Nokia cut the virtual ribbon on its Nokia Music Store this morning in the UK, so I’ve spent the last few hours playing with it. You can read the blow-by-blow account of my first hour or so here, and check out a few screenshots here, but this post is an attempt to set down the strengths and weaknesses of the service in a more organised fashion, and come to a verdict about how it compares to iTunes.
Without further ado then…
Nokia has clearly put a lot of work into the web version of its store, since it’s easy to find your way around, with a logical and usable interface. The Media Bar plug-in works well if you’re listening to music and playlists within the browser, although you can play your downloads in Windows Media Player too, if that’s your chosen music app.
Pricing is good, with individual tracks costing 80p each, and most albums going for £8. It’s not cheaper than iTunes, but I’d say it’s fairly good value for digital music. The £8 monthly subscription for Unlimited Streaming also seems fair value to me, assuming the feature works properly (more of which later).
For now, the streaming feature is one of the store’s biggest advantages over iTunes, with Apple yet to launch an unlimited subscription model of this type. The jury’s out on how popular this model is – services like Napster and Rhapsody have been slow to pick up steam – but for me, it’s a big selling point.
The registration and payment process is reassuringly painless, while the fact that you can choose to either top up your account or pay for tracks/albums individually is good. I’m also impressed by the range of artists and albums/songs on the store, especially if you’re digging into particular genres.
Also, I’ve just discovered the ability to drag and drop your existing MP3 files into the Media Bar, to use in playlists with your downloaded / streaming files from the Nokia Store. That’s great.
The biggie for me is the lack of support for Firefox or Mac browsers, forcing you to use Internet Explorer to access the web-based store. Given the increasing market share of Firefox, this seems like an oversight. If you’re aware of issues around DRM, then the fact that Nokia is using protected WMA files will be a big downside compared to all the rivals who are going DRM-free.
Meanwhile, the number of Nokia handsets that can access the mobile store currently stands at just two – the N81 and N95 8GB – while only another eight Nokia phones can play the tracks. That limits what should be one of the Nokia Music Store’s strong points – although it’ll become less of a factor as more new phones support it, I guess. Basically, I’m just miffed that my N73 is out in the cold (and yes, I did try transferring a track over to see if it’d play anyway. It didn’t.)
There’s a few niggles, like the way you can pay with credit and Solo debit cards, but not Switch/Maestro, and also the way some tracks are encoded at 128kbps and some at 192kbps, without a clear indication of which. Oh, and when playing your downloaded tracks in the Media Bar, there’s an unexplained pause almost as if they’re buffering (which since they’re downloaded tracks, they’re not).
The streaming service has been experiencing teething problems this morning, too. The first time I tried to use it, there was no sound. After lunch, it worked, then abruptly stopped working, and now it seems fine again. Hopefully these are just temporary issues.
Having spent £20 on downloads and coughed up £8 for a month’s unlimited streaming, I’m judging the Nokia Music Store as a consumer. It’s good, and represents a strong entry for Nokia into the digital music market. It’s usable, well designed, and offers decent value for money.
Is it an iTunes killer? Not yet, by any means. The DRM and bitrate issues will be a big issue for some users too. For some albums, I can buy the 128kbps protected WMA versions from the Nokia Store for £8, or get the 256kbps DRM-free AAC version from iTunes for £7.99, for example (with pure MP3 versions available from other digital music stores too).
Nevertheless, it’s worth reiterating that this is a starting point for Nokia. If they can continue to add new features, and hopefully bring in DRM-free tracks as soon as the labels agree, then the Nokia Music Store will be a valuable addition to the digital music landscape. Rest assured, we’ll be tracking developments (and as soon as I can blag a compatible handset, I’ll review the mobile version of the store too).