A lot of people equate downloading with transferring songs from Apple's iTunes site to an iPod, thinking that's the end of the story. But online music files can have about as many uses around the house as your favorite three-in-one tool. Along with enjoying them in portable hard-drive and flash-memory players (and, no, the iPod isn't the only player out there - see "The iPod Killer Elite,"), many of us store downloads on a computer for listening while we work, burn them from the hard drive onto a CD, or send them through a network for listening to elsewhere in the house.
But all this isn't as easy as it could be, mainly because of the restrictions imposed by a bunch of different digital rights management (DRM) schemes that can leave the music you've paid for handcuffed to your computer. That barrier is coming down, though, thanks in part to Microsoft's Windows Media Audio DRM format and the PlaysForSure initiative, which promotes compatibility between online music services, media receivers, and portable players.
In last year's "Download Challenge", I compared four online music stores: Apple iTunes, Musicmatch, Napster, and Rhapsody. Here, I revisit them (Musicmatch is being integrated into Yahoo Music Unlimited) as well as a fifth site, ">Wal-Mart Music Downloads. Since all of them have similarly comprehensive and eclectic catalogs - each offering from 500,000 to more than a million songs - which store you embrace will probably have more to do with compatibility with your player than anything else.