First Look: Spotify

Spotify, the popular-in-Europe music subscription service has arrived in the U.S. The service is available in three flavors—free (you can listen to a limited number of hours of music per month at 160kbps), Unlimited ($5 a month with unlimited listening at 160kbps), and Premium ($10 a month with unlimited listening, 320kbps tracks where available, and support for downloads and mobile listening). I’ve had experience with the current crop of domestic streaming services—Napster, Rhapsody, Mog, and Rdio—and have now browsed through Spotify. Here’s what I’ve found while using a Premium plan.

Note that the free service is invitation-only right now (submit your email at the Spotify website to request an invite), but those willing to pay for Unlimited or Premium access can sign up immediately. Paying customers also have the ability to invite five people with their accounts, but that option wasn’t enabled for me (probably because I’m using a press account).

When you receive an invitation you'll be able to listen to six months worth of unlimited Spotify music at 160kbps. After those six months expire, these invitation accounts are limited to 10 hours of listening per month and five plays per track. After the invitation period expires and everyone can simply sign up for a free account, those with free accounts can listen to up to 20 hours of music per month for the first six months. After six months, it's back to 10 hours of music per month and five plays per track.

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Spotify music-streaming service launches in U.S.

If you’ve found yourself listening to your European friends gush about music-streaming service Spotify and wondered when you too might get a piece of the action, fret no longer: On Thursday, Spotify officially opened its doors to the U.S., although there is a catch.

Like many other music streaming services, Spotify offers a huge library of tracks that you can listen to, drop into playlists, and share with your friends. The service boasts a library of “millions” of songs, accessible via a desktop app for Mac or PC and mobile apps available for most major smartphones.

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Life after Netflix

As you may have heard, on Tuesday Netflix raised its rates for combined DVD and streaming subscriptions. Previously, customers on the one-DVD-at-a-time plan could also stream movies from the service’s Watch Instantly service, for $10 a month. Starting in September for existing customers (and immediately for new subscribers), the price for that plan jumps to $16 per month (other DVDs plans go up as well). Although there may be legitimate reasons why Netflix needs to charge more, many customers find themselves less than thrilled by that 60 percent price hike. I count myself among them.

I decided to take a closer look at Netflix’s new plans, and compare them to the offerings from various Netflix competitors. Is the newly pricier Netflix still the best option for my entertainment needs? Or should I jump ship?

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How to rip audio from your Blu-ray discs

[Editor’s note: The MPAA and most media companies argue that you can’t legally copy or convert commercial DVDs for any reason. We (and others) think that, if you own a DVD, you should be able to override its copy protection to make a backup copy or to convert its content for viewing on other devices. Currently, the law isn’t entirely clear one way or the other. So our advice is: If you don’t own it, don’t do it. If you do own it, think before you rip.]

Regular readers of this column know that I’m a classical music fan. As such, I have a number of Blu-ray discs of classical concerts and operas. I recently got it into my head that I wanted to rip the audio from some of these to be able to listen to them on my office stereo. I wasn’t interested in the surround-sound mixes—I don’t have the appropriate equipment to play back music in such formats—just the stereo tracks. So, to this end, I bought an external Blu-ray drive and set out to figure out how to get the music from my Blu-ray discs into my iTunes library. (I’ve already written about doing this from DVDs, and assumed it would be a similar process.)

For starters, you probably know that Macs don’t support Blu-ray playback. Famously described as a “bag of hurt” by Steve Jobs, Blu-ray uses a complex system of digital rights management and High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). Apple clearly doesn’t want to get involved in such licensing issues, and feels that if you want HD movies on your Mac, you should simply buy or rent them from the iTunes Store. Given that there seem to be no classical recordings in the iTunes Store’s Movies section, there aren’t many choices for those wishing to see a concert by a pianist or an opera in HD on their Macs.

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Netflix raises rates for combined streaming and DVD subscriptions

On Tuesday, Netflix hiked up its rates for combined DVD and streaming plans. Beginning immediately for new customers, and in September for existing customers, you’ll need to subscribe at least to an $8 DVD-only plan, an $8 streaming-only plan, or a $16 combined plan.

Netflix last raised its prices back in November. At that time, Netflix upped the price of the the one-DVD-at-a-time-bundled-with-unlimited-streaming plan from $9 to $10 per month. That’s also when Netflix first introduced its $8 streaming-only plan. Last week, the company quietly launched a DVD-only plan at—you guessed it—$8 per month.

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Vulkano Flow place-shifting streaming device

If you’ve ever spent any time channel surfing in a hotel room, chances are you’ll immediately see the appeal of place-shifting technology, which allows you to watch your home TV programs remotely by streaming them over the Internet to a PC, Mac, or smartphone. One of Monsoon Multimedia’s latest offerings in this category, the Vulkano Flow, costs $100 (as of 7/7/2011), supports high-def video, and works pretty well if your remote broadband connection meets its modest bandwidth demands. But you have to accept some image quality compromises, and its controls for remote access generally work extremely slowly.

Like the more full-featured (and pricey) Vulkano Deluxe ( ) I reviewed earlier this year, the Flow works by intercepting the video stream that travels between your cable or satellite box and your HDTV, and making it available via the Internet to player software that you can download and install on a PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet. The Mac and PC players are free, but you have to pay $13 for the Vulkano Player for Flow and Blast iOS app, as well as apps on other platforms.

The main drawback of this scheme is that most current HD cable or satellite boxes connect to HDTVs via an HDMI cable, which securely delivers both high-def digital video and 5.1 or 7.1 audio, too. Copy-protection technology doesn’t allow an unauthorized third-party device such as a Vulkano to grab a copy of the digital signal en route to your set. So the best a Vulkano can do is to use the set-top box’s analog outputs, which don’t have those security issues but also can’t deliver the pristine quality of the digital video signal. For audio, meanwhile, the Vulkano can only use the box’s analog stereo outputs—forget 5.1, let alone 7.1.

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Amazon adds unlimited music storage for paid Cloud Drive accounts

On Wednesday, Amazon took aim at Google (and in some ways Apple) by adding unlimited music storage for paid users of its Cloud Drive online storage.

Amazon had already offered free cloud storage of any music purchased from its Amazon MP3 service, and includes 5GB of free storage for other music and files. But now anyone with at least a 20GB storage plan for $20 a year gets to upload as much MP3 or AAC music as they want to the service. (It also appears to work with the free one-year 20GB account that Amazon has given away to those who purchase an album from Amazon MP3.) Once uploaded, you can stream your music to a Mac, PC, or an Android phone using the Amazon Cloud Player software.

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