Like a few zillion other customers, I happily log onto Apple's online music store from time to time to exchange a few dollars for a handful of album tracks - sometimes a whole album or two.
I don't begrudge Apple a penny of the money I've spent through iTunes. My gripe is with digital rights management (DRM) - the industry's euphemism for copy protection.
This is a digital lock that limits the devices on which I can play most iTunes music to a handful of computers and Apple's own iPod portable players.
Most of Apple's big-time competitors, including Napster and Rhapsody, are no better. They use an entirely different copy protection scheme courtesy of Microsoft - and their songs won't play on the iPod.
This is an outrageous state of affairs - so I was delighted when Amazon.com, the online book-CD-and-everything-else seller, opened the "beta" version of its online music store last week.
Amazon MP3, as its name suggests, sells unprotected digital music files in a standard MP3 format.
They can be copied freely and played anywhere, anytime, on any device.
For now at least, Amazon is meeting and often beating Apple's prices. Amazon charges 89 cents to 99 cents a track and $5.69 to $9.99 for standard albums (more for larger collections).
Amazon's music also is recorded at a higher bit rate than Apple's standard tracks. Technically, that means more musical detail, but I'm not sure most of its customers will care.
After shopping on Amazon MP3, I have to give it an "A" for value, but it's way behind iTunes in ease of use and navigation.
That's not surprising, since Apple has been honing the iTunes music store user interface for four years, and it wouldn't surprise me if Amazon.com makes an effort to catch up after its shakedown cruise.
Amazon's major shortcoming - the breadth and depth of its collection - is easy to fix. True, Amazon boasts 2 million songs from more than 180,000 artists as diverse as 50 Cent, Amy Winehouse, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nirvana, Ella Fitzgerald, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones. But only two of the five major labels, Universal and EMI are in the catalog - the others still won't sell music without copy protection.
On the upside, Amazon does offer a roster of respected indie labels, including Alligator, HighTone, Madacy, Sanctuary, Rounder, Righteous Babe, Sugar Hill and Trojan Records.
But its selection is still a fraction of what shoppers will find at iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody and other outlets that sell copy-protected music.
Still, if you're shopping for music, why not stop at Amazon first if to see if you can spend less for music that will play anywhere? I can't think of a good reason.
Amazon knows a thing or two about selling online - and its MP3 store is straightforward, if not as slick as Apple's.
Unlike Apple's shop, which requires iTunes software, Amazon demands only a Web browser.
You will, however, have an easier time if you install a small, almost invisible "downloader" program that smoothes out the process. You'll definitely need it to buy an entire album at once.
Searching for a title, author or genre is fairly straightforward, if a bit clunky.
What Amazon MP3 lacks - since it hasn't been in business long - is the reservoir of customer reviews, playlists and recommendations that makes iTunes such a pleasure to browse through.
When you complete a search or click on an album icon, Amazon displays a list of tracks that meet your criteria, any of which you can sample with a mouse click.
Buying a track, however, is entirely too complicated - a three- step process that requires selecting the song, confirming a credit card, and then confirming a "shipping address," even though the song is delivered online.
In Apple's store, you can buy a track and download it with one click.
Although Amazon MP3 does permit one-click purchase of an entire album, there's no equivalent to another convenient Apple feature - check boxes next to individual tracks.
When you're through sampling songs, you can check off the ones you want and download them at the same time.
On the brighter side, Amazon's downloader is faster at its primary job - transferring song files that are generally much larger (meaning higher-quality) than its competitors -than any similar utility I've tried.
Better yet, Amazon will automatically add newly purchased songs to your iTunes or Windows Media Player library - which means it's available to your player immediately.
I wouldn't be surprised if Apple gimmicks the next release of iTunes so this nifty feature won't work - but I've enjoyed it so far.
Technically, the bit rate that Amazon uses to record its music (256 kilobits of data per second of audio), is twice as dense as Apple's standard 128K and denser than the 192K files that Apple sells at a 30 percent premium without copy protection.
These unprotected files generally come from the same recording labels as Amazon's.
In the interests of science, I downloaded a couple of contemporary jazz tunes from Amazon that I had already bought from iTunes.
Playing them on the computer or my iPod, even with a decent set of headphones, I couldn't tell the difference.
Good time to start
You can try it yourself for a few bucks. If you've held off buying music online because you don't like the hassle of copy protection, this is a good time to start.
Even if you're an existing iTunes/iPod customer, there's no reason not to stop at Amazon. com first. You may be able to save money on high-quality digital music that plays on your iPod or any other device.