The previous two Tech Tips took a look at eight basic features of portable MP3 players worth considering before laying down some serious money on one of these devices. Once you have a nice new MP3 player with plenty of space for music, you need to fill it up! There are several ways to go about building your digital music collection, and we'll take a look at a few ways to do so.
The first thing to address may be the term "MP3 player." Many of these devices play MP3 files, in addition to a variety of other formats. Many of the files available for download are actually in a format other than MP3, but the term has been applied to cover this whole class of devices, whether it is 100% accurate or not.
Create Your Own
There are numerous software titles available that make creating MP3 files from CDs (or other sources) a simple process. Most involve minimal input from the user once they have configured their preferences, and will take the audio and convert it into the digital format of their choice. During the "ripping" process, most applications will query an online database, such as Gracenote (www.cddb.com), and take care of the file naming and ID tagging needed to make storing, sorting, and accessing the files a snap with most players.
Some of these applications may already be on your computer. Microsoft's Windows Media Player (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/mp10/default.aspx) is one program that any Windows user already has that is more than ready for basic WMA and MP3 file creation. Just drop in your CD and click "Rip". Many other titles may have come bundled with hardware included with your system. For example, many optical drives ship with a copy of Ahead's Nero (http://ww2.nero.com/us/index.html) or a suite of software from Roxio (http://www.roxio.com/en/index.jhtml). Either will handle the DVD or CD burning they were intended for, but also have decent MP3 creation modules, as well.
There are a multitude of free, or at least free-to-try, MP3 encoding software titles, and a trip to your favorite search engine may provide a list longer than you care to investigate. Some names worth checking out include EZ CD-DA (Digital Audio) Extractor (http://www.poikosoft.com/), EZ MP3 Creator (http://www.linasoft.com/ezmp3c.html), and Virtuosa (http://www.virtuosa.com/index.php).
The great thing about digital audio files acquired this way is that they are yours to use on whatever device you choose. The same can not be said about files obtained from either of the next two methods to be discussed. The files obtained from legitimate download services are protected by DRM (Digital Rights Management), which restricts the use of the downloaded files to a limited number of computers and compatible portable devices, as well as protecting the songs from redistribution by the end user. The files are yours to use, but not as freely as you may want, and perhaps for only as long as you maintain your account with the download service.
Pay Per Download
There are two main types of legitimate online sources of digital music? those that charge you for each download, and those that require you to subscribe to a service on a monthly basis. They offer the same types of files, but take different approaches to suit your budget and music needs.
Apple's iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/) may be the best known source for individual file downloads, thanks in no small part to the incredible popularity of the iPod MP3 player. What some may not know is that iTunes is not just for iPod owners, or Macintosh computer owners for that matter, but any PC compatible system can access the 99 cent downloads for use on their computer or compatible portable player.
Many other outlets offer digital music files for download, and even some mainstream brick-and-mortar stores have found their way onto the scene. Just as they have done with retail sales, Wal-Mart (http://www.walmart.com/music_downloads/introToServices.do) has managed to undercut the competition with their 88 cent music downloads.
Subscribe to a Service
Everyone is familiar with Napster (http://www.napster.com/) as one of the pioneers of file sharing, but they are back with a legitimate approach to music downloads. Although they do offer a program where you can download individual songs for 99 cents each, they offer monthly subscriptions for $14.95. This monthly fee allows for unlimited downloads, and could be the ticket for someone looking to keep their play list fresh on a regular basis. One caveat to this otherwise good solution is that the number of MP3 players supported is currently very limited. Also, once your subscription lapses, so does the ability to "access" your music. Basically, you are renting the songs.
Other subscription-based services are available, such as the one from eMusic (http://www.emusic.com/) that charges a monthly fee, but restricts the number of downloads permitted every month.
Choosing between a service that charges for every download or one that charges a flat monthly fee will most likely be determined by the volume of downloads one intends. If you only want a handful of songs every few months, it may be worth it to pay per song. But, if you intend to amass the ultimate collection of music ever known to man, subscribing to a service on a monthly basis is obviously more practical.
Whether through first-hand experience, or from the massive media attention, most people are well aware of other file sharing resources available on the Internet that can be used for acquiring MP3 files. Although the files are free, and users may feel they are operating anonymously, it may not be a safe means of acquiring media.
There are the obvious legal implications, as the RIAA has prosecuted file sharers for copyright violation (http://www.internetnews.com/bus-news/article.php/3497246), but there are other issues, as well. The integrity of the files being downloaded is not guaranteed, and people may wait patiently for a song to download only to find it is of poor quality, incomplete, or even worse? carrying a virus or trojan.
So, there are other pools of digital music, but swim at your own risk!
Filling your new MP3 player doesn't have to cost anything except the time it takes to encode the songs from your favorite CDs. But, paying for a download service is a sure way to have the songs you want as they become available and at a fairly reasonable price. These aren't your only options for acquiring digital music, but when taking other routes, proceed with caution.
How to buy a MP3 player
and MP3 Tips.