Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

Click to viewNow that EMI and Universal have seen the light and started offering music in DRM-free MP3 format—and according to well-founded rumors, Sony and Warner are also exploring a DRM-free launch in 2008—online music stores finally have the means to get iPod-friendly and take on iTunes. As you know, iTunes only offers AAC files, a small fraction of which are DRM free, so Amazon and Wal-Mart have launched MP3 stores to lure people looking to buy their newly-freed tunes elsewhere. So, iTunes defectors, where should you go? Into the familiar embrace of Amazon, or into the hairy, bologna-scented arms of Wal-Mart? I took them both for a spin, and made the call.

What's For Sale

Much to the joy of the record labels, Wal-Mart and Amazon.com both offer staggered pricing on their wares (as opposed to iTunes which generally supports flat rates for its songs and albums). On Wal-Mart's site, there's a menu on the upper left that lets you sort through albums that cost $7.88, $5.88 or $3.88, and there's also a selection of $2.24 "hit packs." What doesn't make sense is that elsewhere on the page, albums are offered for $5.64 and $4.70, and if you dig around on the site you'll find even more arbitrary pricing. Albums generally top out at $9.44 from what I saw, while single tracks cost 94 or 88 cents.

Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

Amazon's albums also range in price. Just looking at the selection of Nirvana albums shows that you can pay only $5.99 for In Utero, but the price jumps to $7.99 for Nevermind and $9.97 for Bleach. The single tracks aren't uniformly priced here, either, with some tracks costing 99 cents and some 89 cents, even on the same album. Like Wal-Mart, you can browse by price here, but it sticks to dollar ranges ($5 to $5.99, $6 to $6.99, etc.) so it makes more sense than Wal-Mart's arbitrary menu.

Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

Comparison Shopping

How do the prices compare between the sites? Well, from my unscientific sampling, Amazon seems to be the cheaper choice. All of Nirvana's albums, for example, are $9.22 on Wal-Mart, and that's for the censored versions. The listings for the uncensored versions all say "Not available for download. Buy this on CD from Walmart.com." No, no I won't.

Other price discrepancies include Air's Pocket Symphony ($8.99 on Amazon, $9.22 on Wal-Mart), Broken Social Scene's self-titled album ($7.99 on amazon, $9.44 on Wal-Mart), and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane ($8.97 on Amazon, $9.22 on Wal-Mart). More often than not, the prices are better on Amazon.

And a lot of albums that are on Amazon aren't available at all on Wal-Mart. Boxer by The National? Nope, no albums from The National at all on Wal-Mart, nor of Smog. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem and Horn of Plenty by Grizzly Bear are all available on Amazon and missing from Wal-Mart as well.

You've also got to be careful, because some albums available on Amazon in MP3 are only available on Wal-Mart's site in locked-down 128kbps WMA. Wal-Mart does have the decency to state whether or not a track "Plays on iPod," though, so you're cool if you pay attention. See the Band of Horses' Cease to Begin example here:

Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

Praising Amazon over Wal-Mart isn't the same as saying Amazon's selection is amazing. A lot of times they don't have the complete catalog of an artist (Grizzly Bear's newer Yellow House isn't available on either, for example). And obviously you won't find anything from Sony or Warner on there.

But by and large, the selection on Amazon, especially of independent label artists, is clearly superior to Wal-Mart's. And not having to deal with WMA results mixed in with your MP3 searches is much better.

What About Design?

Both stores borrow liberally from iTunes' layout. There are genres on the right, top songs on the left, and featured stuff in the middle. Both have search results that feature tracks in a lower pane and menus above. Both allow you to click on any of the columns to go right to that artist or album as well. The Amazon version feels a bit more elegant to me, but it really is a personal preference: in terms of functionality, neither one really beats the other.

Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

For downloading, Amazon requires both Windows and Mac users to first install a small program called, conveniently enough, the Amazon MP3 Downloader. Once you install it, when you select the song or album you want to download, and the rest happens automatically. By default, the MP3 Downloader sticks it in your music folder and then imports it to iTunes for you, which is convenient. However, for someone like me, who keeps his entire music collection on a different hard drive in meticulously organized folders, it's a little annoying to not be able to choose where each file goes rather than just selecting one default place. For people who just dump everything in their iTunes music folder, however, it's cake.

Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: MP3 Store Showdown Before iTunes Final Battle

Wal-Mart also has a program for downloading songs that requires a scary ActiveX script to install—and yes, unlike Amazon's, this thing is only available to Windows XP and Vista PC users. No Macs allowed. The Download Manager is harder to install too, with IE fighting you every step of the way to get it running.

It works a lot like Amazon's program, hiding in your task bar and waiting to be loaded up with songs by the site, but there are fewer preferences. I couldn't even find an option letting me pick a download destination. It only gives you an option to add it to your Windows Media Library, which is useless to me, but later I discovered a "Wal-Mart Purchased Media" playlist in iTunes. When it finishes, it gives you the option to play the song, which if you do opens the song in Windows Media Player regardless of what your default MP3 player is. Worst of all, I had to search for the location of the downloaded file itself. It ended up in My Documents/My Music/Downloads/Artist/Album, again, totally pointless for my purposes. Not having the ability to select a destination folder is bad design; not telling people where to find their freshly paid-for music is idiotic.

And the Winner Is...

The fact that Wal-Mart forced me to use Internet Explorer (and only works on Windows) is enough for me to never use it (Seriously, Wal-Mart? Seriously?). Beyond that, the prices, selection and downloader were all better at Amazon. It'll be familiar to anyone who's used to iTunes and easy for people who've never bought music online before, which should help them out greatly with their upcoming billion-song giveaway. In the end, which do I suggest? Amazon, to be sure.

What about iTunes?

The real question is whether or not I'd willingly switch to either store from iTunes, if format wasn't an issue. The answer, from a strict functionality standpoint, is "no." The fact that iTunes is a standalone program that also plays all your music makes it a far more elegant solution than either Wal-Mart or Amazon. There's no extra program to download, there's no worrying about where the songs go, and there's no dealing with browsers.

However, the pricing in Amazon's (and Wal-Mart's to a lesser degree) store is very competitive, oftentimes significantly cheaper than iTunes. Combine that with the fact that you get MP3 files that'll play on more devices than Apple's AAC, and you've got a serious contender in Amazon's store, especially for the cheap and anal . It just depends if you're willing to leave iTunes to go to the store. [Amazon.com; Wal-Mart]