As far as the current tablet and smartphone landscape is concerned, iTunes has always existed. No matter what new media platform pops up — be it Google Music, Amazon Instant Video, or Spotify, just to name a few — it will inevitably be held to the singular standard that iTunes has created. This year marks Sony's biggest push into iTunes territory with its Sony Entertainment Network services, and if this were a horse race, Apple and Sony would be neck-and-neck.
Battle of the bands
Comparing the music portion of iTunes with Music Unlimited — Sony's name for the music portion of its entertainment network suite — yields similar content, but a very different method of accessing it. With iTunes, you purchase individual tracks, albums, or collections, and can craft playlists based on the content you own.
With Music Unlimited, you pay a monthly fee — $9.99 for the premium tier, which we'll be discussing here — and have unlimited access to everything the service has to offer. You can make playlists by picking from the 15 million songs in the Music Unlimited library, or simply search for individual tracks or albums and browse at your leisure. Your playlists are stored on the cloud, and you can access your tunes on any compatible device, including Android and iOS smartphones, tablets, and even the PlayStation 3, PS Vita, and dozens of Bravia HDTVs.
The service even goes one step further on Android smartphones by offering offline playback, meaning that your music selections can be stored locally on your device, and then used without a wifi or cellular connection. For the price of buying 12 albums per year, you are given unlimited access to more music than you could ever possibly need; it's a music lovers dream come true.
The only real downside of using Sony's now vibrant music offering over iTunes is the lack of outright ownership of the music itself, but for those looking to pay a bare minimum yet still have access to nearly every song they can think of, Music Unlimited is by far the most affordable option.
If you can't beat them, join them
When it comes to downloading TV shows and movies, it's hard to imagine anyone offering a more streamlined service than what Apple has created with iTunes. And rather than attempt to fix something that isn't broken, Sony did the wise thing and focused more on bringing its very iTunes-flavored Video Unlimited service to a huge range of devices, rather than trying to stand apart from Apple with gimmicky features.
Yes, Video Unlimited offers a nearly identical selection of both new and classic TV and movie content to that of iTunes. And yes, the prices, rental periods, and options to buy both standard and high-definition content are similar. However, Video Unlimited has one thing its rival doesn't: a laundry list of devices on which its customers can enjoy the content.
If you own an Android smartphone or tablet (running at least Android 2.1), a PlayStation 3, Vita, PSP, or one of Sony's web-connected blu-ray players or HDTVs, you already have all the hardware you need to start using Video Unlimited. That means there's a really good chance you already own a compatible device, especially if you're a gamer.
Taking on the iPad, head-first
One of the reasons that iTunes is as successful as it is, is Apple's ultra-popular mobile devices such as the iPad. But don't count Sony out of this game either, as the company has already demonstrated it knows exactly how to make a high-quality tablet of its very own.
The Sony Tablet S may have a somewhat generic moniker, but that's pretty much the only thing that didn't impress us about it. With a crisp 9.4-inch screen and a form factor that makes it a pleasure to hold in both landscape and portrait orientations, the S is a worthy alternative for those debating between an iPad or Android tablet.
The Tablet S runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and as such, flipping between apps, web browsing, and Sony's own entertainment network options is as smooth as it gets. The slate's Tegra 2 processor — used in several other Android tablets — is speedy, and makes gaming on the S an enjoyable experience.
One thing that could potentially set the S apart from its competitors even more is the built-in PlayStation Store, which offers some original PlayStation titles for purchase. Currently, there is relatively short list of compatible titles, including Cool Boarders, Crash Bandicoot, and Rally Cross.
The games play great on the powerful device, but there's definitely room here to expand. If Sony can continue to add more retro titles — and perhaps approach the same level of PS1 support that the PlayStation 3 currently enjoys — the S could be without a gaming tablet without equal.
It's not over yet
Streaming media is still in its infancy, and while Apple may have pulled out to an early lead, there's still plenty of time for other companies to best them. Sony reports nearly 1 million active Music Unlimited users alone, and if the service continues to expand in both quality and scope, there's no reason to expect that figure to do anything but grow, and fast.
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