Denki News

July 16, 2006

iTunes Music Store Special Report, Part 3: Potential Problems

Filed under: iPod & iTunes — icruise @ 9:17 pm

In Part 1 of this series I detailed the rules behind Apple’s FairPlay DRM scheme. I think most people would agree that if you have to have DRM, FairPlay isn’t really that bad. But there are some other issues that anyone wanting to buy from the iTMS should keep in mind. (More after the jump.)

First of all, you should be aware that there is apparently nothing in the iTMS license agreement that procludes Apple from changing the FairPlay rules. In fact, they have already done so. Admittedly, the good parts of the change (going from a 3 computer limit to 5) far outweighed the bad (going from 10 CD burns of the same playlist to 7 burns), but the idea that Apple can just change the terms of the agreement at any time is a bit disturbing. Still, I imagine that consumer outcry would prevent them from trying anything too egregious.

This should go without saying, but one should realize that music bought from the iTMS will only play on Macintosh or Windows computers (and only using iTunes or the Quicktime player), on iPods, and on a few iTunes-capable mobile phones. If you buy music from the iTMS, you won’t be able to just decide to buy a different brand of portable music player and expect to still be able to play your music. (There are ways to convert iTMS-purchased music to plain MP3 format which I will go into in another post, but they are somewhat labor intensive.)

Also remember that when you buy a song, by Apple’s rules you are only entitled to a single download of the song file. If you accidentally delete the songs that you have downloaded or have a computer crash, you are out of luck. (Actually, I have heard of people having some success with Apple letting them redownload songs, but this should be thought of as the exception rather than the rule.) What this means is that you absolutely must backup your iTMS purchases. You can copy them to an external hard disk or another computer, or burn a data CD or DVD using iTunes or other software. Just make sure that you do back them up, and do it in multiple ways in case one fails.

And you should know that downloading a song from the iTMS does not get you exactly what you would get if you bought the same thing on CD. Obviously, you don’t get a physical copy of the music, but you should also know that iTMS music is not CD quality. Apple uses 128kbps AAC format song files, which is a lossy format. (As an aside, many people mistakenly think that the AAC format is a proprietary format developed by Apple, like Microsoft’s WMA format. In reality, AAC is an international standard and has nothing to do with Apple — neither of the A’s in AAC stand for “Apple.”)

The quality of these AAC files is quite good. Some say they are roughly equivalent to 192kbps MP3 files, which means that you can get better quality at smaller file sizes. However, they are not CD quality. I personally cannot tell the difference, although admittedly I haven’t sat down and done extensive A/B tests. However, even before the iTMS, I ripped all the CDs I bought to MP3 or AAC and listened to them on the iPod anyway, so it wasn’t a big change for me. Whether it is good enough for you is something that only you can decide. A lot of people object to buying music that is inferior in quality to CDs, and I can understand their point of view. For me, any difference in quality is outweighed by the convenience of being able to sample songs online and buy what I want instantly, and by the ability to buy single songs instead of entire albums.

One other minor difference between CDs and iTMS downloads is that you do not get liner notes in most cases. There are some albums that come with digital booklets in PDF form, but these are few and far between.

Finally, remember that while it is often cheaper to buy songs at the iTMS rather than on CD, if you’re buying an entire album it is sometimes actually cheaper (or the same price) to buy the CD and import it to iTunes yourself. Since buying the CD allows you to import the music at any quality setting you like with no DRM (and you will also have the CD itself as a backup), even the biggest iTMS user might sometimes be better off just buying the CD.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll tell you how you can (legally) remove the DRM from the songs you have purchased, and I’ll also talk about an iTMS alternative that uses no DRM whatsoever.

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