Hands-On: RealOne Hits a Flat Note
Digital music got a boost of legitimacy this week with the launch of the RealOne subscription service, which lets you download copyright-protected music and watch video programming over the Internet. RealNetworks
But with legitimacy comes a price. There are monthly fees (separate for video and audio files) and restrictions on how many files you can download, how long they last, and what you can do with them.
Still, RealOne might be the sound of online music's future, as the pioneer sites face ongoing legal challenges. MP3.Com has changed its format and
A RealOne Music subscription of $9.95 monthly lets you download and stream up to 100 music tracks from the catalogs of MusicNet, an independent consortium made up of Warner Bros., Bertelsmann, and EMI Group. Other labels represented on the service include Arista, Capitol, Elektra, Jive, RCA, Virgin, and Zomba, which are owned by MusicNet's backers.
A separate $9.95 monthly RealOne Membership gives you access to premium video content. RealOne has forged agreements with 20 content providers, including ABCNEWS.com, CBS Survivor Insider, CNN, E Networks, and FoxSports.com. As a paying RealOne subscriber you can watch day-old full-length news programs of ABC's
A RealOne Gold account ($19.95 monthly) combines the two media. You get 125 streams and downloads as well as access to premium video content. RealNetworks is offering an introductory rate of $9.95 monthly for RealOne Gold membership (though the company's not saying how long the membership stays at the discounted rate). It took less than ten minutes to submit my credit card billing information and download and install an 8.5MB program.
The RealOne Player, necessary to access RealOne service, has a great look and intelligent design and will give Microsoft Windows Media Player a run for its money. A final release of the free RealOne Player is slated for February. Any music fans can use (and may like) the free, downloadable
Used to the freewheeling days of Napster? You're in for a disappointment. For one thing, you don't own the music you download. Shelling out $19.95 each month gives me access to the RealOne service. I get the rights to download and store up to 125 audio tracks that will expire 30 days after I download them. I can carry over some tracks into the next 30-day period, but that lowers the number of new ones I can download, to the maximum 125.
Worse, I can't transfer digital music to a portable digital music player. In fact, RealOne says you can play music on its RealOne software only on the PC you've downloaded the music to. You cannot buy single audio tracks. If you choose to purchase the music on your hard disk, RealOne directs you to Amazon.com to buy the entire CD.
However, here's a loophole: A RealOne Music subscription
"That is one of the biggest issues we are working on right now," says Shawn Morrissey, group manager, consumer applications for RealNetworks. He says a solution is imminent.
At launch, 75,000 audio tracks were available for download. That's not many compared to Morpheus or to the old Napster network, which carried ten times that number. And this well-connected network has some odd omissions. For example, Lenny Kravitz is signed with Virgin, a MusicNet backer, but you won't find the popular Kravitz track "Fly Away" or any of his music on RealOne's network. The same goes for Garth Brooks. Even though the country singer is signed with MusicNet backer Capitol, only one Brooks album is available for download:
That may change. MusicNet is adding more tracks every day, says Ann Garrett, MusicNet spokesperson. She could not project how quickly the selection will grow, however.
More disappointing to me were repeated network problems I encountered Tuesday and Wednesday when downloading. To be fair, network problems are to be expected with any new service. But one shouldn't pay to be a beta tester.
Many times I received "failed to initialize" errors when downloading tracks. Links to streaming audio tracks were often broken as well. Also, the entire network seemed slow. It took five minutes on broadband to download a 2.5MB song. It typically takes under a minute to download your average-size audio track, says Lisa Amore, Real Networks spokesperson.
An e-mail to tech support complaining about broken links was answered within 12 hours. I was told "some of the download links were outdated" and the problem is being corrected.
The best part of the RealOne launch is the free RealOne Player, which competes squarely with Microsoft's latest Windows Media Player. It becomes RealNetwork's standard player and can be downloaded for free.
RealOne supports video and audio playback of a bevy of file formats, including MP3 and WMA. You can also use the RealOne Player to manage music on your PC and to export files (except those from MusicNet) to a portable digital music players.
You can convert (rip) standard CD music tracks into digital audio tracks and save them in RealNetworks' RealAudio 8 format (.rmj). By going to "Tools" and "CD" settings in the RealOne Player, you can choose to save to MP3 format. With the free player, you can encode up to 320 kbps to an MP3 format, which is not bad. The codec is free with the player. Microsoft charges about $10 through a third party for an MP3 add-on to WMP so you can convert CD audio files to MP3s.
As part of the free service, RealOne offers 48 channels of commercial-free radio. The new RealOne Player displays contextual information for songs playing on radio channels, such as album covers and artist information, if the songs are also in MusicNet's catalog.
The video service is an early attempt of this multimedia application. In comparison, basic cable in Boston from AT&T; Broadband costs $10 monthly for 21 channels. RealOne charges $9.95 monthly for 17 of its channels. None have live programming, but they offer long commercial-free segments.
ABCNews.com has the strongest content, including a month's archive of
At $10 per month, either service seems too expensive. RealNetworks would have done well to launch RealOne free for its first six months to entice a lot of people to kick the tires of this new model. Still, Net audiophiles will want to watch how RealNetworks grows its collection of music and works some of the bugs out of its service.
RealNetwork should get credit for inaugurating the Internet music subscription service model. If RealOne keeps improving, it may become a viable option to the shuttered file-swapping networks.