Napster began life as a peer-to-peer file-sharing service in 1999 and was quickly sued by artists such as Metallica and Dr. Dre, as well as recording industry giants, including recording companies and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The problem was that Napster offered its users a way to easily find and download pirated music, and the world responded by making the Napster service one of the most heavily trafficked online destinations during its brief two-year run. In 2001, Napster was forced to shut down its service.

The company inexplicably remained in business, however, and was eventually purchased by Roxio, which rebranded its lukewarm Pressplay music service with the Napster name and launched it as Napster 2.0. Since then, Napster has met with only moderate success, due largely to the runaway market domination of Apple's iTunes. I've never been terribly impressed with Napster's client software, but the company has made a series of changes over the past few years that have made its service dramatically better. Today, Napster is in fact the best online music service on the market. It's a shame that so few people know about it.

When Napster 2.0 debuted, it offered lackluster 128Kbps song downloads. I've railed against services such as iTunes (which offers similarly mediocre 128Kbps Protected AAC songs) because the tunes they offer are of too low a quality to be successfully converted into decent-sounding MP3 files, which are free of the silly Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions that all legitimate music services are required to use. (See Acquiring Digital Music for more information about converting legally purchased digital music to MP3 format.)

Today, Napster has improved the quality of its music. Songs downloaded from Napster are now encoded as 192Kbps WMA files, among the best available anywhere online (and perfect for converting into great-sounding MP3s). Best of all, if you're a Napster customer, you can re-download any music you purchased at 128Kbps; when you do so, you'll get the better 192Kbps versions. That capability makes Napster unique among the major online music services. At sites like iTunes, if you lose a music file, you're out of luck. Apple will require you to buy it again. So much for owning your music, eh?

In addition to a la carte song downloads, Napster also offers two subscription services that dramatically expand your options and let you easily discover new music. The Napster service is $9.99 per month and gives you unfettered access to Napster's 2 million-plus song catalog for as long as you're a customer. For $14.95 per month, you can join Napster To Go, which adds the ability to put any of those more than 2 million songs on a portable device. That means you can fill your MP3 player with virtually any song and rotate the song collection as often as you want.

Recently, Napster added a new feature, and I'm guessing this change will do a lot to turn new customers on to the service. Any user with a Windows PC, an Internet connection, and a Web browser (both Microsoft Internet Explorer—IE—and Mozilla Firefox are supported) can visit Napster.com and listen to any of Napster's 2 million-plus songs for free. The catch is that you can listen to a single song only five times. If you're an existing Napster subscriber, however, you can keep listening. Now, Web-based music access is just another feature of this ever-expanding music service.

Napster isn't perfect. Like all WMA-based music services, its songs aren't compatible with Apple's beautiful iPod devices, thanks to Apple's decision to shut out the competition. However, using the aforementioned conversion process, you can easily buy music from Napster, convert it to MP3 format, and copy the tunes to an iPod. That's what I do, and it's worth the effort if you want to use the best MP3 player on the market but don't want to be tied into Apple's low quality downloads.

Another problem is that the Napster client program, which you must use to purchase music from Napster, is still woefully clunky. Apple's iTunes might be slow, but it's the picture of elegance compared with Napster. I hope the company gets that figured out eventually.

In the meantime, you have little reason not to check out Napster's free Web offering, assuming you're a Windows user. It's a great way to discover and listen to music, and you can't beat the price. It's just like the old days, sort of.