Update: there is a lightweight browser plug-in that lets you play song samples without having to download and install the full Rhapsody client. When I tried the MP3 download service yesterday, I was unable to play the 25 free songs in that browser window--it only let me play 30-second samples. Today, using the same username and password, it started my 25-song count. So my major complaint with the service has been solved. Kudos to Rhapsody.
Amazon was first out of the gate with a comprehensive MP3 download store last September, and they've steadily upgraded the site since then. I'm particularly happy they changed the search interface that mixed in MP3 downloads with physical CDs and other products. Now, when you search for an artist's name on Amazon MP3, the default search setting is for MP3 downloads. As it should be.
Even so, MP3s are just another product to Amazon, which is why I welcome the entry of RealNetworks' Rhapsody into the market. Rhapsody is my favorite of the subscription services I've tried, and I know several big music listeners who are devoted fans. The company understands how to curate and package music.
Rhapsody MP3 launched today, and it's very straightforward: songs cost $0.99, albums $9.99, everything's in DRM-free MP3 format, and you don't need the Rhapsody player or any other specialized software application to buy songs. (Like Amazon, Rhapsody offers the option of downloading a small application that automatically adds songs to iTunes. Unlike Amazon's equivalent, this download manager can also add songs to the Rhapsody Player and the Real Player, which apparently is still used by somebody somewhere. But it doesn't support the Windows Media Player, while Amazon's does.)
Rhapsody's store also has one huge advantage over Amazon's: you can sign up for the free level of the Rhapsody subscription service and stream 25 songs per month in their entirety. No more guessing whether you like a song based on a 30-second sample.
As my fellow CNET Network blogger Rick Broida already noted, if you're one of the first 100,000 to create an account--which means giving them a credit card number--before July 4, you get a free album.