Party Ben Tries Out the New Amazon.com MP3 Store

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 10:10 PM EDT

Amazon.com MP3s
In our next story, "Monkey learns to type!" But seriously folks, Amazon.com launched its highly-anticipated MP3 store on Tuesday, the first serious competitor with Apple's dominant iTunes service, and I'm interested in checking it out. I'm a pretty big fan of the whole iTunes experience (although a bit annoyed with the protected files and stuff), and I'm somebody who happily grabs free mp3s, or buys mp3s, and then buys CDs, so I consider myself a skeptical yet open-minded consumer. I began my self-administered experiment this afternoon.

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First question: what to buy? Okay, I think I heard Amazon's store is missing some labels, but in order to mimic the typical music fan's experience, I'm not going to look them up. I'll just think of something I want to hear. Let's start with a challenge: there's a UK band called Tunng, and their electronic/folk album, Good Arrows, is getting some good reviews, and I would enjoy hearing a song, and I am happy to spend a dollar on it. First up, iTunes. Open it up, search "Tunng." Bing! Up it pops, a list of albums, and there it is. Not available in DRM-free iTunes Plus format, but it's here. I click on Good Arrows, and the album tracks pop up, including a column of bars representing the songs' individual comparitive popularities. Why not grab the most popular one, see what the fuss is about? "Bullets," buy song, password, OK. Download took about 14 seconds. It sounds pretty good, kind of silly, like XTC meets The Beta Band. Amazon, you're up.

I head over to Amazon.com and search for Tunng, selecting "MP3 Downloads." 44 songs pop up, not bad, that's compared to the 69 songs iTunes had. I don't see the new album, and the listing is by "relevance," I'm not sure what that means. Aren't they all basically irrelevant? This is British folktronica we're talking about here. Anyway, I'd like to sort by album title, so I try to click there, but no, that's just a column header. Hmm. Maybe in the "Sort By" menu? Nope, that just gives me the typical Amazon.com choices: "Price - Low to High," etc. Okay, what song did I want again? "Bullets." I click "See all 44 songs"... Nope, it's not here. Very close, Amazon, but Round 1 to iTunes.

What next. Something easier? Okay, howabout Feist's "1, 2, 3, 4," to make it ironic, since that's on the iPod commercial. First, back to the iTunes home page. There it is as #4 on their Top 10 songs. Click "buy song," no need for the password again since it's so soon, and the download starts right up. Amazon? To get back to the home page, I click "mp3 downloads," but that takes me to a random list where Apples in Stereo is #1 on a page that says "Showing 1-24 of 2,335,091 songs." Weird. But, lucky me, there's Feist at #10 on this list. Only 89 cents, as opposed to iTunes' 99 cents. I click "Buy mp3" and I get to the "sign in" page like when I want to order a book. Now it's asking me to "get the Amazon MP3 downloader." Hmm, okay, to be fair, I suppose I should do that. I download it, then glance back over at iTunes—hold on a minute, something's gone wrong with iTunes! The little stripeys are still running, and the track hasn't downloaded! Oh no, malfunction! Error! "Could not purchase 1234. The network connection was reset." iTunes forfeits this round!!! Okay, back to installing the Amazon downloader. It installs in a few seconds and takes me right to the next page: "Complete Your Song Download." I have to select my credit card and address, and then, well, it's done. A message comes up: "You can find your downloads in your iTunes library." Oh, snap! Take that, Steve Jobs! Is it there? Well, huzzah, there it is, and at 256 kbit/s, twice the bit rate of an iTunes AAC file. Not bad! And it sounds great. This round to Amazon, and they came very close on the first battle.

So, verdict? Well, the interface is a little cheap, and as a music head I really do use iTunes' sorting functions quite a bit. iTunes is clearly an experience designed by music lovers, and Amazon's page was designed by a committee of javascript consultants. But, if it's easy, and I get a 256 kbit/s file, and it's cheaper, it's hard to argue with Amazon. It was easier than starting up my file-sharing program and weeding through all the crap, for instance. Some are saying an "MP3 price war" has begun, and they may be right. That can only be a good thing for consumers, forced to pay the same price for a bunch of protected data as we'd pay for a better-sounding CD.

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