Sunday, April 12, 2009
iTunes Plus: A Plus or Minus?
In April 2003, the way we buy music was fundamentally changed. In this month (in which I turned 13, fancy that!) iTunes launched the iTunes Store feature, bringing the digital format of purchased music into the mainstream. Once we got over the exciting new immediacy with which we could own any song we fancied, however, we noticed some problems. The songs could only be uploaded to 5 hard drives, ever. Upload it to the three computers you use and backup on a portable hard drive, and then replace those computers a couple years later? You were out of luck once you needed music on that sixth drive. There were (very) strict limits to how many times you could burn this music to a CD. (So much for those mix-CDs to woo your crush, sad day.) The quality of the sound on the CDs also deteriorated drastically once it was ripped to a computer or portable music player. Oh, and the mp4 DRM protected songs wouldn't even play on some of the non-iPod mp3 players. Protected files would quickly become the bane of music sharers everywhere. In theory, you own this music, but DRMput huge limits on what you could do with your own digital 'property.'iTunes noticed a couple years after the launch of their store that more and more users were turning to other music stores like Amazon.com, from which you could download protection-free mp3s (a format that is generally much easier to work with than iTunes' mp4.) In fall 2007, iTunes began offering music from select labels in a DRM-free format, given for a higher price than their DRM-protected counterparts. It wasn't until February of 2009 that iTunes has become DRM-free. In addition to removing the DRM protection, iTunes has upgraded the sound quality of iTunes Plus tracks to 256 kbps, contrasted with the former iTunes default of only 128 kbps.
The transition is definitely not without its catches. When I click the 'Upgrade Your Library' link in the iTunes Store, it takes me to a page that boasts I can un-protect the albums I purchased on 'old iTunes' for $3-4 each. More sneaky, however, is the necessary consequence of doubling the kbps to 256. Where typically songs three minutes in length takes 3MB of space, iTunes Plus files of the same length are 6MB. In theory, if one had filled an iPod with only albums purchased on old iTunes and then chose to pay the $3 an album to upgrade to iTunes Plus versions, that person would need an entire additional iPod to accommodate the extra space. The supposed difference in sound quality achieved by doubling the kbps of the files is negligible unless listened to on the highest quality sound systems; the effect is certainly lost on iPod's low-grade ear buds.
It's not an easy call, whether the perks of iTunes Plus are worth the extra room, or the price of upgrading older songs. My two cents: Apple can only get away with the tiny hard drives in iPod Touches for so long - the original iPods expanded to a standard 120 GB in a fairly short amount of time, so it would follow that iTouch harddrives should expand in a similar timeframe. If I can't buy CDs easily anymore, (in Denver, the last major music retailer, Virgin Records, closes this month, an unfortunate consequence of the digital music phenomenon) I would at least like to be able to burn the music I buy online to hard copies without worrying about DRM limitations. As of February, iTunes Plus tracks don't cost anymore, so as long as you aren't worried about disk room, I think it is a trade-up worth making.