Nokia's new all-you-can-download music-subscription service packaged with its mobile phones is a compelling offering that could pose some serious competition to Apple's iTunes store.
The service, called Comes With Music, launched on Thursday in the UK and will roll out in other countries with Nokia Music online stores through 2009, including Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Sweden.
Devices using Comes With Music include the 5310 XpressMusic, N95 8GB model, and it will eventually ship with the 5800 XpressMusic, Nokia's new touch-screen model that's expected to roll out in some markets by the end of the year.
The Nokia 5310 costs £129.95 at the Carphone Warehouse as a pay-as-you-go phone. At this time, Nokia doesn't have an agreement with an operator for long-term contracts for the phone. Comes With Music also has to be used with a PC, as Nokia doesn't have an operator arrangement for over-the-air downloads yet.
We tried the Comes With Music service on a red Nokia 5310, a handset which Nokia tells us has sold 10m units since it was introduced last year. The candy-bar style phone is sleek and quite small and runs Nokia's familiar Series 40 software interface.
The Nokia 5310's software is fairly intuitive and easy-to-use: a top menu bar allows easy navigation to email, the phone's camera and other functions. It also takes just a simple one-click after unlocking the phone to access music-playing functions, which is what this phone is most optimised for.
The sound quality of this little device is fangoodtastic, although our impression may be swayed with the help of Nokia's WH-500 full-ear headphones, rather than notoriously unsatisfying earbuds.
The Nokia 5310 has external play, pause and skip buttons on its left side to control playback when stuck in a pocket, with the volume controls on the right side. The volume increments are a bit too wide-ranging: on some songs, one click higher was too loud, while one click down was too soft.
Nokia says you can download as many songs as you want during the one-year period after buying the phone. After that, you have to buy another phone to continue to have access to the unlimited service.
This seems silly and wasteful, but probably has something to do with how Nokia has structured its business arrangements with the major labels that have agreed to partner for the service. Nokia won't say how much it will pay the record labels.
If you opt not to buy another phone, you can keep the tracks you've downloaded. That's the good news, but there are a tangle of other rules and restrictions around the Comes With Music service.
Songs are wrapped with Microsoft's Windows Media DRM (digital rights management) restrictions, which limits how you can use the music and to what devices your music tracks can be transferred.
Tracks downloaded using Comes with Music can't be burned to an audio CD, unlike DRM tracks in Apple's iTunes. But if you really do want to archive a track to an audio CD, you have the option to buy the track again from Nokia Music. Tracks in the UK cost 80p while albums start at £8.
Songs can be copied to a CD or DVD for backup purposes, but only in the original Windows Media format. If those songs are loaded to a new machine, Windows Media DRM makes a call to Nokia's servers, which asks you to login to the service and register the computer. Only one PC can be registered with Comes With Music, and Nokia will only let you move a registration to a different PC once every three months.
The long-term overarching question is one that's faced other music services offered by companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft: What happens if Nokia decides to pull Comes With Music from the market and shut off its DRM authorisation servers? It would mean people would not be able to authorise their tracks if they changed PCs, and the music they thought they owned would become unplayable.
Yahoo and Microsoft all decided at one time to shut down their servers but ended up reversing their decision after public outcry. While Nokia has just launched its service, it is still a valid concern to users when deciding how they should spend their money on digital music.
But Nokia does offer other perks. For example, if your PC dies or you accidentally delete your music, Nokia keeps track of what you downloaded and will let you download the music again for up to two years after the Comes With Music subscription has ended.
Nokia's online music store is clean and simple. We downloaded Gang Starr's Moment of Truth album in about 6 minutes. Tracks are encoded at 128kb/s; there doesn't appear to be any option for high-quality encoding. Like other online music services, you can forget finding any rare albums - most material is mainstream fare, with the odd omission. We couldn't find a full-length Oasis album, for instance.
Another drawback with the non-3G Nokia 5310 is the amount of time it takes to transfer music tracks from the PC to the phone. Moment of Truth took over three and a half minutes; Apple's iPhone loaded the same album, at a higher bit rate, in around 45 seconds.
The Nokia 5310 is a snazzy device with great sound quality, however songs are slow to download and of comparatively low quality. The Comes With Music service is an attractive proposition for those who want to pay one flat fee and get a phone plus lots of music.