in theory, would have worked.

Verdict

iTunes says it is an alternative to illegal websites where people share music files for free. The problem is that any comparison between illegal sites and iTunes is like comparing the British Library to your local bookshop. iTunes has nothing like the variety of music that was unleashed by the grass roots phenomenon of musical file sharing from the original, illegal Napster of 2000. We can't believe AOL would have teamed up with Apple unless the computer manufacturer intended dropping its proprietary file formats that give PC/WMA compatible systems a headache.