Mobile Cloud Music Showdown – Subscription Services, 5th Place: Napster
Ed. – This article is part of our roundup featuring all of the mobile cloud music services currently available in the US. Click here for more.
You may remember the Napster of yore, the little startup that turned the music industry upside down by streamlining the process by which music fans could share their collections. While the logo still features a pointy-eared creature wearing headphones, little else remains from the revolutionary days of the music service. Now a subscription app with millions of licensed tracks from independent and major music labels, Napster is part of the old guard of music streaming services. We take a look at the current state of Napster and ask “should we care?”
iOS, Android, BlackBerry
13 million songs available to stream or purchase. Purchased music is downloaded in 256kbps MP3: songs streamed to PCs at 128kbps and to mobile devices at 64kbps.
The Shuffle Test
Ed.- we took 10 songs shuffled from our iTunes library and checked how many each service had.
8/10 – Roxy Music – 2HB (Y), Big Star – Life Is White (Y), Sufjan Stevens – Jacksonville (N), The National – Slow Show (Y), Daft Punk – Da Funk (Y), Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter (Y), Big Punisher – Dream Shatterer (Y), John Legend – It Don’t Have to Change (Y), Desaparecidos – The Happiest Place on Earth (N), The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (Y)
We found the Napster mobile apps to be mostly stable, with zero crashes and reliable performance. Transitions from page to page were smooth, and we never experienced a delay loading album art.
There were a couple hiccups on the Android app, particularly when using Napster Radio. Over 4G, we found the app to stutter a bit when making Internet requests while streaming music. But we liked how the app made sure the music stayed stable, delaying the search rather than the stream of music. We experienced no such problems on the iOS version, which was as reliable as any we’ve tested.
Software (User Interface)
Napster’s “Now Playing” screen was mostly the same on both the Android and iOS versions. It prominently features the album art, and a quick tap of the image brings up a scrubber bar, time counter, volume bar, track information and basic playback controls. There was no direct option to shuffle tracks or repeat an album or song, but clicking the queue button on the top right corner brings up the queue currently playing, to which both those features can be applied.
The “Search” function worked extremely well, letting us search by artist, album or track. Napster even saved our previous searches, but those embarrassed by their search history can easily delete it. We especially liked that Album search results all featured thumbnail-sized album art. Another favorite feature were the Artist pages, which came up whenever an artists’ name is selected. The pages featured an artist photo, an “Automix” and “Favorite” button, as well as a thumbnail of their latest release. All of the artist’s songs and albums on Napster are listed for browsing, and there are even suggestions for related artists. We also appreciated the clear labels of explicit tracks (great for parents or those who hate hearing censored tracks).
We liked how Napster used the four tabs at the bottom of the screen to organize the app’s content. “Explore” organizes the content on Napster’s servers and “My Collection” manages offline content and tracks selected as favorites. The “Search” and “Player” tabs are self-explanatory, but we particularly liked how there was little digging or use of contextual menus required. We weren’t huge fans of the app’s design aesthetic, but we did find it to be extremely intuitive and well-organized.
Load times were fast; most songs played in 1-2 seconds over Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G. It seems that Napster’s tiered quality settings (downloads – high, web player – medium, mobile – low) provides for a consistent experience no matter what device the user is listening on. The dip in quality is most notable on the mobile app, but most users using headphones won’t mind the difference. Audiophiles may recoil in horror at the low bitrate, but chances are a true audiophile would never rely on compressed music anyway, let alone a streaming service.
Recommendations (Finding New Music)
Napster has several options for finding new music and gives them prominent placement on the app’s homepage. Users can browse new releases, Napster’s top 100 (artists, albums and songs) and even the Billboard charts. Napster’s deal with Billboard gives its users access to eight of Billboard’s popular charts, including the Hot 100 and Billboard 200. Napster’s “Radio” tool will let you browse curated stations by genre or create an “Automix” radio station based on a single artist. , suggesting new songs based upon their relation to the selected artist. Our experienced varied, with selections varying from the inspired (The Dead Kennedys “Police Truck” on X’s Automix) to the puzzling (Heavy D’s “Now That We Found Love” on Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s Automix).
The Napster Playlists were also a mixed bag, but were yet another option to discover new music. Playlists could be browsed by genre or category, though some of the categories seemed strange (eg. “Sexy,” “Sad” and “Sports”). We absolutely loved the “Label Showcases” category, which featured playlists from numerous independent labels like Dischord, Fat Wreck Chords and Rhymesayers.
Napster is one of a few services that have artists curate playlists, giving their fans a chance to see what music inspires those that make the music that inspires them. There were a few interesting playlists curated by the likes of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Hot Chip and M.I.A., but most “Artist Picks” playlists stuck to the mainstream (think Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and Elliott Yamin).
We were disappointed that Napster has yet to incorporate any social media into their service, as many times the best places to find new music are from friends. But they certainly provide a host of other options, more than any other service we tested.
Napster features offline playback on all versions of their mobile application. We found it annoying that we couldn’t save individual tracks to play offline; the “Save Offline” button only appeared when in Album view. But tracks selected to be saved offline were quickly added to a download queue and downloaded to our device with haste. Saved music is sorted by album in the My Albums section under “Saved.”
Napster Light, free (25 songs per month), Napster, $5/mo (or $50/year), Napster plus mobile, $10/mo (or $96/year).
The current iteration of the Napster service may not resemble its original form at all, but what it lacks in illegal file sharing capabilities it makes up for with a clean, robust and feature-filled interface. There are multiple options for finding new music, and they attempt to appease fans of both independent and mainstream music. The interface may not be beautiful, but it was stable and functional. The library fared well on our shuffle test, but had some trouble with marginally obscure indie artists. We also liked how the pricing structure was flexible, giving you a discount for committing to an entire year of service up front.
But Napster lags behind some of its competition by virtually ignoring the social aspect of sharing music. For all the different options they provide to find new music, they ignore the one people most often use: their friends. Facebook or Last.fm integration would have been ideal, but there is no way for Napster users to easily share music with each other, something their competitors do extremely well. As long as they let the social media revolution pass them by, Napster will always play second fiddle to the big boys. Which is a shame, because as it stands it is a fun, functional and easy to use service.
For more on our mobile cloud music feature, and to read reviews of the other services, click here.