In case you are just tuning in to the ‘net for the first time this week, Apple has finally released their DRM-free, higher-quality option for the iTunes Store, dubbed iTunes Plus. The release, coming in parallel with iTunes 7.2, has been the subject of much excited discussion, and even one or two conspiracy theories that probably aren’t.1
So, is it worth all of the foment that is being generated? I’m not sure. I braved the store’s bogged-down day(s) of thousands (millions?) of devotees rushing online to try iTunes Plus, and downloaded both the free track of the week (in iTunes Plus) and an AIR track from their latest album in Plus format.
The process is pretty smooth. If a track or album has an iTunes Plus version available, a dialog appears offering it to you when you attempt to buy. The first time you make this choice, you set a preference (undo-able at any time for or against ‘Plus’ tracks), which will govern the type you are offered at the store (when a choice is available).
If you choose to prefer iTunes Plus, the Plus-capable tracks show up with a little ‘+’ icon next to the price (and they sport a 30Â¢ surcharge per track). Albums just have an ‘iTunes Plus’ notation near the title (apparently, even when you haven’t chosen to prefer ‘Plus’).
- The Plus versions of most albums carry the same price as their non-Plus counterparts. This is quite a deal, considering that the Plus tracks individually are 30% more expensive.
- “Complete My Album” works with Plus albums, but only if the tracks are all of one kind or the other. (You have to upgrade your old 99Â¢ tracks to apply their value to a Plus album. More on that in a moment.)
I have two big hang-ups, though — and they’re enough to make me reluctant to jump on the Plus bandwagon too quickly:
Size: Plus tracks are, as advertised, double the quality (bit rate) of their non-Plus counterparts. For only 30Â¢ more, this sounds like a great deal. But the fact is: this makes iTunes Plus tracks double the disk size of their non-Plus counterparts.
Is the difference in quality really worth that? I haven’t done any direct comparisons, but I’m not impressed enough by my two Plus tracks to believe that my feeling of higher-quality sound is much beyond placebo effect. I’ve been pretty happy with 128kbps AAC from the iTunes Store in the past, and I’m sure these are better, but is it really that noticeable in light of the trade-off?
“Trade-off? How is higher-quality a trade-off?” you ask. Well, consider this: a 4-minute iTunes Store track with DRM runs about 4MB. The same track in Plus format runs around 8MB. This means that if your iPod used to offer you 1,000 songs in your pocket, it can only muster about 500 songs in your pocket with iTunes Plus. (Note that the most commonly-sold iPod nano runs at this 1,000 song size — so will the entry-level iPhone.)
I like my music rich and high-quality, but I also like the freedom of choice that a vast iPod collection allows.
I could just downgrade my music for use on the iPod (and then what? Keep a second library just for my iPod?).
Perhaps I should limit the Plus tracks I buy to only the tracks that I feel might best benefit from the high-quality treatment and buy the rest in old-fashioned FairPlay DRM 128kbps? You can always switch your preferences back and forth, and you could always upgrade your plain track to a Plus track if you needed to. That sounds like a plan! But, there’s a big catch — my second hang-up…
Upgrade at once: Apple offers users the magnanimous option to upgrade older tracks to Plus format for only the extra 30Â¢ a track or 30% for any full albums. It even looks up what tracks you have that are eligible2 and offers to upgrade them for you in one fell swoop.
But, as it turns out, only in one fell swoop.
That’s right, there’s no picking and choosing. It’s all or nothing. For me, it would have cost $19 and change last night. But during the day today, they apparently added a few more Plus tracks to the store, and I would owe Apple $20.40 now if I want to upgrade any tracks.
Apparently, from the wording on the Store, this will continue — as Apple “continually” adds more Plus tracks to its offerings, any upgrades I’m eligible for will automatically be added to my list (and total price).
So, if I were to buy a plain track today and wish to upgrade it to Plus tomorrow, I could — but only if I bought an additional $20.40-worth of other tracks at the same time.
If I want to look on the bright side, it’s easy to see that, in my hypothetical scenario, I could just pay $1.29 and buy that track again in Plus format. If I wanted to buy a lot more (say, about 15 or 16 more), it would behoove me to just buy all of my 16 tracks and five albums at the $20.40 upgrade price.
I’m probably just being picky here, but I just wanted to air my opinion that it’s not quite all wine and roses in Plus-land. Of course one can always take the 256kbps Plus tracks and sample them down (even using iTunes itself), but it’s a hassle. I’m debating keeping a separate library or even just a folder for my high-quality downloads, and using a script to downsample them for my main library and iPod.
If anyone at Apple is reading, this could all be fixed for me with a check-box in the iPod prefs to automatically downsample any AACs larger than 128kbps to 128 on sync to the iPod. I’d happily endure longer syncs for it!3