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alt.napster - Our Roundup of Napster Alternatives

by Steve McCannell
04/09/2001

Napster users had been living the high life with access to virtually any audio recording you can think of. Now that the RIAA has finally gotten the courts to order Napster to filter its traffic, Napster use has declined at a steady pace with many users jumping ship and using other P2P file-sharing programs.

The majority of the more popular file-sharing programs are decentralized, which makes copyright protection much harder to enforce. Most of the more popular file-sharing services rely on the Gnutella protocol, which is based on the idea of a transient Web; sources of information constantly changing locations. Freenet uses a different method, using "keys" to identify information in the system, and anybody can access this information using the appropriate key (much like a URL works). Unlike the Web, information on Freenet is not stored at fixed locations or subject to any kind of centralized control. Currently, there is no way to search Freenet, and no way to find a file unless you know its key.

What makes these types of networks so interesting is that we're not limited to searching for just MP3s. Programs, images, video, documents; any file type imaginable can be found with most file-sharing networks. Now that there are so many of these file-sharing programs, which ones are giving the best user experience? Right now there are about a half dozen leaders, and each one varies tremondously. Using a T1 line and a PC with 256MB of RAM, I took each of these leaders out for a spin and ranked (out of 5 stars) how each looked, felt and performed.

LimeWire

Interface Design

Successful Downloads

Features

Ease of Use

Overall User Experience

Overall Rating

Supported Platforms

LimeWire GUI

The sleekest looking out of the programs I chose to review, the Java-based LimeWire, is compatible with the Gnutella file-sharing protocol and can connect with anyone running Gnutella-compatible software. While the program may take up a bit of your available memory, LimeWire has yet to freeze up my computer. In fact, I could surf the Web using both browsers at the same time, launch PhotoShop, run my e-mail client and keep my Unix window open while LimeWire was running with no problems.

A couple of things set LimeWire apart from the rest. One is the ability to connect to topic specific networks, such as comedy, audio, video, etc. LimeWire can also do multiple searches at the same time, creating a tab for each search where you can track the status of each query. This is quite useful, because if a file fails to download, all you have to do is select the tab and choose another location to download it from rather than clearing out your current search results like you have to do with Napster, BearShare and iMesh. LimeWire also claims that they have improved their ability to push through firewalls, which lends for more broadband locations to download from. The most useful feature from LimeWire is the ability to search by file type (audio, video, programs, images or documents), narrowing your search results to only the file types you might be interested in.

If you're not interested in anything other than MP3s, LimeWire seems to be the one for you, as I was able to download most audio files with little to no problem. Video seems to be another story though (I imagine this is because MP3s have propogated across the network more than any video file, so supply meets demand). Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D minor was downloaded within minutes, but every attempt at downloading a "Muppet Show" episode timed out or failed. After numerous attempts, I was finally able to download the trailer to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and it probably would've been faster if I had just gone to Apple's Quicktime site and downloaded it the old-fashioned way. Downloading program files didn't seem to be a problem. Although I already have the Rubber Man plug-in for PhotoShop installed on my machine, I was able to download a copy from LimeWire with no problem.

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Overall, LimeWire shines. Even though it is a bulky program, my computer didn't feel the effects of being connected to the network. Available for every platform with an easy to use interface, the use of tabs to keep track of searches and an adequate ratio of downloads::failures makes LimeWire the leading file-sharing program based on my experiments. Four out of five stars.

BearShare 2.2.0

Interface Design

Successful Downloads

Features

Ease of Use

Overall User Experience

Overall Rating

Supported Platforms

BearShare GUI

I'm probably going to get a lot of flaming e-mail about my review of BearShare, as it is one of the most popular alternative file-sharing programs, but I've never been too impressed with this application. Attempting to surf the Web and run BearShare at the same time can slow my computer to a crawl. Where LimeWire has the sleek GUI, BearShare's more closely resembles the first Gnutella client I downloaded about a year ago. Looks aren't everything though, and BearShare does sport some nice features.

The hosts tab displays a graphic representing the origin of a connected node. Status indicators provide information about the status of the different components (search, downloads, uploads, etc.). Double clicking on the status indicators minimizes your client window to just the indicators, which you can keep track of without having to have a window open. The host list includes graphics of where the host is coming from, and full documentation of the client is available at their site (they should get a star just for that).

One other interesting feature is the "Quality of Search" bars when one puts out a query to the network. Red indicates the server is busy, grey or hollow that the server is unproven, and green indicates available download slots. Nice to know that even though the originator of the file may be connected to the network, you probably don't want to waste your time attempting to get files from them.

The technology behind BearShare is what interested me the most. Like LimeWire, BearShare has introduced connection-preferencing rules into its incarnation of their Gnutella client. When all the peers connect and one user stops sending information, a ping goes out to that peer. If no response comes back, that peer is dropped from the network. This way like-bandwidth users can talk with one another, and those on a dial-up can still reside on the network. The BearShare client has a tab for checking the statistics for the network in case you're interested.

So does this technology mean you can download files easier using BearShare? Not necessarily. BearShare doesn't allow for searching of specific file types like LimeWire and iMesh do, making your query results full of files you couldn't care less about. For instance, unless you select the "hide results that don't match" box under setup, searching for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring can also returns things like "springtraining.gif" and "Girls Gone Wild Spring Break.mpg." Download failures seemed to be a little bit more frequent using BearShare also, but there are any number of variables that could account for that. Once again, MP3s failed far less often than any .mov or .mpg file.

All in all, BearShare may be right for some people, but you'll find it in my recycle bin shortly after this gets published. Two out of five stars.

iMesh

Interface Design

Successful Downloads

Features

Ease of Use

Overall User Experience

Overall Rating

Supported Platforms

iMesh GUI

The closest thing to Napster out of the bunch is Israeli-based iMesh, which allows you to download files directly from anybody connected to the iMesh network. You can also search for files from its Web site, but the page is tough to get to at times due to either high amounts of traffic or the upgrading of their servers.

There are quite a few features that make iMesh stand out from the pack. One is the fact that if someone disconnects while you are trying to download a file of their computer, iMesh will either continue to download that file from a different user or finish it the next time the disconnecting user logs on. Quite a nice feature to say the least. They also make skins available to change the appearance of the application.

Searching using iMesh is like searching Napster, only (like LimeWire) you can filter your searches by file type. Once you enter a search, it goes into your "search history" much like when you visit a Web site and your browser remembers that you've been there before. A handy pulldown menu from the search field gives quick access to previous searches.

Downloading from iMesh is fantastic. I was able to download a 24 MB .avi file in about an hour. Your search results yield an availability ranking (out of five stars), so if you're afraid of downloading a file and getting disconnected halfway through, you know that choosing a file with a five-star availiablity rating will better allow for iMesh to continue downloading the file from a different user. Unfortunately, the connections to the network can be erratic, with disconnection a possibility at any time (like as I'm writing this article). So if you're interested in less popular files and get disconnected, you may be out of luck. Add in that you have to sit through advertising within the window and you've got yourself a sour experience at times.

IMesh is a bulky program, so much so that it drains my systems resources at times and has caused my computer to crash at least once. Still, the fact that this is the easiest place to find the most popular files makes it impossible for me to give the program a bad rating. Three and a half stars.

Napigator

Interface Design

Successful Downloads

Features

Ease of Use

Overall User Experience

Overall Rating

Supported Platforms

Napigator GUI

Now that Napster's filters are becoming more and more robust, what's an audiophile to do? Try out Napigator, which looks for nap servers for you to join. Borrowing from the Napster protocol, nap servers are independently run connection hubs using a static IP address. A nap server provides the ability to search for particular files and initiate a direct transfer between clients. More information on nap server can be found at http://opennap.sourceforge.net.

What is great about Napigator is that you can use it in conjunction with the Napster GUI; a Napigator tab will appear on the far right of your Napster window upon firing up the program. Napigator also put out their own GUI, which isn't all that useful since it only picks out nap servers to connect to, you can't search for files from there. Not all that handy, but a nice bonus to a powerful Napster substitute.

It took me a minute to figure out how to get Napigator working within the Napster client, then another minute to actually find a network that I could connect to, but once I did it was just like "the old Napster." The number of nap networks available astounded me. One click of the refresh button updates the server list to up to the second available connections in case you aren't finding a nap server that suits your needs. I imagine Music City (one of the main nap server providers) will be the next target of the RIAA, followed by independents hosting nap servers, but until then it's a free for all.

Napigator isn't for just audio either. That being said, this is the best audio file-sharing program around. You now get to choose which server you'd like to connect to. With Napster you didn't really get a choice, whichever network you fell into is the one you were stuck with unless you disconnected and reconnected again. With Napigator you might want to connect to a server with the least amount of users and lowest ping times for the best connection, or you can choose a server with the most amount of files if you're having a hard time finding the song you want on less popular servers.

The variety of servers and its integration with the Napster client are a real coup for users. Time will tell just how useful Napigator will be once more nap servers get shut down, but until then it is one of the easiest ways to find files. The only fault with Napigator is their not-to-useful GUI, I give it a score of 3.5 stars.

Deep Thoughts

Related Articles:

Lessons from Napster

In Praise of Freeloaders

Gnutella: Alive, Well, and Changing Fast

Gnutella and the Transient Web

All related Napster content

All related Gnutella content


More From the OpenP2P.com

The biggest myth surrounding these file-sharing type programs is that the users are anonymous, and there isn't a thing that copyright holders can do to stop file-trading from happening. Au contraire, mon frere. Both LimeWire and BearShare (which use the Gnutella protocol) can trace users from their IP addresses, making for the violators themselves to become targets from copyright holders. IMesh is in the same boat as Napster, being on foreign soil doesn't make them immune from U.S. law or financial responsibility. Napigator is only as good as the servers that it can find; if nap servers start getting sued ala Napster, expect the majority of them to shut down.

We're witnessing a very interesting and important development in the history of our technology. More and more file-sharing programs have sprouted up since the original injunction against Napster, and more technological advances toward making file-sharing networks more robust are being made each week. Eventually the file-sharing herd will have to be thinned out, and only the strongest will survive.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to track down an episode of "The Muppet Show."


Steve McCannell is a writer/producer for the O'Reilly Network and the founder of Lost Dog Found Music.



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