After my very wary preview of Datz Music Lounge, the other day, a review copy landed on my desk, so I thought you’d appreciate a full-on, honest look at the all-you-can-eat MP3 service.
It’s a big black box, with a Nietzche quote on the inside of the lid. It looks good, but ultimately 95% of the space in the box is taken up by foam – a bit of a waste. It only holds a manual, a gold installation CD, and a USB dongle. We’ll come back to the dongle in a minute. Click over the jump for info about installation, software and the available catalogue.
It’s Windows-only. Windows 32-bit only. It does work on Vista, but not on Vista 64, so I can’t use it at home. That’s a pain, and Datz need to sort that out soon. It works fine on 32-bit Windows XP. It doesn’t work on Linux or Macs.
The installation auto-runs when you put the CD in the drive. It installs Windows Installer 3.1 and .NET framework 3.5 (which takes ages!) if you don’t have them already. It also installs “Sentinel Dongle Software” – drivers for the USB dongle – that shows a few rather-scary DOS windows. Then it installs the Datz Music Lounge software.
When completed, you start the software, and it’ll probably prompt you to update. It’s fairly easy, but it means clicking “Allow” on a few more User Account Control windows, if you’re using Vista.
You remember how I said this product sounded too good to be true? Well, it is. Kind-of. The aforementioned USB dongle is the key to your downloads – it needs to be plugged in for you to use the service. Oh, and you can only authenticate it on two computers. If you need more than two, then tough titties.
That said, once the MP3s are downloaded, you’re free to do whatever the hell you want with them. Put them on your iPod, phone, laptop, anything. Burn them to CD and give them to friends. Whatever you like. That’s great. If you can live with the OS limitations, and the restriction to two computers, then you’re getting as many MP3s as you like.
While we’re talking about limitations, I should talk about the Fair Use Policy. Commendably, Datz has put this in the back of the manual in full-size font. It says “we encourage you to use the services as much as you like”, but asks you to “use the services fairly.”
Lastly, you need to activate the product before the end of 2009, because Datz say “the final date that any content can be downloaded (…) will be 31st December 2010” – presumably they’ve only budgeted to run the servers until then.
To be honest, I’m not that bothered about the above restrictions, with the exception of the “2 computers only” problem. It’d be nice if you could de-authenticate one computer to allow another to operate. Also, there’s the “Ship of Theseus” problem, where you replace every bit of your computer over time until there’s none of the original PC left. How big a change does the computer have to undergo before it’s a “different” PC?
Right, now that’s out the way, let’s talk about the service itself. Plugging in the USB dongle and starting up the software for the first time gives you a registration window. Fill in your details (address, email, name, DoB, etc) and it’ll send you an email that simply says “Thanks for signing up”.
The software itself is very responsive, though it appears to be just some sort of modified internet browser. There are a few buttons that don’t do anything at all, like the box-out arrows to the right of “Experience” and “Utilities” on the taskbar. The “Tools” tab simply contains a bunch of different-coloured themes. The default is dysentery beige.
The “preview” buttons next to the tracks don’t work, despite there being a media player in the top right of some sort. Bizarrely it has a ‘full screen’ button. The ‘download’ link, however, does, and I can verify that they come as DRM-free MP3s at 320kbps. No idea if there’s any watermarking on the files, though – if anyone knows how to detect a watermark, then let me know, and I’ll happily check for you.
Songs come on albums, so why can’t I browse via albums? That would be a nice thing to do. There’s also no search box on my review copy of the software – something that is apparently being rectified “this week”. Damn straight they better rectify it.
So, on to the biggest of my worries about the service – the music that’s available. There are currently 1,347,281 tracks on Datz. If I’m honest, probably about 95% of them are bands that the biggest music geek you know won’t have heard of. But let’s examine things more closely, so you see what I mean.
When you first click the ‘browse’ button on Datz, it gives you an A-Z option for artists and tracks, as well as a list of genres. I want to take a quick diversion here for a personal gripe. The genre list is the same one that you see all over the place which doesn’t make any sense. “Rock”, “Metal” and “Alternative” are all different genres, apparently. “Country” gets top billing. It’s simply not reflective of modern-day music in the UK. Where do the Libertines, for example, fit in between Pop, Rock, Metal and Alternative? What’s the dividing line between “Dance” and “Electronica”?
That aside, clicking “more genres” will give you a big tag cloud of different genres including “Latin Tropical”, “Christmas”, “Action Adventure” and (at last) “Indie Rock”. Brilliantly there’s a genre called “Do Not Use”. It’s got no songs in it. Not sure what I was expecting, but it shows up nice and big in the tag cloud, so the tag cloud’s evidently fake.
I’m probably most familiar with what Datz call “Alternative” music, so I click onto it. On the first page of results, there are 15 songs listed. I know 3 of the artists responsible – Neko Case, Gorillaz (surely they should be in Pop?) and The Frames. I know none of the listed songs. Increasing the number displayed per page to 45 reveals a few more bands that I recongise – Biffy Clyro, Killing Joke and Misfits, but still the vast majority of bands listed are utterly unknown by the wider public.
I ‘browse’ for some of my favourite bands. The Divine Comedy – nothing. Eels – nothing. Idlewild – nothing. Doves have a surprisingly decent selection, but they’re not sorted into albums. LCD Soundsystem – again, not sorted into albums – but the selection here is fantastic, complete with tonnes of remixes and rarer tracks. I’m starting to be a little more impressed.
I go to the ‘home’ page, to see the editorially selected top tracks. There’s the phenomenally popular “2 Hearts” by Kylie, Elvis’ “All Shook Up”, and The Streets’ “Fit But You Know It”. There’s the Rolling Stones, The Specials, Phil Collins and REM. Deep Purple and Estelle. The Kooks, even.
But digging a little deeper into these artists again reveals limitations. Alphabeat’s fantastic “Boyfriend” song is present, but it’s a live version. There’s absolutely no sign of the band’s debut album, just a tonne of remixes of “Fantastic 6” and a few other misc tracks. Why hasn’t the service got the sole album from one of the year’s biggest breakthrough artists?
Similarly, the Rolling Stones have a whole lot of live tracks, as well as a bunch of 1994 digital remasters. Elvis has a tonne of identical tracks, including eight copies of Blue Moon of Kentucky, but the hits are mostly there. There’s no sign of Kylie’s “Locomotion” or “I Should Be So Lucky” (except for live versions). Despite Katy Perry featuring on the front page, there’s no sign of her monster hit “I Kissed A Girl”, just the homophobically titled “Ur So Gay”.
I could go on, with more and more examples, but I think you’re getting the picture here. Top EMI artists, like Queen and Madonna are only featured live. The biggest Warner acts are completely missing. The major labels clearly aren’t being anywhere near as forthcoming to their customers as Datz would have you believe, and there’s still no Sony Music or Universal.
Datz promise me that by launch there’ll be more stuff available – they reckon 2.3 million by the time its on the shelves of Sainsbury’s later this week – an increase of a million on the catalogue I’ve described above. That seems a tad ambitious, and unless they’re saving the best till last, I’m still doubtful that it’ll make the service dramatically better.
Datz is a fantastic concept, but it completely fails in two crucial areas – catalogue and functionality. The software is fast, but is broken in several ways. It also misses crucial features and has a bunch of buttons that don’t do anything. The catalogue is big, but populated with songs you’ll never want to listen to.
Once Datz gets its software up-to-scratch (which won’t take much effort) then it’s down to the labels to make the service actually good. While the negotiation half of Datz is working hard at that, the software half needs to integrate more stuff like recommendations engines, radio, scrobbling and an inbuilt media player that actually works.
When those things are in place, Datz will be a fantastic deal. For the moment, don’t shell out £99 on this. You could do Comes With Music instead, but a far better idea is to ask for a free Spotify invite. Spotify has a much bigger catalogue with much better software. Try it, and you’ll love it.