Let's Dance

You could buy David Bowie's Hours via Internet download. But why would you want to?

The last track, "The Dreamers," starts with a soft chimes sequence, which I thought would be difficult for these players to reproduce, but both versions performed quite well, and almost identically. I'd give these players a C at best for download convenience, but an A for sound quality. Given that the Liquid Audio file is more than twice as large as the WMP version and doesn't seem to sound any better, Microsoft also gets an A+ for its advanced compression technology.

It turns out to be quite easy to enjoy the Liquid Audio version, played back on the computer, while pursuing other digital tasks. WinAmp (www.winamp.com), a third-party player that's compatible with the Microsoft WMP files, also performed flawlessly while I put my computer through a series of other tasks. But using Windows' own Media Player, I had a few problems. First was a sound-card conflict. Then a driver problem. My Microsoft Personal Assistant (a real person) spent a week guiding me through troubleshooting procedures, assuring me all the while that the problems were not the Media Player's fault. But after a week of updating and reconfiguring things, Media Player still doesn't work with my Waveterminal sound card, while five other programs, including WinAmp, have no trouble with it. Furthermore, the Windows Media Player was somewhat less "robust" than these other players: For example, if I typed anything into a DOS window while it was playing, the music glitched. The possible cause: Output buffering on the Windows Player cannot be configured.

The Liquid Audio player has a really hot feature that lets you burn a single hard-copy CD of the download, or any other music tracks on your computer, at the touch of a button (of course, you need the hardware). Windows Media Player has no such provision, nor does it encourage conversion of the file to other formats, such as WAV, which could be written to CD (though certain hackware programs such as AudioJacker and Unfuck have already been distributed to get around these limitations). I thought I could play the WMP file through my digital sound card to an external audio CD recorder, but as you'll recall, I never got this to work with the Windows Media Player. WinAmp, however, was able to play the WMP file into my digital sound card for external digital recording.

Jeff Tolbert

And the winner is... After all the hassle, I doubt I'd again choose a paid download over a trip to the music store. If the cost of computer-delivered music remains comparable to hard-CD prices, the record stores have little to fear from pay-to-download sites. Most of us have come to see our computers as "free" entertainment, and the whiz-bang thrill of downloading music just isn't there when there's a cash register ringing up charges. But as long as it remains relatively easy for computers to transfer music for free--albeit illegally--the future of all methods of selling music remains in doubt.

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