First Look: New Rhapsody Hits a Sour Note

I was prepared to love the new version of the music streaming service Rhapsody, which adds portable subscriptions to its list of optional features. I'm a longtime Rhapsody subscriber with a lengthy commute, so the promise of being able to take the music I subscribe to anywhere I want is exciting. Unfortunately, in my experience, a big part of the new service just didn't seem to work.

It's supposed to work like this: You download Real's new Rhapsody 3 player, and for $10 per month you can listen to music you stream on demand from Real's servers, or you can store as many tunes as you like from its million-song collection on your notebook's hard drive. For an extra $5 per month, you can upgrade to a Rhapsody To Go subscription, which, in theory, lets you transfer those tracks to a few supported portable digital audio players (not including any Apple IPod).

As long as you maintain your Rhapsody To Go subscription (and sync your player regularly), you can play the music, whether or not you have an Internet connection. And, subscription or no, should you deem a song worthy of ownership, you can now purchase and download the file directly from Real. Previously Rhapsody subscribers could play music only when they were connected to the Web; and if they wanted to buy music, they had to burn the tracks directly to CD.

In my tests, transferring tracks to a notebook and playing them while I was unconnected to the Net worked fine. Of course, that's no great accomplishment--other music services have been allowing something like that for years. But despite trying with two IRiver H10 MP3 players, two Rhapsody accounts, and two PCs, and getting suggestions from Real engineers, I was never able to transfer any Rhapsody track I hadn't bought outright onto a portable player. For me, at any rate, Rhapsody To Go just didn't work.

And I don't seem to be alone. Real's support forums include lots of complaints from customers about similar problems with the Rhapsody To Go service. Numerous others are complaining that after they downloaded the version 3 software, their normally dependable audio playback has suffered from annoying dropouts and disconnects. I didn't run into that problem myself, but several PC World staffers have experienced similar issues.

A Real spokesperson says the service is running fine, but the company has posted a set of instructions on how to download and reinstall the previous version 2.1 software. (Editors' note: As we prepared to post this story, Real announced plans to roll out updated software in the coming week.)

It's worth noting that the problems don't seem to be with the Microsoft Windows Media DRM 10 technology that supports subscription music portability. After all, Napster to Go has been using that technology for months.

Some Good News

Beyond the technical problems with the portable subscription service, there's a lot to like about the Rhapsody Player redesign.

For the first time, Rhapsody's desktop client now serves as a full-featured jukebox, so you can organize the tracks you're "renting" from Rhapsody along with the audio files you own outright. It natively plays four major music formats: AAC, MP3, WMA, and Real Audio, a major advantage over Windows Media Player, ITunes, and Musicmatch Jukebox. You can rip and burn tracks in AAC, MP3, or WMA. The layout felt a little crowded on my 1024-by-768-resolution screen, and the ITunes interface is still slightly easier to use. But those quibbles don't outweigh the convenience of being able to organize all my music in one place.

Rhapsody has always had a clear design and smart editorial commentary that helps you not only find the music you already know, but also discover new music you'll like. The new version adds some handy features. My Rhapsody lets you choose ten musical genres of interest, to make it easier to find newly added albums you'll enjoy. And the service automatically generates a playlist filled with music similar to the last 100 tunes you've streamed.

One quibble with Rhapsody's redesign: When you view a page about a performer, Rhapsody lists all of that performer's albums in a vertical pane on the left. That list now includes thumbnail images of the album art and only a word or two of the title of the album. To see the whole album title, you usually have to hover your mouse over it, making the list tough to scan.

I'm still prepared to love the new Rhapsody--if Real can get the portable subscription service to work. In the meantime, it's a fine service for people who don't mind being tied to a PC to listen to their music. If you really can't wait to take your subscription music with you, though, I'd suggest trying the imperfect but functional Napster to Go service for now.

Real Rhapsody 3


Some nice new features, but subscription music portability just didn't work in our repeated testing.
List: $10 per month, $5 additional per month for Rhapsody To Go
www.real.com

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