Nokia Music Store review: blow-by-blow with the wannabe iTunes-killer

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So, Nokia’s Music Store has finally gone live in the UK this morning, albeit just slightly later than the promised 7am opening time. I got straight on there to roadtest the service and see how it compares to iTunes. My collected thoughts are below, but the topline is this: good design and usability, a nice selection of music, some niggles around payment and compatability, and the unlimited streaming feature experienced some early teething problems. But read on for the blow-by-blow account.

– Sadly it still doesn’t support Firefox: you need Internet Explorer 6 or above on Windows XP or Vista PCs only. Not a great start for those of us who abandoned IE long ago (luckily, it’s still lurking on the desktop of my newish Vista PC, so I can get in that way).

– Only the Nokia N81 and Nokia N95 8GB can currently use the mobile version of the store to browse, preview and download. However, if you use the web-based version, you can transfer and play purchased tracks on the N95, N76, N91, 5200, and on the 5700, 5610, 5310 and 5300 Xpress Music handsets. Presumably that means the tracks won’t play on my N73 then.

– Payment-wise, you can buy stuff using a credit or debit card – although there’s no Maestro/Switch option, strangely. Although you can enter your details for each purchase, Nokia seems keen to get people to buy a bunch of prepaid credit, which is displayed at the top of the screen as ‘My Account’, and then just have songs taken off that when you buy them. Unused credits expire after 12 months (why?), but you can apparently apply for an extension. The minimum top-up is £8, but if you buy £20, £40 or £80 of credit, you get extra songs thrown in.

– Here in the UK it’s 80p per song, with most albums going for £8. That’s not too bad. The tracks are DRM’d WMA files, with a mixture of 128kbps and 192kbps, which seems a bit puzzling. There’s also an £8-a-month unlimited streaming option, more of which later.

– To play or buy music, you have to download and install the Nokia Media Bar, which is an Active-X application that runs in your browser. It was painless enough to install, and shows up as a frame on the right-hand side of the browser, where your downloaded tracks show up.

– The homepage looks nice – there’s a lot of stuff on there, but it doesn’t feel too cluttered. It’s a mix of new releases, ‘bestsellers’, top singles and albums (I’m not sure what the difference is between them and bestsellers mind). You can dig down by genre, check out staff favourites, browse ‘new artists’, and check Top 40 singles, albums and download charts, as well as the ‘Nokia Top 40’. It stacks up well against iTunes on this front – everything you’d expect is there.

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– Topping up my prepay account was painless, so I’m ready to check out an album. Britney Spears’ ‘Blackout’ is on there for £8, so let’s check out the album page. It’s well laid out (above), with each track having an option to add it to your wishlist, listen to a 30-second sample, cue it up if you’ve got the unlimited streaming option, and buy it. There’s also five ‘Try these’ tracks at the bottom. The samples load up quickly, and appear in the Media Bar – which means they’re automatically added to your basket.

nokia-music-store-bar.jpg– There’s one click to buy the album, but then another to confirm the purchase, before the track(s) start downloading in the Media Bar (right). Once downloaded, they have a little Play icon, which when clicked, adds them to your current playlist for playing. The quality sounds good, although there’s no on-screen indication of what bitrate they’re encoded at. But overall, the payment and download process is quick and easy. There’s an unexplained pause of a few seconds between double-clicking on one of your downloaded tracks, and it starting to play. I’m not sure what that’s about: it’s almost like the buffering period when you’re streaming stuff.

– Clicking around the store, there’s a good selection of music from major and indie acts, including genres like jazz, christian/gospel, and latin music (mind you, experts in those genres would need to say whether the right stuff is featured there). Overall, I like it lots – the layout is logical, you can click around sampling stuff to your heart’s content, and the Media Bar is easy to use, with the ability to create and save playlists without any hassle.

– Nokia is apeing iTunes’ ‘free track every week’ offer – this week it’s a track by the Freemasons. There’s also a Music Recommenders tab where celebs will give their playlists – Jay-Z is first on that score (who knew he was a U2 fan?)

– All the tracks are being saved in my Stuart > Music directory on my PC, and they DO open and play in Windows Media Player. So you don’t have to use the Nokia Media Bar to play your downloads, which is unexpected (but good). Presumably this means I can burn tracks to CD that way, so there is a way to play them off the PC (apart from on a mobile phone, I mean). There are instructions in the Nokia Music Store help pages to get your Windows Media Player set up to acquire licences for songs

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– Each album / track has specific rights information saying what you can do with it (above). For example, that Britney album lets you transfer it to unlimited portable devices, but it can only be burned to CD ten times. That seems to be standard across the board for albums.

– EDIT: the following points relate to my initial walkthrough of the streaming service this morning, but I’ve logged back in this afternoon and it’s working fine. But I’ve left them up rather than rewrite the entire post.

– Right, onto that Unlimited Streaming service, which costs a reasonable-sounding £8 a month. Switching it on is a simple few-clicks process (I stored my credit card details, which helped). From now, adding tracks or albums to your streaming playlist works in the same way as purchasing them, except you click on the Streaming button next to the album or track, instead of the purchase button. Easy enough, but…

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– Oh dear. Streaming is switched on, but nothing I add to my playlist will actually stream (above). I’ll try shutting down Internet Explorer and reopening it…

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– Double dear. It’s showing me a different error message now when I try to stream the recent Bob Dylan compilation (above): “You do not have the rights to play this file. Go to the content provider’s Web site to find out how to obtain the necessary play rights”. Oh, I’ve clicked through, and it’s granted me a licence. Which is nice. Except I’m back in the Store now, and nothing’s playing, and Internet Explorer appears to have crashed. Shut down and restart again…

– Oh. It says it’s playing Dylan now, but there’s no sound coming out of the speakers. Yet when I switch back to a downloaded Oasis track, it works fine. I think this is what you call ‘teething problems’. The same issue (it says it’s playing, but no sound) happens when I try to stream albums by Amy Winehouse and Timbaland. I’ll have to come back to this later, but it’s not impressive on launch day.

– EDIT: So, as I said, these problems have been fixed since I wrote this piece – it’s 2.12pm now, and I’m listening to Bob Dylan wheezing out of my speakers. Hurrah!

So, that’s it for my blow-by-blow account of getting to grips with the Nokia Music Store. I’ll write a more structured review of its strengths and weaknesses later, but for now: it’s slick and usable, there’s a few niggles around payment and compatability, but its biggest weapon against iTunes – the streaming – appears to be suffering launch-day snafus.

Stuart Dredge

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