Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes music software rips and burns songs. It links you to a legal music store. It's easily downloadable. And now it's available to the 95 percent of computer users who depend on Microsoft Windows operating systems.
ITunes for Windows is as fully featured as the Mac software — and it's just as easy to buy songs online at Apple's iTunes Music Store.
The catch is that if you want to transfer songs to a portable player, you've got to use an iPod, which start at $300.
Still, compared with the Windows competition, iTunes can't be beat.
Installation is simple: downloading a 19-megabyte file from Apple's Web site and running the installer.
Even in Windows, iTunes resembles a program on the Mac OS X operating system. The interface looks like brushed aluminum — you'll either love it or hate it. The screen, which annoyingly doesn't resize quite like a Windows program, is divided into several panes. One is for the source of the music: your own library, the music store, or play lists that can be created manually or automatically. Another is a search field. Click on the rainbow eyeball in one corner and the view changes for quick, simple browsing by genre, artist or album.
The navigation scheme is carried to the iTunes Music Store, which is always easily accessible and charges 99 cents per track or $9.95 or more per album. Like the original Mac iTunes, Apple has enabled one-click buying.
The music store — on both Macs and PCs — now offers gift certificates, with regular allowances as a way to keep kids' buying under control.
Also impressive is iTunes' implementation of Apple's networking technology. With iTunes running on my networked Mac, and iTunes running on my networked Windows PC, both versions instantly recognized each other's music libraries so songs downloaded to one computer could be heard on the other.
Apple also has partnered with Audible.com and offers 5,000 audiobooks for sale. For $15.95, I purchased Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Benjamin Franklin. The process was as painless as buying a song.
I could have transferred it to my iPod and synched it with iTunes so that I could always start listening where I left off. Instead, I burned it to CD simply by inserting a blank disk and clicking a button.
The book required six CDs, and iTunes made sure that each started where the last left off. I've been listening to it in my car, and it sounds fine.
With the audiobook deal, Apple is offering something that competitors such as Napster 2.0 and MusicMatch lack. On the music side, the new Napster claims it will have 100,000 more songs than Apple promises at the end of the month.
During my tests, I tried to find examples of songs available on Napster that aren't on iTunes. I found one: Napster has the full album of the Counting Crows' "Hard Candy"; iTunes only has a partial album.
ITunes also offers free features that rival jukebox programs — including MusicMatch, Windows Media Player and Napster 2.0 — either charge extra for or can't do at all.
For instance, Windows Media Player can't encode a CD into MP3 format without an upgrade. MusicMatch allows CD burning and ripping but forces users to upgrade in order to do it at the full speed of their CD drive. And Napster 2.0 doesn't handle ripping at all; you need a separate program to transfer songs from a CD to a computer.
A pre-release version of Napster did have a better radio service that identified tracks and made it possible to skip ahead to the next song. Then again, the Napster radio service costs $9.95 a month for a premium membership.
And Napster doesn't have an option to automatically synch with its player, the Samsung YP-910GPS, or automatically generate play lists based on the number of times a song has been heard or how it's been rated.
I was impressed with the Napster music store's full-song streaming — but that's also part of the premium membership. ITunes, like the free version of the new Napster, only plays 30 second previews of songs before they're purchased.
In the latest version of iTunes, Apple has improved the music discovery features. It's posted more artist biographies and what amount to liner notes. And it's even got celebrity play lists.
ITunes also improved its organization of classical music, though the identification of composers, conductors and performers is still wanting.
One thing iTunes can't do is play or encode songs in Microsoft's secure Windows Media Audio format, which is becoming the de facto standard for competing online music stores.
Apple is sticking with the secure Advanced Audio Coding, the native format for its music store, and its Windows and Mac software also support the popular MP3 format.
Though quality is very good under those formats, Apple's decision not to support WMA could limit future platform switching. Apple says its songs won't disappear. But they can't be played if you decide to dump iTunes and switch to MusicMatch or Napster.