Just like 8-tracks were easier to deal with than vinyl and CDs were easier to deal with than cassette tapes, it's become apparent to everyone that MP3s and FLACs and OGGs are all easier to lug around than a stack of CDs. Whether you're carrying around burned DVDs, thumb drives shaped like bunnies, luscious iPods, or a 250 gig FireWire drive, we are to the point where the need to lug crates of stuff around is a relic.

But almost everyone I know still buys most of their major label music in CD format, or at least has a huge library from before the days of cheap broadband downloads—add to that the hundreds of albums worth of plastic and oxidizing metal sitting around which we plan on getting around to re-digitizing in our spare time. But who has that spare time, besides those who have time for reading tech reviews? (It's okay; you're multitasking.) You don't want to get up to fetch more discs to rip. Wouldn't it be nice to have that taken care of for you?

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How about paying someone to do it? That's the idea behind RipDigital.

Since I am one of the millions of people with failing CDs sitting around and not a lot of time on my hands, I felt that it was a matter of pragmatism to take RipDigital up on their offer of ripping 100 of my favorite albums. The cost for this? $129, although right now they're running a slightly cheaper holiday special. Check it out at the RipDigital.com site.

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There's not much to ripping a CD, so there wasn't much to rate RipDigital on in terms of actual digital results. They aren't doing anything more than you'd do at home with CDEX or iTunes, except they do it in bulk with a minimum of hassle to the end user.

The box sent by RipDigital contained a FedEx overnight airbill for the return trip to their facilities, an empty 100 disc CD spindle, another box, and some sheets of foam packing material. The only thing it didn't have that I had to hunt for was packing tape to reseal the box. (I mean really, raise your hand if you have that stuff just sitting around). It arrived at my place on a Tuesday, at which point began the most tedious part of the process: Which CDs to send? I wasn't sure how they did things so I tried pretty hard to throw some ringers at them. I put in as many CDs as I could without obvious titles and a lot of those were from local bands. I even threw in a burned CD of a recorded band practice to see what they'd do with it. I included discs with tracks that most of my CD players wouldn't play properly and which CDParanoia wasn't able to handle without a number of obvious digifacts. I even tried to get one disqualified on account of taste by including my copy of Winger's "In the Heart of the Young".

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I sealed up the box and took a deep breath, knowing that it would take anywhere between $1200 and $1800 to replace the contents of that little cube. I used to load trucks for a major shipping company so I have no illusions whatsoever about how unsafe packages are when you ship them. As I was filling out the shipping slip though, I saw that not only was shipping covered by RipDigital but that the package was insured for $1500. It would be a pain to replace my music but at least for the major label releases I'd be able to cover it by killing an afternoon on Amazon.com or iTunes. I felt a lot better about things after that. Off it went.

During the week RipDigital had sent me some courtesy emails letting me know that they'd arrived and been shipped back out safely (a nice touch), and the next Thursday brought with it another RipDigital box containing my CDs and three DVDs full of mp3s. Winger? Check. Obscure local bands who have long since broken up? Check. Unplayable tracks? Check! (Bad ass!)

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Burned CD? Nope. While I didn't see anything in the FAQ about this, I guess they don't rip burned CDs—even if you're the artist. I kind of got the impression that they did anything you wanted, but I guess they will only do professionally duplicated CDs. I can hardly fault them for this policy—it's good to cover your ass. Still, potentially frustrating if you sent out a load of self-produced CD-Rs.

Another policy I can't fault them for (but which is the topic of hot debate among my friends ever since I began this review) is RipDigital's policy of putting a digital watermark on every MP3. The reason for this of course is so that you don't rip a gang of discs and then offer them up on BitTorrent or Usenet, thus cheating thousands of music label execs artists out of money that would be used to buy drugs, yachts formula for their starving infants.

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Conceptually speaking, this straddles the line between "good" and "bad" for both the customer and the music industry. Playing devil's advocate for The Industry, does this offer adequate proof that the file belongs to me? Would it hold up in court if you were suing me? IANAL but in today's times, maybe. We're not talking about a murder trial after all. Playing devil's advocate for the grandmas and little girls and starving EE majors (elementary education, not electrical engineering), what happens if someone cracks security on my network and offers them up for download from my computer without me knowing, or steals some audio CDRs out of my car and later uploads them somewhere? Times are what they are though, and I can't see this service existing without the watermarking. The watermark itself is nothing more than a hash of your RipDigital order number, so while it can be linked to you it's not like it has your name and phone number in cleartext. There are probably more draconian methods which could have been used instead, and I have to give props to RipDigital for picking their particular watermarking scheme over DRM.

So is RipDigital's service for you? It really depends on how much time and disposable cash you have. Consider that if you are going to do bulk ripping at home you'll probably knock them out in around five to ten minutes per disc. That's assuming prep time, a reasonably fast machine, and autistic levels of diligence. In practice, the last time I did this it ended up being well over the ten minute mark thanks to an Internet trove of Aqua Teen Hunger Force episodes I stumbled across. Also worth considering is that some of those tracks I sent in were unplayable, and outside of re-buying the music or illegally downloading I would have been missing that music if not for RipDigital. This adds a considerable bit of value to the service in my opinion. So while your mileage may vary on time constraints, RipDigital is worth considering as a healthy part of your balanced music enjoying experience. It definitely makes music ownership less of a hassle.

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