Audio In: Wal-Mart Music Downloads
In the wake of Apple's launch of its iTunes online music store, competitors have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. One of the web sites vying for your attention and dollars is Wal-Mart Music Downloads (http://musicdownloads.walmart.com), launched in 2003. Windows-based PC users looking for an easy-to-use source for an abundance of inexpensive music to download, play on portable devices and burn to CDs might try Wal-Mart Music Downloads.
Pay As You Go
Wal-Mart Music Downloads' easy-to-navigate site offers over 400,000 music files in a variety of genres. Wal-Mart recommends using Internet Explorer 5.5 or later, but we viewed the site using Firefox 1.0. You can search for songs by artist, title or album or click on a preset list (like "Top 50 Albums") after setting up your account. Every song you buy costs 88 cents and albums are available for $9.44.
There is no monthly subscription fee or other additional charges. You pay only for the songs or albums you buy and any applicable sales tax. Choose the songs or albums you want, add them to your shopping cart, check out and download your files
Wal-Mart only sells songs that are in Microsoft's 128-bit WMA (Windows Media Audio) format and are encrypted with DRM (Digital Rights Management) copy protection. You'll need a computer running Windows 98SE or a later version and Windows Media Player 9.0 to play these songs, transfer them to your portable player or burn them to CDs. Wal-Mart offers a free plug-in (the "player store") that works inside Windows Media Player--accessible from the "Premium Services" tab-to shop, checkout and download songs faster and easier than its Web store, and displays song lists and search results more flexibly.
Wal-Mart's Web store nevertheless provides easy-to-understand FAQs on a variety of subjects. You can also e-mail or call Wal-Mart's toll-free help line; it's available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in case you need additional assistance.
You Can Take It with You
You'll want to transfer downloaded songs to your laptop or other computers. You can transfer (Wal-Mart uses the term "backup") a song to only two other computers. But you have also to transfer a license file for each song to each computer you intend to play it on. Wal-Mart's site provides clear instructions on backing up your songs, but the five-step process is cumbersome and could confuse novice users.
Check that your portable music device plays WMA files and supports DRM before hooking it up. A link on Wal-Mart's site takes you to Microsoft's web site, where you can access a complete list of WMA and DRM-compliant portable devices to see if yours is good to go. Wal-Mart takes pains to point out, "The iPod media player does not currently support WMA-format files and will not play music downloads from Walmart.com." Note however that Apple's music store offers a program to convert WMA files to the AAC format native to the iPod. When you're ready to take your tunes with you, just send them from your computer to a portable device using Windows Media Player. You can place a song you've downloaded on an unlimited number of portable devices.
Burn, Baby, Burn
When you're ready to burn your songs to a CD, go right ahead. You can burn each song you buy from Wal-Mart to a maximum of 10 CDs.
Peter L. Winkler is a writer covering a variety of subjects including consumer electronics and movies.