UPDATE (January 2009): DRM-free iTunes music now available

The Amazon MP3 music store is a real rival to Apple's iTunes Music Store, beating it on price and freedom.

I've been using Apple's iTunes Music Store since its UK launch in June 2004. I've purchased over 700 tracks since then, with my first being Stevie Wonder's 1972 album ‘Music of My Mind'.

Call me a heavy user, but iTunes has served me well, and its ease of use makes downloading digital music and immediately syncing it with my iPod about as easy as can be.

Back in 2004 iTunes was really the only store in town. But today there are many competing digital music services, some offering subscriptions to masses of music and others - such as 7Digital - following the iTunes route.

Amazon MP3 is closer to 7Digital than iTunes, running from a website rather than a standalone application. There are a few significant benefits to Amazon MP3 that could tempt me and millions of other iTunes users away from Apple.

Amazon M3: Price

First, price. I often buy albums from Amazon on CD rather than from iTunes because the price difference is more times than not a mere £1. For the extra quid I get the physical CD with all tracks at top AIFF-quality. I can then chose at what bitrate compression I import it at into iTunes. And if it turns out that I don't like the album I can sell it on eBay and make back some of what I spent on it.

iTunes mostly sells albums for £7.99 or 79p multiplied by the amount of tracks if there's less than ten songs on the album. You don't get a choice of bitrate quality, and of course you can't sell it on - or indeed get it back into iTunes if something goes wrong with your hard disk, for instance.

Amazon MP3 is a lot cheaper than iTunes, and has some real bargains. On UK launch (December 2008) it was offering new albums by Take That, Oasis, Snow Patrol, Kings of Leon and Will Young for just £3 each. Each of those album on iTunes cost £7.99 - except ‘Dig Out Your Soul' by Oasis, which is £4.74.

Not all Amazon MP3 albums are as little as £3, and we'll have to wait to see if these were just a launch promotion. Others cost around £5.99 or £6.49 - still a nice saving of £2 or £1.50 on iTunes.

Dig deeper into Amazon MP3 and prices sometimes level out. ‘The Sound of The Smiths' costs £7.99 on both services, although the longer ‘Deluxe' version is £3 cheaper on Amazon. On average, though Amazon albums are cheaper, although some individual tracks do randomly cost the same 79p as iTunes.

Like iTunes, Amazon restricts some - usually longer tracks - to album-only sales.

Four and a half years ago ‘Music of My Mind' cost me £7.11 (9 tracks x 79p), and it still costs that amount today - although Apple has raised audio quality from 128Kbps compression to 256Kbps. Amazon MP3 lists the album for £4.98, with 256Kbps compression. The tracks are also available individually at 69p each.

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