Review: Napster for MCE

If, like me, you use a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition as your home media hub, you’ve probably ventured into online music services a time or two or at least wanted to.  Today, I’ll talk about my experiences using one of these, Napster’s plug-in for MCE.


Napster, you’ll recall, was one of the original peer-to-peer music sharing services.  After incurring the wrath of the music industry and many artists, it was sued into bankruptcy in 2002.  Roxio later picked up its brand name and logos and rebranded its Pressplay service as Napster 2.0.


One component of this new service is the Napster MCE plug-in.  I’m not going to cover Napster as whole, and I’m certainly not touching intellectual property questions, copyrights, and so forth.  I’m just talking about the Napster MCE plug-in and, in particular, its completely legal subscription option.


There are two main service options available via the Napster plug-in:  monthly subscription and pay-per-tune.  I opted for the first one, which, when I subscribed was $9.99/month for unlimited streaming.  I can stream any song in Napster’s 1.5 million song library as much as I want for a paltry $10 per month.  That’s less than the typical CD.  If you’re a music lover and buy on average of at least one CD per month, this is a no-brainer.


The service options are nice, but the sweet spot of the Napster MCE offering is the UI.  Its “10-foot UI” – that is, the adaptations in its user interface for working with it using a remote from several feet away – are par excellence.  The Napster MCE UI is as good as any plug-in you will find for MCE and has features rivaling those of MCE’s own My Music facility. 


As you’d expect, the on-screen controls and widgets are enlarged and simplified to make them easy to navigate with a remote control, but this isn’t the best part.  The best part is the seamless integration with MCE itself.  When you queue music to play from Napster, you’re actually queuing to the MCE music queue.  You can return to My Music and add other tunes from your own collection to the play list, freely mixing Napster tunes with your own at will.  The same scrolling track info banner that’s displayed at the bottom of the screen for My Music tunes is displayed for Napster tunes – there’s no difference.  You can even have the plug-in remember your Napster username and password, so navigating to it is virtually as seamless as going to any other part of MCE.


Searching for tunes is equally intuitive and features the same remote control-oriented search pad (where you type alphabetic keys using the numbers on the remote) that’s used elsewhere in MCE.  This screen widget is included in the MCE SDK, and Napster uses it to great effect to integrate with the rest of MCE.


I also like having bio and historical info for artists available with a click of the remote.  Add to this the ability to view music videos and listen to online radio stations, and you’ve got a couch potato’s dream music machine.


1.5 million songs is nothing to shake a stick at, either.  It’s more than enough for just about everyone.  I’ve found obscure tunes on Napster more times than I can remember – things that were long out of print and that no one listened to when they were in print.  Typically, if I can’t find a tune I’m looking for on Napster, I can’t find it on any of the other online music services, either.


And, before I forget to mention it, I know that there are other services now offering lower prices (e.g., Yahoo was $4.99/month last time I checked) and MCE integration (MSN Music, for example), but Napster’s polished, intuitive UI, coupled with the great value the subscription package is, make it the choice in my house.  For us, no one else offers the same winning combination of these two features.


One unexpected benefit of having the Napster subscription on the MCE box has been what the family calls “tune spelunking” – we sometimes spend whole evenings with the remote spelunking around Napster finding obscure/funny/old tunes that we’d never buy on physical media, but that we’ll happily burn an evening laughing at or enjoying together.  Everyone in the family gets a turn at playing DJ, and no tune is too stupid to suffer through because, after all, it doesn’t cost anything.  To paraphrase MTV’s Butthead, music subscriptions are cool.  Couple that with a great 10-foot UI, and you have a music lover’s experience that we could only dream of as kids.

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