Sound Choices

Buying music online has never been easier. We size up the options

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Apple's MP3 shop isn't the only legit music store online. Here are the pros and cons of four music downloading services:

APPLE iTUNES

PROS: If you are among the 28 million iPod owners out there, the Music Store is your only option for downloading music online. It's not the worst fate: iTunes offers reliable, easy-to-use software, and more than 2 million songs and 2,000 videos to purchase.

CONS: Unlike other services, there's no way to preview entire songs--only 30-second snippets. Also, while other services offer subscriptions that let you load unlimited amounts of content onto a player--for use (or "lease") for as long as you subscribe to the service--iTunes has never offered that sort of deal. Instead, you must pay per song or album.

NAPSTER

PROS: The famous outlaw of digital music was reincarnated as an upstanding service. If you pay the $15 Napster To Go monthly subscription, you can listen to plenty of tunes, watch videos and even load unlimited songs on compatible players.

CONS: Napster software is pretty shaky, and it can make the PC slow down at times or freeze temporarily.

REALNETWORKS RHAPSODY

PROS: A solid alternative to iTunes, Rhapsody began as a PC-based music-on-demand service. As is the case with Napster, the $15 monthly fee covers all the music you can listen to, both on the PC and on compatible players. If you want to buy songs outright, à la iTunes, you get a 10% discount on the standard price.

CONS: Real claims that iPods are compatible, but some of Apple's newer devices are not. And even iPod models that work with Rhapsody do not support the service's best feature--the all-you-can-download music option available to subscribers on a month-to-month basis.

YAHOO! MUSIC UNLIMITED

PROS: This service is as much about the community as it is about the music. If you already use Yahoo! for your e-mail or your personalized home page for news, sports and weather, this music store wants to connect you with others on the Yahoo! network and let you instantly share tune suggestions with friends. It's also user friendly and easy to download to the PC. And the fee for the service is surprisingly low: $60 a year gets you most of the benefits of Napster and Rhapsody for about a third the cost.

CONS: The system still needs work. The section that is supposed to help you find new music can be tedious, and it currently makes some misguided assumptions. If, for example, you say you like classic rock, must you also dig Herman's Hermits? Maybe not.

• Apple iPod Nano What hasn't been said about the planet's sexiest player? Maybe that a fancy stopwatch feature is buried in the Extras menu, or that it's got a combination screen lock to prevent overzealous revelers from messing up your party mix. If there's a downside, it's that the device is almost too small--it can even get lost in your pocket. apple.com $200 to $250

• Dell DJ Ditty This Bic-lighter look-alike is among the first flash-memory MP3 players to be compatible with subscription download services like Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo! Music (see story above). At 512 MB, the Ditty can hold only about 120 songs, but it's easy to use and great for a workout or commute. dell.com $100

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