Testing Sprint's New Music Store

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Last week, Sprint launched its over-the-air music store, the first of its kind operating in the U.S. Using one of Sprint's new Power Vision phones, you type in the name of a song you want, then tap a button to download it to the phone's internal memory. The actual download is fast, generally 20 to 30 seconds (though it could take a few minutes in spotty coverage). Once the song is in your phone, you can play it whenever you like, through the phone's speaker or earbuds that come with the phone.

Each song costs $2.50 to purchase, high compared to the 99 cents online music stores charge. But the $2.50 doesn't just pay for the track on your phone: when you purchase a track, you also get the opportunity to download it over the Web to your computer, in the form of a protected Windows Media Audio file that you can listen to with Windows Media Player. You can load the song on compatible portable players from the likes of Dell, Creative, Samsung and iRiver. (No iPods, though.)

I tested the service on Sprint's hot new MM-A940 from Samsung, and the technology worked as billed. Provided you're in one of the 75 markets nationwide where Sprint's Power Vision high-speed network is up and running, you should have no trouble downloading songs.

You might have trouble finding a song you want to download, however. At the moment, Sprint says it has 250,000 songs for sale. I did some random searching, and had a hard time pinpointing what, exactly, this 250,000 consisted of. Searches for Dire Straits, Jamiroquai or the Decemberists turned up nothing; searches for Rolling Stones and Spoon gave me one song each (actually, a Dr. Dre remix of a Stones song and a Spoon track from a TV show compilation). I did find more songs when I typed in 10,000 Maniacs, Steely Dan, Eminem and Wilco.

But even when I hit on plenty to buy, it wasn't always the artist's best material. A Bonnie Raitt search revealed 102 songs listed in alphabetical order. There's no album info, so if you don't know the name of the song you want, you're out of luck. As I looked through the 102 songs, I realized that not one of them was from Bonnie's new album or, more shockingly, from her recent Best Of release.

With time, the library of available songs will grow, but there are other concerns. I could not use a downloaded track as a ringtone on the A940, even after paying about the same amount. Still worse: although Sprint says you don't have to have a data plan to buy music, the company will bill you extra for the data connection you used during downloads. At 2 cents per kilobyte, the average 1-megabyte song download could suddenly set you back an extra $20!

The solution is to add a $15 to $25 monthly unlimited Power Vision data package to your voice plan. There are other good reasons to get a Power Vision plan, such as streaming Sirius radio and Cartoon Network video clips on demand, but this means you have to spend a lot of money every month just to access to the music store. If the goal of any wireless music store is instant gratification, the impulse buy, why does Sprint make you plan ahead with special service? That, and not the high-but-conceivable $2.50 song price, could hurt the store, and frustrate customers who are, according to JD Power & Associates, already on the fence about the carrier.

The competition will heat up soon. Verizon Wireless is expected to announce a similar service in the next two months, and Cingular will most likely introduce a competing music store some time in 2006.