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One of the great things about subscription music services like Rhapsody is that you can check out music that's new to you without paying anything extra. But it's still easy to get stuck listening to the same five bands you loved in high school. Rhapsody 4.0, the new version released in October, helps overcome your inertia with an innovative feature that automatically feeds you new music in the genres you like; at the same time version 4.0 offering solid improvements over the previous version.
Rhapsody offers monthly subscriptions that range from $10 (for access through computers or network-streaming devices only) to $15 (for the ability to take music with you on a portable player). The service also powers Best Buy's Digital Music Store.
With a compatible portable music player (at launch, the only compatible players were models in the SanDisk Sansa e200R series), you can load a Rhapsody channel--basically, a collection of tracks in a certain genre like Celtic or New Wave--directly to an authorized player. When you later reconnect the player to your PC, Rhapsody will automatically update that channel with new music. If you hear a song you like, you can add it to your library with the push of a button, so you'll have it on your player for as long as you keep your subscription active.
The new version considerably simplifies the task of downloading tracks to a portable player. The old version first downloaded the music to your PC's hard drive and then copied it to your player, so you ended up with the music on your hard drive whether you wanted it there or not. The new system lets you drag an album directly to your player. The data passes through a cache on your PC, but it doesn't stay there permanently.
The software uses DNA, a new DRM system built by RealNetworks that allows Rhapsody to move away from Plays For Sure, the Microsoft DRM standard that hasn't yet managed to live up to its name and that Redmond has indicated flagging support for. (Rhapsody still supports Plays For Sure devices, however.)
It's too early to say whether DNA will work better than Plays For Sure. I experienced some glitches when transferring tracks to the Sansa player, but I was able to clear them up by reauthorizing the device. The real test will come when millions of people attempt to use the service on hundreds of different device models.
The update fixes one other annoyance of dealing with a subscription service like Rhapsody. When you put subscription music on a portable device, you have to connect the device periodically so it can confirm that you've paid your subscription and still have the right to play the music. In the previous version of Rhapsody, you never knew when the music would expire, so you might settle into your commute only to find that all of your subscription tracks had turned into pumpkins. The new version tells you how long you can play your music before you have to reconnect, and the Sansa itself warns you when your license is about to expire.
Rhapsody tweaked the service's interface a fair amount, too, to mixed effect. The ability to drag and drop music from the service onto your device or into your Rhapsody library is very convenient. But the service did away with the mixer window, a spot where you could drag tracks to make an impromptu playlist. Though you can do the same thing in the new version, you'll find it harder to keep track of what you're doing because the only way you can see the playlist is by clicking another view. Also, when you sign in to Rhapsody, you go by default to a What's New page that obnoxiously starts playing a recording of a woman pitching you on the service--backed, ironically, by some really lousy music.
Despite the glitches, Rhapsody 4.0 is an innovative update to an already solid digital music system. It even has me listening to some music recorded this century.
A worthy update to an already impressive service, version 4.0 helps you discover new music.
$10 to $15 per month
This story, "First Look: Rhapsody 4.0" was originally published by PCWorld.