Just over a year ago, this weird little thing called MP3 appeared on the Internet to strike terror into the hearts of music-industry executives everywhere. For those of you still using IBM Selectrics, MP3 allows sound files to be scrunched to a size at which they can easily be zapped across the Net. It became a simple matter to rip a song from a CD, crunch it into MP3 format, and make it available for anyone in the wide world of the Internet to copy.
Problem was, the theory was far more sound than the practice. Searching the Net for specific songs was an arduous task, and, even with the small file sizes, downloads over dial-up modems required far more patience than Net surfers are accustomed to.
In the ensuing year, a few technological advances have changed all that. Listening to music online is now a rather straightforward process, only slightly more complex than listening to music on a CD player or radio. But there are still a number of options, with more on the way some of which wont even require a computer. Here are a few:
Anyone who reads Newsweek is aware of the legal imbroglio engulfing Napster, so well skip that part and get to the good stuff: how to grab any song you want free.
Like the best high concepts, Napster is simple. Thousands of people all over the world store MP3-format songs on their computers. Napster lists all of those files and allows you, the home listener, to copy any song from someone elses computer to your own. If you get the sudden urge to hear Super Bon Bon by Soul Coughing or Todd Rundgrens Bang on the Drum All Day or the entire new Eminem album (which was Napsterized before it was even released), you can have the song on your hard drive in minutes.
Step one: Download Napster software (free) from www.napster.com and register on the site. You have now joined what Napster warmly refers to as its community. In fact, the only thing most members of this community have in common is the desire to get free stuff. (To be fair, the Napster community isnt entirely greed-driven. Once youre registered, you may share your own MP3 files with your fellow Napster communists.)
Step two: Locating songs is almost effortless. Use Napsters search function by typing in all or part of the song title and/or artist youre looking for. After a few seconds, numerous copies of the song appear, listed on your screen. Napster lists file sizes and recording quality (or bit rate) in kilobytes per second; higher numbers mean better quality, but better quality means bigger files, longer download times and more space consumed on your hard drive. The Napster window also shows the line speed of the computer from which youll be downloading. Is it running a supercharged T3 line, a not-quite-as-fast but still highly caffeinated DSL line or a somnolent 56K modem?
Not all fast lines are created equal. Napster also reveals ping time, in milliseconds. Okay, this is real techno-geeky: Ping is the time it takes a packet of information to get from one computer to another and back again. Quick ping times are, naturally, preferable.
Step three: And thats about it. Pick the file you want to download, double-click it, and youre sharing the music, man.
Mac users note: Napster is currently Windows-only. While Napster develops a Mac version, theres a fine clone called Macster, available at www.macster.com.
Napster is under constant legal assault, but so far it has persevered. Not so for this Web site, a service of the pioneering and pugnacious MP3.com. My.MP3.com allowed users to beam their own CDs into a database, which could be accessed with a password. The idea: You could listen to your private CD collection online from any computer. The problem was, the beaming process was not as Star Trekish as it sounds. MP3.com simply loaded a few thousand user-owned commercial CDs onto its servers, without any permission from or royalty payments to the recording artists. Beaming a CD was like plugging a dollar into a jukebox.
Not surprisingly, they got sued by no less than Sir Paul McCartney! Earlier this year, a judge ordered the My.MP3.com service to remove its commercial-CD database. My.Mp3.com now is merely a customizable version of the MP3.com site, allowing users to pick their favorite tunes from the sites massive collection of unsigned bands. But MP3.com has vowed to keep up the good fight, so My.MP3.com is worth checking in with every so often.
MP3 players: software
Once youve downloaded an MP3, you need a special piece of software to hear the thing. There are dozens. Check www.dailymp3.com/players.html to see a list. For Windows machines, the industry standard is Winamp (www.winamp.com), which is still free. For Mac users, theres SoundJam (www.soundjam.com), which carries a $39.95 price tag. For free, theres the stripped-down SoundApp (www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~franke/SoundApp/). All offer the ability to organize MP3 songs into playlists, allowing you to listen for hours at a time.
MP3 players: hardware
But who wants to listen to music on a computer?
Interesting question. The answer is: You dont have to. In late 1998, the Santa Clarabased Diamond corporation introduced the Rio, a portable MP3 player smaller than a Walkman and holding about an hour of music. The catch is, you must transfer your MP3 files from your computer to the Rio, or to whatever device you choose. Since the debut of the Rio, a number of imitators have followed. Among the most intriguing is the Sony VAIO Music Clip. Its a cylindrical device about the size of a pen. It holds MP3s that you have translated into Sony format, as well as songs that you transfer straight from CDs.
The Apex Digital 600A DVD player comes with the capacity to play MP3 files on CD. Youll need a CD burner that lets you create homemade CDs from files on your computer. A single CD, however, holds up to 12 hours of MP3 music, obviating the need for a multi-CD changer and allowing for a marathon mix.
A lengthy list of MP3 hardware devices can be seen at http://hardware.mp3.com/hardware.
Internet music in your car
A technological innovation hasnt really arrived until you can use it while driving. The AIWA CDC-MP3, which will be released next month, plays CDs burned with MP3 songs for those really long drives where you just dont feel like changing discs.
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Another automotive MP3 player comes from a Canadian company called 6-Net (www.gnetcanada.com) that specializes in car computing. Its Web site entices you with such hype as Imagine going around the bend at 60 mph while video conferencing with your business partner. Uh, yeah imagine perishing in a fiery wreck.
Fortunately, listening to MP3 music is somewhat more compatible with driving than video conferencing. GNets Reality is probably the most powerful car player out there. Retailing for as much as $849 and as little as $699, the box comes with a 10-gigabyte hard drive. In MP3 terms, thats about 200 hours of music more than 3,000 songs. And if thats not enough, then you can install a drive holding up to 37.5 gigabytes about 15,000 songs. The Reality is great if youre planning a little drive from, say, Nome, Alaska, to Cabo Tres Puntas, Argentina, and you really dont want to listen to the radio.
On the other hand, if you do enjoy pushing radio buttons, the next generation of in-car devices will play not only MP3s but also streaming audio (in other words, radio thats broadcast over the Net). Sitting at your computer, using either RealPlayer or Windows Media Player software, you can listen in on hundreds of stations worldwide, as well as Internet-only broadcasts from sites like Netradio.com and Spinner.com. Within a year, reportedly, several companies will begin marketing devices that pick up the Internet via satellite. So if youre driving from Bakersfield to Barstow and you cant shake the urge to tune in BBC One, or Tokyos Shibuya-FM, you will have that choice.
And after all, isnt choice what the Internet is really all about?