Harmony with Helix

July 26: Real announces Harmony. They attempt to position the Helix DRM format as the future of protected music, claiming support for the most devices because they can keep their files protected while converting them to WMA or AAC for playback on devices. I post my initial reaction.

July 27: I download the Harmony Beta. Now, I never set my expectations too high when testing beta software, but I expect core functionality to work. After the install, the service couldn't connect to Real's server for several hours. Late in the evening, things finally seemed to connect.

July 28: I can't responsibly pan a service I haven't tried. Harmony is installed on my laptop, so I browse the store and select the Scissor Sisters album for purchase (great album, btw). RealPlayer tells me I need to enable the music store before I can proceed. Didn't I do that yesterday when I downloaded the Harmony beta?

Clicking the Enable button informs me Helix DRM technology is installing. What did I install yesterday? I'm then prompted to continue with my purchase. Predictably, I need to create a new user account.

After creating the account, the purchase process went quite smoothly. The download process is managed nicely with a built in download manager. Real deserves props for a solid integration of music store and player.

Of course, using the songs on a portable device will be the real test (no pun intended). RealPlayer automatically recognizes my Rio Karma. A quick select all and click of a button later and the transfer is in progress. Conversion took between 4-5 minutes to transfer 11 songs over USB to my Rio Karma (compared with a song every few seconds when transferring content downloaded from Napster).

During conversion, a folder called RealPlayerOptimizedFiles appears in the My Music folder, which stores WMA versions of the Real files already appropriately filed in album subfolders. To me, this represents a huge problem with the Harmony system. In addition to the 60MB of files in RealAudio Protected (RAX) format, I get another 50MB of WMA format files consuming space. That's only one album! Every 20 albums is an extra GB of wasted space. Attempting to play these files in Windows Media Player launches a dialog box suggesting I play the originals in RealPlayer, so they serve no purpose beyond interstitial between RAX and portable device.

The files play as promised on my Rio Karma; the service works as advertised. As a test of the DRM, I transfer one of the files to a second computer from my Karma. Windows Media Player responds with the same offer to play the original RAX file in RealPlayer.

What's missing is the ability to convert a file there and back again. I can't buy a file from Real, convert it to a supported format for my Rio Karma, take the converted file and make it playable on an iPod, and ultimately convert it yet again back to a file supported by any WMA compatible portable. Until a service is capable of continuous transformation, true transparency can't exist.

Bottom line, my assessment of Harmony remains unchanged. This is a desperate attempt to maintain relevance in a market with no need for RealAudio. People who purchase an iPod will continue to shop in the iTunes store for the foreseeable future. People buying any other player have tons of options without needing two versions of the same song on disk. Palm device owners are the only ones who might benefit from the Real download store, since RealPlayer is the only commercial player available for their devices. If versatility in format options is a requirement, get an eMusic subscription; MP3s still work on every player.