Digital-music software company Musicmatch quietly launched yesterday a new digital-music download service that rivals Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store but runs on Windows. Like Apple's service, the Musicmatch Downloads service offers users song downloads for 99 cents and complete albums for $9.99. The service offers Digital Rights Management (DRM) features that are virtually identical to those iTunes offers, making it much easier for consumers to buy and use digital music than with rival Windows services such as BuyMusic.com. But Musicmatch Downloads also has some unique advantages over competing services, such as higher-quality downloadable songs.
   "By offering consistent and fair ownership rights, breakthrough music personalization, convenient purchasing, and the highest-quality files, our service is better than any free illegal alternative," said Dennis Mudd, Musicmatch chairman and CEO. "The Musicmatch Downloads service is the best way for people to find, buy, and enjoy music that matches their unique tastes."
   When I tested the new service yesterday, I quickly realized that Musicmatch has a winner on its hands. The Musicmatch Downloads service is built into the company's most recent media player, Musicmatch Jukebox 8.1, similar to the way the iTunes Music Store runs from within iTunes. And, like iTunes, Musicmatch Downloads offers simple, one-click ordering of songs and albums and lets users download music to as many as three PCs; users can add and remove PCs from the allotment list from within the application's UI, similar to iTunes. This feature alone makes Musicmatch Downloads more valuable than BuyMusic.com, which has been hampered by draconian licensing restrictions. In addition to allowing song downloads to only one PC, BuyMusic.com doesn't provide a way to change a song's license so that it can play on a different PC.
   In addition, the Musicmatch Downloads service offers higher-quality downloads than any other digital-music download service. iTunes uses 128Kbps Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) files, whereas BuyMusic.com offers 128Kbps Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 files. Musicmatch, however, uses 160Kbps WMA 9 files, which the company describes as "CD quality." In my tests, these files were indeed of higher quality than those I downloaded from other services. Unlike iTunes, Musicmatch Downloads also offers extensive information about artists and groups, and as a result the interface is less Spartan and antiseptic than the iTunes interface.
   Musicmatch Downloads currently offers more than 200,000 songs for download, and the company says that more than 500,000 songs will be available by the end of the year. Like the competition, the Musicmatch service doesn't require a subscription fee.