First look: iTunes Plus

A month ago, Apple and EMI announced that the record label would offer its entire catalog sans digital rights management protection at the iTunes Store sometime in May. With just a full day left in the month, Apple made good on the promise, adding these unprotected tracks--termed iTunes Plus--to its online digital media store Wednesday. As expected, individual unprotected tracks are available for US$1.29 per track while albums are offered at the same price as the protected version. Individual protected tracks continue to be priced at 99-cents per track.

I've spent the better part of the morning cruising the Store's aisles to see just how iTunes Plus works. Here's what I've learned.

In order to purchase iTunes Plus tracks you must upgrade to iTunes 7.2. Although an iTunes Plus link appears in the Quick Links area of earlier versions of iTunes, when you click it, you're instructed that you must upgrade to iTunes 7.2 to view iTunes Plus music.

Once you've installed iTunes 7.2, that link takes you to the iTunes Plus page, which holds What's Hot and Featured Albums boxes similar to those on the Store's main page as well as Top Albums and Top Songs columns that list pretty much what their titles suggest. The page also contains a Genre pop-up menu, from which you can choose Alternative, Blues, Children's Music, Classical, Comedy, Country, Dance, Electronic, Folk, Hip-Hop/Rap, Holiday, Christian & Gospel, Jazz, New Age, Opera, Pop, R&B/Soul, Reggae, Rock, Soundtrack, Spoken Word, Vocal, World, and iTunes Latino genres. Choose a genre and the contents of the What's Hot and Featured Albums boxes changes to reflect popular and featured albums within that genre.

Shortly after iTunes Plus became available I looked through some of the categories and they show some growing pains. For example, much as I like Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon and The Residents' Third Reich 'n' Roll I'm not sure they belong among the Store's featured classical albums.

When you click on an album on the iTunes Plus page, you're asked if you'd like to set your iTunes Plus preference. If you click the iTunes Plus button at the bottom of the dialog box, you'll always be shown the iTunes Plus version of a music track or music video if one is available. Click Cancel and you'll continue to be offered protected tracks, though you'll be told that an album is also available in an iTunes Plus version (accompanied by a Learn More link that, once again, offers you the opportunity to enable the iTunes Plus preference).

If you choose to enable that preference you can switch it off only from your iTunes Store account page where you access the option via a Manage iTunes Plus button. Regrettably, with iTunes Plus preferences enabled you're not shown the less-expensive protected version of the track. Likewise, with iTunes Plus disabled, you're not provided with links to the DRM-free tracks unless you click that Learn More link and, in the subsequent window, click the iTunes Plus button to enable the iTunes Plus preference.

Among the few glitches I encountered shortly after the launch of iTunes Plus was an error dialog box that appeared whenever I attempted to change my iTunes Plus preferences. Fortunately, the error is in error. When I either enabled or disabled the preference, the new preference stuck, despite the error suggesting that there was a problem.

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