Napster UK subscription service review

Napster has had a tough time since "going legit". While it was the foremost filesharing network of its day, and arguably the original source of the explosion in P2P antics over this decade, it's had trouble transferring that brand power into a legitimate service.

Until recently, Napster offered two tiers of subscription: £10 per month would get you unlimited streaming, and £15 would get you DRMed downloads that wouldn't work on iPod and would be unlistenable if you let your subscription lapse. But recently the company withdrew these offerings and launched a new service which is cheaper and offers more than both of those options.

For £5 per month, you can now get a Napster subscription which offers you streaming and five non-DRMed MP3 downloads each month. The idea is that you listen to loads of different music and then download the best tracks so you can burn them to CD or put them on your MP3 player.

The company is undercutting rival streaming service Spotify by offering what appears on paper to be a more generous deal for half price, but how does it really stack up in reality? Can Napster grab a piece of the digital music pie by making its subscription options finally worth the cash?

Napster has two interfaces for playing music - a website and a desktop app. The two resemble each other very closely, and a number of times while testing them both we got confused as to which we were in and had to double-check. Why? Because it all runs at the speed of the website.

And that's not quick. From double-clicking a song to hearing it come out of your speakers means buffering for 4-7 seconds on a connection that can play uncached tracks out of Spotify in less than a second. This is likely because Napster streams all its music itself, whereas Spotify relies on P2P - pulling tracks off other users nearby who've listened to that song recently and have it cached.

Once things are going, transfer is fine. Streams are at just 128kbps, which is rather on the too-low side, but we didn't get a single dropout or buffering experience during our testing. So far, so okay. You can right-click tracks to buy them in 256kbps MP3 format, and once you do, they'll play in the desktop app at the higher quality.

That desktop app also doubles as a music library organiser. Unlike Spotify's client which is stripped-down and just does streaming and playlists, Napster takes a leaf out of iTunes' book. It lets you rip and burn CDs, control your MP3 collection, generate "Genius"-style autoplaylists and access preprepared playlists from Napster, albeit with bizarre and terrifying titles like "A special compilation of tracks about mum", "Songs about being crazy" and "Tony Blair's 10 years in power".

That last bit reflects in a nutshell what permeates the design of Napster. It doesn't feel like it's designed for music fans. It gets in the way of what you want to do - constantly asking if you want an auto-generated playlist of a band, rather than letting you get access to that band's catalogue for you to choose yourself. It takes two clicks to start playing the current top 10 singles in the UK, but five actions to get up a list of songs by a band.

Then there's other strange hoops that the software demands you jump through. It demands that you download and install a plugin as an EXE file downloaded off a website, then restart the software, before you can rip a CD in 320kbps MP3 format - the default WMA encoding (which won't work on iPods) will only go up to 128kbps, bizarrely.

And media buttons on your keyboard, if you have them, will only work if the application has the focus on your screen. If you're writing a word document and you want to skip tracks, you'll need to swap to Napster, then hit the "skip forward" button - completely negating the usefulness of such features.

But let's go back to the original question - is it worth £5 per month? The answer is "yes". A fiver for an unlimited amount of listening whatever you like in a big catalogue (no real complaints in that department) is worth the asking price, even if it's in low quality on irritatingly slow software. The free MP3s are great, but amount to little more than a conscience boost - they won't win over anyone who's ever used a filesharing network.

But don't click that subscribe button just yet. If you're a music lover and want a tool to listen to the songs that you want, in great quality, on fast software without getting a computer-generated playlist constantly in the way, then Napster isn't as good an experience as its competitors. Spotify gives you far more for the extra that it costs - Napster has said that it has absolutely no plans for mobile streaming, for example.

Spotify has also been undercut by Sky's "Sky Songs" offering, which will give you ten songs per month for £6.50 or 15 for £8. Seems better value on paper, but we haven't seen the catalogue or the usability of the service yet.

Verdict

If you love music and know what you want the listen to the majority of the time, Napster is a little irritating and a pain. If you're a more casual fan, then it's a decent budget option to get more music into your life.