Nokia's new all-you-can-download music subscription service packaged with its mobile phones is a compelling offering that could pose some serious competition to Apple's iTunes store.
The service, called Comes With Music, launches on Thursday in the U.K. and will roll out in other countries with Nokia Music online stores through 2009, including Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Sweden.
Comes With Music devices include the 5310 XpressMusic, N95 8G-byte model and will eventually ship with the 5800 XpressMusic, its new touch-screen model expected to enter some markets by the end of the year.
The 5310 costs £129.95 (US$226) at the Carphone Warehouse in the U.K. It's a pay-as-you-go phone. As of yet, Nokia doesn't have an agreement with an operator for long-term contracts for the phone. Comes With Music also has to be used with a PC, as Nokia doesn't have an operator arrangement for over-the-air downloads yet.
I tried out Comes With Music on a red, 5310 model, which Nokia says is it has sold 10 million of since it was introduced last year. The candy-bar style phone is sleek and quite small and runs a Series 40 OS.
The 5310's software is fairly intuitive and easy-to-use: a top menu bar allows easy navigation to e-mail, the phone's camera and other functions. It also takes just a simple one-click after unlocking the phone to access music-playing functions, which is what this phone is optimized for.
The sound quality of this little device is fantastic, although my impression may be swayed somewhat since I was using Nokia's WH-500 full-ear headphones rather than notoriously unsatisfying earbuds (hear that, Apple?).
The 5310 has external play, pause and skip buttons on its left side to control playback when stuck in a pocket. The volume controls are on the right side. The volume increments are a bit too wide-ranging: on some songs, one click higher was too loud, while one click down was too soft.
Nokia says you can download as many songs as you want during the one-year period after buying the phone. After that, you have to buy another phone to continue to have access to the unlimited service.
This seems silly and wasteful, but probably has something to do with how Nokia has structured its business arrangements with the major labels that have agreed to partner for the service. Nokia won't say how much it will pay the record labels.
If you opt not to buy another phone, you can keep the tracks you've downloaded. That's the good news, but there are a tangle of other rules and restrictions around Comes With Music.
Songs are wrapped with Microsoft's Windows Media DRM (digital rights management) restrictions, which limits how you can use the music and what devices tracks can be transferred to.
Tracks downloaded using Comes with Music can't be burned to an audio CD, unlike DRM tracks in Apple's iTunes. Also, if you really do want to burn the track to an audio CD, you have to buy the track from Nokia Music. Your subscription doesn't cover that. Tracks in the U.K. cost £0.80 and albums start at £8.
This is probably a piracy prevention measure, but one that defies the fact most music is already on file-sharing networks from people ripping CDs they bought in stores.
Songs can be copied in a Windows Media format to a CD or DVD for backup purposes. If those songs are loaded to a new machine, Windows Media DRM makes a call to Nokia's servers, which asks you to login to the service and register the computer. Only one PC can be registered with Comes With Music, and Nokia will only let you move a registration to a different PC once every three months.
The long-term overarching question is one that's faced other music services offered by companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Wal-Mart: What happens if Nokia decides to pull Comes With Music from the market and shut off its DRM authorization servers? It would mean people would not be able to authorize their tracks if they changed PCs, and the music would be unplayable.
Yahoo, Microsoft and Wal-Mart all decided at one time to shut down their servers but ended up reversing their decision after public outcry. While Nokia has just launched its service, it is still a valid concern to users when deciding how they should spend their money on digital music.
But Nokia does offer other perks. For example, if your PC dies or you accidentally delete your music, Nokia keeps track of what you downloaded and will let you download the music again for up to two years after the Comes With Music subscription has ended.
Nokia's online music store is clean and simple. I downloaded Gang Starr's "Moment of Truth" album in 6 minutes and 17 seconds. Tracks are encoded at 128K bps (bits per second); there doesn't appear to be an option for high-quality encoding. Like other online music services, you can forget finding any rare albums -- most material is mainstream fare, with the odd omission. I couldn't find a full-length Oasis album, for instance.
The main drag with the 5310 is the amount of time it takes to transfer tracks from the PC to the phone. "Moment of Truth" took 3 minutes and 36 seconds; Apple's iPhone loaded the same album at a higher bit rate in around 45 seconds.
Pro: The 5310 is a snazzy device with great sound quality. Comes With Music is a solid proposition for those who want to pay one flat fee and get a phone plus tons of music from a well-designed store.
Con: Songs are painfully slow to load on the 5310. DRM tracks get a big thumbs down these days as vendors outside of Apple have erratic track records of guaranteeing that purchased music will indeed play "forever."