Amazon’s Media Downloads – MP3s and Unbox

When Amazon first announced they were going to be offering music without digital rights management (DRM) last year, I cheered, but didn’t do much else about it. However, while on an eight-week stint in a hotel in San Diego (which ended about two weeks ago) I decided to expand my music library, and checked out the Amazon MP3 download service. And I think it’s excellent. And Amazon’s DRMed Unbox video service isn’t too bad either.

The library of music content at Amazon is very extensive, with even brand new content available upon release by the record labels. And the prices aren’t too bad either – generally cheaper than the same music at iTunes, especially when you buy music by the album. I found album prices running from $7.99 to $9.99 typically.

To download a purchased album in MP3 format you need to install a small program from Amazon which actually performs the download, and, as I understand it, tags the MP3 files as being sold to you as the purchaser (presumably so that if you share them they can tag you for it). The Amazon MP3 downloader also lets you specify where to store the downloaded music, and you can also tell it to automatically add the newly download music to your iTunes or Windows Media Player libraries (but not both).

All the MP3s are encoded at 256Kbps, and sound great. Definitely a painless way to download music with no restrictions on your personal use of the files, unlike original iTunes songs. And, you can run the MP3s on any music player, whereas even the DRM-free iTunes downloads need to be converted into MP3 from Apple’s proprietary AAC format first.

As for video downloads, Amazon offers their Amazon Unbox service. This, sadly is DRMed, which makes it a pain to use, as you cannot convert the downloaded video into an MP4 file that you can play on an iPod, among other restrictions. Also, Unbox content is limited to either the machine you download the video on (for rentals) or you can designate two machines for “purchased” (not rented) content. Unbox works only on Windows-based PCs or on TiVo devices with current firmware.

Prices are the Amazon Unbox service are on par with iTunes – TV shows for $1.99 typically, and movies for around $9.99-14.99 (purchase) and less if rented. And, of course, some content not available at iTunes is available for legal downloadable viewing via Amazon Unbox and vice-versa. For example, we found Battlestar Galactica Season 4 on Amazon Unbox after not finding it on iTunes.

As with the MP3 downloads, the Amazon Unbox service requires the installation of a program on your PC. That program acts both as the video player and downloader, and does a pretty decent job. Visual artifacts in BSG4’s first episode were negligible on our 61” DLP display, and sound quality was excellent (and appeared to offer surround sound queues to our receiver unlike our experience with iTunes content on the Apple TV). Also, with at least the BSG4 shows we downloaded, we were able to start watching before the entire show had downloaded, so less planning required. We haven’t tested it with movies yet, and there doesn’t appear to be a separate category for HD content either.

The Amazon Unbox service, in addition to having less content (at least for what we’re interested in at this point), also has very strict requirements with respect to country of download. While iTunes lets a user with a U.S. billing address download content no matter where they happen to be in the world at the time of download, Amazon Unbox is very specific about the fact that downloads are only possible while physically in the U.S. This is similar to the restrictions imposed by the various TV networks on viewing past TV shows.

As I’ve stated before, I’m not thrilled with DRM because it makes you dependent on the vagaries and policies of the DRM provider, and you could well find yourself cut off from your content one day because of that. However, where it relates to content I am likely to only use once, like TV shows and movie rentals, I have less of an issue with it. I listen to my music library daily, so that needs to be DRM-free, but video does not – and if I want to watch a particular movie in the future, I can either buy it on physical media or rent it again.

I give the Amazon MP3 download service a 9.0 out 10.0 and the Amazon Unbox service a 7.0 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale. The only way I can see to improve the Amazon MP3 service is to have a more complete library of all music and audio content available (some of the music I was looking for was not available in MP3 form, but they do have an excellent collection). The Amazon Unbox service needs more content, including HD content, and less restrictive use of content – I’d like to be able to play it on my iPod and not have to have a “Plays For Sure” compatible device (which Unbox does support for purchased content).