Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Yahoo! Music Unlimited

I've been using the Yahoo! Music Unlimited download service and Yahoo! Music Jukebox software since August 2005. Here's my assessment of the service and software.

Value for Money: B
The key value proposition for Yahoo! Music Unlimited is the ability to download and listen to an unlimited amount of music at a flat-rate monthly subscription fee. When I signed up, the introductory price was just $5/month -- a pretty good price for an all-you-can-eat download service. Since that time, the base price has doubled. Today I'm paying $12/month for a premium version of the service that also includes the ability to transfer music to portable devices. But it's still a lot less money than buying a bunch of CDs every month.

Portable Device Support: B+
I use a Palm Treo 650 with a 2 GB SD card as my portable music player, running third-party Pocket Tunes software. Pocket Tunes features built-in support for the Microsoft Janus DRM scheme used by Yahoo! Unlimited Music. It works well -- which is impressive, given that Yahoo! does not even list the Treo as an officially supported portable device.

Audio Fidelity: B+
Tracks on Yahoo! Music Unlimited are encoded at 192 Kbps, and the sound quality is pretty close to CDs. You can hear a subtle difference on a high-end audiophile stereo system, but it's plenty good enough for most types of music.

Music Selection: B+
Yahoo! has done a good job of making most new releases available -- and older releases are constantly being added to the back catalog.

DRM Implementation: D
With Yahoo's Digital Rights Management scheme, you're essentially just renting the rights to the listen to the music; if you stop paying the monthly fee, the licenses expire and the music becomes unplayable. And if you decide to purchase a track you've already downloaded, you have to download it again -- and even then, you don't actually own the track; you've just purchased a slightly less restrictive license that allows you to burn the track to a CD under certain circumstances, for a limited number of times. The DRM implementation is also quite buggy -- licenses sometimes expire out of the blue, requiring users to go online and re-license the tracks.

Software Quality: D-
The Yahoo! Music Jukebox software is a clumsy mess, cobbled together from a mash-up of Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer. It's slow to respond, a resource hog, and has relatively few features. But I didn't mind it too much until I fell for the invitation to upgrade to version 2.0.2.038. After that upgrade, the software essentially became unusable. After several weeks of back-and-forth emails with Yahoo! tech support, I received this final response: "Please be aware our Engineering staff has been alerted to this concern and is working at present to resolve it. We currently have no ETA on a fix for this." Gee, thanks for the help. Taking matters into my own hands, I found an under-the-radar message board where the Yahoo! Music product manager has posted an unofficial download of version 2.0.1.037 for those irate customers who, like me, were demanding a downgrade to the previous version. Kudos to him. The downgrade solved most of the bugs I was experiencing.

Ease of Navigation: C-
There's a ton of music available for download on Yahoo! Music Unlimited, but most of it stays hidden from view because the Yahoo! Music Jukebox software doesn't allow you to browse the catalog by genre (which is what most people do in record stores). Good luck trying to find all the artists in the acid jazz category, for example. Instead, you're forced to either search by artist, album title, or song -- or else rely on the recommendations that are automatically generated based on your profile. That's a pretty serious user interface shortcoming.

Product Documentation: C-
The wimpy help files barely scratch the surface. The lack of technical documentation means that you're basically on your own with this software application.

Despite these reservations, I intend to stick with Yahoo Music Unlimited and Yahoo Music Jukebox. The sheer volume of music available for download is just too good to pass up.