First, the disclaimer: I'm an Apple supporter, having used them as my desktop system since my parents got a IIe back when they were new. I run several Unix servers, but my desktop of choice has always been Apple. Also, while I like listening to music, I'm no audiophile, and can't usually tell the difference between a 192kbps MP3 and the CD it is encoded from. My best speakers are on my computer, and they are Monsoon flat panel 3-piece set.
Ok, on to the review. iTunes Music Store requires the new version of iTunes of course, for which Apple has updated the brushed metal interface again (Apple, why do you come up with this great Aqua interface and then never use it?). My first stop on any new program is always the preferences, and Apple's added some new options for this version: "Sharing" and "Store." I don't have any other computers worth streaming music too, so that's off, and I turn off the one-click shopping. I like having a shopping cart.
The store itself is presented as a special playlist in iTunes, just click and it connects. It presumes a fairly wide iTunes window, wider than I usually use, but the stuff I wanted was all on the left side so I'm fine. The default store layout is obviously Amazon-inspired: new additions, up and coming, editor's picks, and most popular all being highlighted. Genre is a pull-down menu on the top left: all the picks change and the background color. Click on an album to view it in a two-pane view: info above and songs below. There are easy links back at any point, or up the hierarchy. Double click on a song to hear the preview (not just the first 30 seconds, they seem to actually choose them).
That's the basics. There are two levels of search: the search box in iTunes and a Power Search available from inside the store. The Power Search lets you search by song, artist, album, genre, and composer. Users of Limewire will find it familiar. Clicking Browse puts up three panes across the top: genre, artist, album. Once an album is selected the songs are available below.
On to the interesting stuff: actually buying songs. I select a song I've got a poor p2p copy of and click buy, and it asks me to sign in with my Apple ID, or create one if I don't have one. This is where I have my first problem. I have an Apple ID, but entering it puts up a message saying I've never used it with iTunes Music Store before (well, duh) and asks me to review the terms and conditions. Then it directs me to the account creation screen, with my info already filled in.
Of course, the account creation screen won't let you create a duplicate account, and asks me to log in. Can we say endless loop? How about bug that should be fixed?
I create a new email address, and make a new account. No problem. Log in, select the song and a couple others. Click "Buy Song," enter credit card info (which is then saved into the account, on Apple's server) and the songs download quickly. I had one more blip: one song had trouble downloading (I assume server load) and was told to try again later, with a menu option. It worked several hours later.
The selection is broad, but not yet very deep. Many albums I found are in partial status, with only one or two songs. Several artists I was looking for were not listed at all. Considering this is just roll-out that isn't a major issue (they weren't big artists, at least not in the U.S.). Everyone should be able to find at least some of their picks available.
Also, some albums are listed as "Explicit" or "Clean." Notice I said "albums": if one song in an album has a label they all seem to, though I didn't do an exhaustive search. Since this is structured as song-centric, I feel they should have labeled on a song-by-song basis.
Enough with the marketing stuff, this is /. The files, as was mentioned in the announcement, are in AAC format. Let's see what we can do with that, shall we?
First options: inside iTunes. iTunes can convert one format to another normally, trying it on a 'protected' AAC file returns an error. Also, trying to burn an MP3 CD with one on the playlist just skips burning the AAC files (or returns an error if they are the only files.) Fair enough, we didn't really expect the capability to circumvent all controls to be built in... (Though you can of course burn regular CDs.)
Next, let's see what can be done with the file itself. They are saved, just like any other iTunes music file, in the iTunes music folder. The icon has a little lock on it, to indicate its 'protected' status. A few clicks later and the file is owned by guest:nobody chmod 777 and in a world readable folder. (Assigned to guest.)
So much for one definition of protection. [Ed: I renamed the file to .m4a (not protected) and set the permissions to the same as my other tracks, and iTunes would still not let me convert it to MP3.]
I can also play that file as another user on the same machine. I would try other machines, but I only have the one Mac at the moment.
The only other Mac player I can find that claims to play AAC is only for Mac OS v9, and does not appear to recognize the bought file, so no help there. I do however have an app that hijacks the audio stream before the speakers and allows you to play with equalizers, balance, etc. Oh, and it lets you save the result as an MP3 as well as playing it through the speakers.
I fire it up and a few minutes later I have an MP3 that I can't tell from the AAC. So much for that definition of protection.
Is this service for everyone? Probably not if you are a hard-core audiophile and can tell the difference between a 128kbps ACC and the original, but for most of us: it works. I can do what I want with the file, even get it to MP3 if I need it, though it is hard enough that I have to actually think about doing it (which means I won't do it unless I need to). I'd love it if it were cheaper, but I probably would not buy twice as many songs at half the price. Finding songs is easy, buying them is easy. (For reference: $0.99 per song does not include taxes, taxes will be listed in the invoice you are emailed.)
I'll probably spend too much money there.