It's hard to tell where MTV Networks Inc.'s new URGE online music service starts and where Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows Media Player 11 software ends, and that's no accident.
The two companies worked together to make MTV's foray into online music a seamless extension of Windows Media Player, blurring the lines between the music you own and the music you rent.
(MSNBC.com is a MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
The result makes for an easier browsing experience overall, with smoother transitions between the songs available through the online service and what's stored on your computer and portable players.
The public test, or "beta," version of URGE launched last month. While it can be accessed through the Windows Media Player 10 built into Windows XP, it's worth the free upgrade to the next-generation media player. It will be standard in Windows Vista, Microsoft's next-generation operating system due out in January.
The media player incorporates Vista's emphasis on less menu clutter and more visual elements, such as larger album cover images. Menus are simplified, so you can get right down to the business of browsing your music files, ripping or burning a CD, and synching content to your portable player.
One welcome menu change makes it easier to select the bit rate and format of songs you want to rip — features that were available in previous versions of the media player but buried in submenus.
A built-in search box simplifies the sometimes onerous task of combing your hard drive for a specific artist or track.
URGE's most distinguishable features play off its relationship to MTV Networks' stable of cable channels, including MTV, CMT and VH1, with content that promotes and ties into the TV programming.
Want to know who appeared on MTV's pop showcase "TRL" yesterday? Click on the show's link on URGE and you can get a rundown, plus links to download the artists' own music. The same goes for other shows.
Familiar functions and fees
Beyond MTV Networks' content, URGE functions and feels the same as other major online music services such as Napster, Rhapsody, MSN Music and others.
Like its rivals, URGE offers more than 2 million tracks. URGE sells individual downloads for 99 cents and full albums starting at around $9.95.
The service also offers unlimited downloads for $9.95 a month, or $14.95 for the ability to transfer songs to any of more than 100 compatible portable music players (but not Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod). Like similar subscription services, the rented music is rendered unplayable if the monthly fee is not paid.
URGE also suffers from the same content limitations that its rivals do. Not all tracks offered are available for download under the subscription plan, for example.
The first thing you notice when you install URGE and Windows Media Player 11 is the addition of an "URGE" button on the player.
Previous versions of Windows Media Player have come with built-in links to access other download services, including Napster, MSN Music and Movielink. Those are still accessible through a drop-down menu, but the message is clear: URGE is the service of choice.
Beyond logo placement, URGE feels hardwired into the player.
While logged into the service, a separate menu of URGE content pops up in the media player's music library along with menus for tunes stored on the computer or in a connected portable device. A separate content menu didn't appear when I logged into Napster and MSN Music.
For subscribers, this obliterates the wall between the music you own and what is available just a click away.
URGE is easy, but overwhelming
Another welcome feature is the ability to drag and drop tracks or whole albums from either URGE or your hard drive directly into a portable player.
For those who want a less specific approach to discovering music, URGE offers what seems like an overwhelming set of options. Besides pages highlighting the flagship music networks, URGE features more than 130 commercial-free radio stations, music blogs, artist profiles and hundreds of playlists put together according to genres, moods and other categories.
I found URGE simple to use and a good fit with Windows Media Player 11, but something that could really set it apart from other services isn't yet available — namely exclusive music recorded on MTV shows like "MTV Unplugged."
MTV Networks says it plans to eventually offer that, in addition to music videos for download (currently they can only be streamed).
Also on URGE's to-do list for later this year: community features such as online forums and other means of linking together URGE users and their favorite music.
Still, for playing catch-up in the online music space, URGE is off to a pretty good start.