Besides our browsers, we've also used Napster to acquire MP3s. Today anyway (there's litigation ongoing), you can download the Napster client for the PC (see Figure 4), free of charge, at www.napster.com, and you can get its Mac counterpart, Macster, at www.macster.com (see Figure 5). The Napster and Macster clients are something akin to Web browsers, in that they facilitate communication between you, your computer, and a server. The servers involved here, though, as opposed to Web servers, don't offer public files for viewing or download; rather, these servers simply enable file sharing between the computers connected to them, like and including your own. Using Napster, you'll lay out a few search terms, such as the name of the song you're looking for and what bitrate you prefer. This request will then be relayed to the server, which will proceed to look around in all the computers connected to it and then get back to your client with what it finds. From these search results, you select the MP3 you're looking for and tell your client to instruct the server that you wish to download it. The server establishes a data link between your computer and the computer that has the MP3 you're looking for, and file transfer begins, user to user. Soon enough, you've got a brand new MP3 on your hard disk.
Figure 4 The controversial Napster in all its glory.
Figure 5 For Mac users, here's Macster preparing to search for MP3s.
In Napster's search area, you type the name of the artist or track you're looking for-in the Artist and Song Title fields- and define a few other search criteria (see Figure 6). You may want to fill in the Bitrate must be and Frequency must be fields, located just to the right of the Artist and Song Title fields, just to narrow things down, qualitywise. For a bitrate, we suggest you select Equal to and 128 KB/S from the Bitrate must be drop-down menus. From the Frequency must be drop-down menus, choose Equal to and 44100 Hz. MP3s with a 128 kbps bitrate and a 44.1kHz sampling rate generally will be the most diminutive of CD-quality MP3s. Sound quality gets progressively worse with lower bitrates and sampling rates, and higher bitrates and sampling rates make for really big MP3s.
Figure 6 Having completed its search, Napster determines which file will cause you the least problems during download and offers a synopsis of vital information about the track, such as file size and encoding bitrate.
What 128 kbps is to MP3, 256 kbps is to MP2 (MPEG-1, Layer 2). Layer 3, having more compression tools at its disposal, is more adept than Layer 2 at encoding to these low bitrates. If you find in some weird place an MP2 file you want-the odds of which are slim-you'll want it encoded to 256 kbps because you lose quality at a lower bitrate with MP2 files. This MP2 file encoded to 256 kbps is going to be substantially larger than the MP3 file encoded to 128 kbps, so given that the two files will be of almost exactly the same quality, we'll opt for the MP3, if it's available.
Once you press the Find It button directly beneath the Artist and Song Title fields, the Napster client shoots your search terms up to the server. In turn, the server proceeds to scan all of its users' MP3 collections. Everyone connected to the Napster server has access to everyone else's designated MP3 directory, and you may discover that some MP3s are being downloaded from your hard disk as you search.
Often, Napster finds many instances of the MP3s you're looking for. In Figure 6, you'll see that a search for "William Shatner" produced several results. When this happens, Napster decides, according to itself and the criteria you've stipulated, which instance will cause you the least hassle in downloading and places a small green icon beside these. Additionally, Napster arranges the search in descending order of Ping time: This effectively means that the MP3s listed near the top of the results are on computers that transfer data quickly, as far as the server is concerned. Double-clicking one of the results listed initiates the download, and you'll automatically be taken to the Transfer window, where you can watch the download progress.
That's how easy it is to acquire MP3s. With a browser or a client such as Napster, you can have all the new, high-quality music you want without ever leaving you computer. Given that, it's not too difficult to see why MP3 is all the rage: There's no haul to the record store, your selection is virtually infinite, and above all, MP3 sounds great. That's the future of digital music, friends, in all of its permutations.
Broadcast radio, even, is soon to be challenged by IP-multicast MP3s, which will pump out of your PC's speakers at that same CD quality. Regular folks like us have already erected thousands of independent, commercial-free Internet radio stations, at no cost to themselves or their users. There's an astonishing lack, too, of legal issues around these stations. One notable restriction is you cannot announce what songs you'll play, only the ones you have played. You can cuss until Caligula gets upset, play what-ever songs you like, and remain totally legit. But we'll leave that for another book.