Given that the entire point of streaming services is to allow easy access to music from any PC, MSN Music has one big plus point going for it that none of its rivals can match. Being, as it is, carried under the Microsoft umbrella MSN Music benefits from being almost entirely integrated with Media Player. I say almost because a toolbar installation is still required to allow the service to be used, but once installed it only appears when the streaming service is being used and it adds some important functionality so it's requirement is just about excusable. Not that I wouldn't prefer to see tighter integration.
The reason for this separation is almost certainly that Microsoft doesn't actually administer MSN Music itself. Subscriptions to the service are administered by Nokia as is the track library, with the streaming itself run by a company called On Demand Distribution (OD2), a subsidiary of Nokia. That's slightly odd, given Nokia Music is a direct competitor to MSN Music, although easily explained as Microsoft was using OD2 to provide MSN Music long before Nokia bought OD2 in 2006.
MSN Music claims a library of some two million tracks, a third less than Napster's six million. However, in our extensive testing we couldn't actually think of any artist that was available on one but not the other. Going back to the subject of integration and probably the downside of MSN Music is that the interface isn't particularly slick. Fundamentally the service is a webpage embedded into Media Player and frankly it feels like it was built back in the days when Internet Explorer 6 was still considered current technology.
On the plus side, the sidebar, doubtless by dint of being a separate install, is much nicer to use. One small touch which I wish every player in the world would follow is that when added to the 'live' playlist tracks are queued rather than interrupting the current track. Hardly revolutionary, but it constantly baffles me that iTunes, for one, still has yet to implement such a rudimentary feature.
Playlists can be saved and loaded but, unlike Napster, these are only saved locally, not online. There's no decent selection of pre-generated track listings either, again something Napster offers. Admittedly it is possible to have the player randomly stream a Green Day playlist, or a Paul Anka playlist or even a 'rock' or 'pop' playlist, but obviously this has limitations. I dislike being restricted to either specific artist, or having to sort through the generated playlist and weed out the rubbish as genres like 'alternative rock' are far too broad and as such a load of rubbish tracks end up mixed with the good.
These short fallings are made up for in one important area though. At £5.99 a month for streaming, MSN Music sits as the cheapest of all the subscription services I'm looking at in this round-up. In fact, if our PCs here didn't somehow stop MSN Music from working, I would be very tempted to splash out on my own subscription!
In addition to streaming, MSN Music also offers the ability to purchase tracks for download. At 75p each, singles are in line with the competition and the same can be said of whole albums which generally hit the £8 mark. Of course, these come as WMA files loaded with DRM locking out iPod owners, the largest target market for digital downloads. And there's doubtless a few of you out there who won't be keen to trust Microsoft again any time soon after the Plays For Sure debacle.
Personally, I'd still rather buy a CD and rip the tracks myself. Digital singles may be cheaper, but I can't remember the last time I paid more than £5-ish for an album from Amazon or Play. Nonetheless, if all you're after is a streaming music service, MSN Music can't be faulted. It does what it sets out to as well as could be asked. Yes the interface could do with tweaking, yes I'd love to know why I see adverts when I'm a paying subscriber and yes the integration with Media Player could be a little tighter given the MSN branding but at the same cost as a single album per month for access to every artist I could think to look for, those complaints are easily forgiveable.