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updated 1/2/2004 3:37:38 PM ET 2004-01-02T20:37:38
REVIEW

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s foray into downloadable music sales is a respectable effort. The song selection is decent, though pesky playback restrictions and a few online kinks sound some false notes.

In launching its music service, Wal-Mart enters a world ruled by Apple Computer Inc., purveyor of the iTunes online song service and the iPod music players. The landscape is thick with iPods waiting for tunes.

So while Wal-Mart's price is right — songs for 88 cents apiece — it's only for PC users equipped with Windows 98 or better. There's no support for Apple or Linux machines.

For your 88 cents you'll get a file in the Windows Media Audio format, stuffed with some license requirement verification that "phones home" to make sure you're the authorized listener who has rightfully purchased the tunes. You can also buy a complete album for $9.44. That's cheaper by 11 cents per song and half a buck per album than iTunes and competitors MusicMatch and Napster, both of which, like Wal-Mart, use the WMA format.

Getting started is easy enough. Go to Walmart.com and click the "Movies & Music" tab and then the music downloads link on the next page.

You can search Wal-Mart's database of songs by artist, album or song title. The 80,000-CD catalog is thick with country, rap and pop, but thin around the edges. There doesn't appear to be much classical at all; my search for Mozart and Beethoven came up empty.

That said, there is lots of Nelly, Britney and Beyonce.

After setting up an account with a user name, password and credit card number, I was ready to shop.

I liked Spears' latest ditty with Madonna, "Me Against the Music," and it was available so I started my speedy DSL download. In less than 30 seconds I got my song file and it was ready to play.

The sound quality of the files is good, 128 kilobits per second. That's not near the digital detail of a store-bought CD, but good enough for the average music fan.

The top 100 downloads listed by Wal-Mart reads like a who's who of pop music. But kids looking for surly rap tunes laden with profanities are out of luck here. Only clean, edited version of such songs are available. I counted 14 tracks among Wal-Mart's top 100 that came "clean" instead of the "dirty" album versions, including Murphy Lee's "Shake Ya Tailfeather" and Staind's "So Far Away."

There are limitations to what you can do with your downloaded music. Wal-Mart allows you to download the songs to only three different computers. I downloaded some songs at an office computer, and had to re-download them at home (at no additional charge).

Wal-Mart also limits to 10 the number of times you can burn the original downloads to a CD. However, I was easily able to burn four purchased downloads to a blank CD, then rip the songs to the MP3 format and convert them to "wav" files and do whatever I wanted with them — on a multitude of devices.

Here's one catch that bugged me. The songs I listened to at work would not play initially after I downloaded them again at home. I had to call Wal-Mart's toll-free customer service number and have the license reactivated for that song for my second computer.

If I had a third computer, I'd have to call again.

There has to be a way to automate that process. Consumers are going to expect more consistency and ease of use.

Another complaint is the 30-second song preview feature. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn't.

Wal-Mart says its music service "is in beta." There was a time when "beta" meant a product or project was strictly in test mode, but Wal-Mart is taking hard-earned customer cash during its "beta" period.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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