Apple's iTunes Store is almost completely DRM-free, and will be entirely DRM-free in a few month's time. This means files downloaded from iTunes will work on heaps of devices that aren't from Apple.
What better way to celebrate the final bullet to the living corpse of copy protection than by reading everything you need to know about iTunes Plus? There isn't one. And anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar, and not your friend.
Be warned: your account information is stored in every file
Although iTunes Plus files feature no copy protection, files downloaded still contain the email address you have registered with iTunes. So although files can physically be shared with, and played by, friends and family, any of your purchases that end up on file-sharing networks, for example, can be traced back to you.
If you're interested in an easy way to check your own files, find an iTunes Plus file on your computer. Then choose to open it with a text editor (Windows Notepad works fine). It'll take a while to open and will appear to be full of nonsense text, but if you choose the "Find" option and type in the email address you have registered with the iTunes Store, you'll find that your DRM-free music is not personal information-free.
iTunes Plus files aren't MP3s
iTunes uses a format called AAC, which is a more modern alternative to MP3, with the file extension ".m4a". Many players support this format, however, and you can create MP3 versions of the files within iTunes if you want to, so don't worry — it's like petrol versus diesel in the car world, except your player's engine won't break if you put the wrong format in.
Players that support iTunes Plus
Unlike the old downloads from iTunes, the new files are supported on a range of devices. Devices that support AAC include the Creative Zen and Zen X-Fi, the Sony A series, S series and E series, the Archos 605 Wi-Fi and Archos 5 (with optional plug-in), the Sony PSP and PlayStation 3, the Nintendo Wii, Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones and Nokia's XpressMusic handsets, the Logitech Squeezebox systems and the Sonos streamers.
Upgrading your library to iTunes Plus
As all your previous iTunes downloads are now available in DRM-free format (or will be within the next few weeks), Apple lets you upgrade them — at a cost. It'll cost you 50 cents per song, or 30 per cent of the cost of the album, which is usually around AU$16.99 a pop. Music video upgrades are AU$1.
Our gripe with this is not just about the cost; unfortunately, Apple doesn't let you choose which songs you upgrade — you either upgrade it all, or not at all.
If you do upgrade, however, your new DRM-free songs have twice the audio quality of the originals, and replace the originals within your library. Any playlists they appear in, or any ratings you've given them, remain unchanged. Whatever you think about the cost issue, you can't argue with the simplicity.
The final word
In the iTunes catalogue, 80 per cent of the music is DRM-free already, and you'll probably find that very little of what you search for remains in the old DRMed format. At the time of writing, 90 out of the top 100 songs on iTunes are in iTunes Plus format.
You can tell which songs are in iTunes Plus by looking for a little plus symbol next to each song in search listings. Or look above the "Buy Album" button at the top of an album's page for the words "iTunes Plus".