There has been a lot of talk about streaming music services since Spotify launched in the United States last month. The two services I keep hearing about are Spotify and Rdio. Since the idea of unlimited streaming music appeals to me I decided to try an experiment; for one month I paid for Rdio and Spotify premium accounts ($10/month each) allowing me to listen to their entire catalogs on my desktop as well as on my mobile device, in my case an iPhone 4.
I spent two weeks in Los Angeles and two weeks in New York City using the desktop and mobile applications really working these two services as hard as I would work iTunes and my iPod (on iPhone). I have stated that iTunes is the killer app that keeps me in the Apple ecosystem, but as streaming services gain more popularity and have larger collections that might not be true forever.
(You can click on most images for a larger view. This is particularly helpful when I am talking about the mobile applications. -C)
While both services provide all-you-can-eat streaming music the overall concepts of Rdio and Spotify are different. Spotify aims to blur the line between what you are storing locally on your computer and what is streaming over the internet. Spotify will bring all of your local music into its application and from there you can create playlists that include your music as well as anything available on their service. It’s almost like a music library enhancement.
Rdio scans your locally stored music and adds whatever it can to your streaming “collection”. Once your scan is done you can hunt down more music to add to your collection, or remove things that you don’t want. You can always listen to things outside of your collection, but the collection is kind of like your library, it is the stuff that is immediately at your fingertips, and probably the stuff you want to listen too.
You manage a lot of Rdio with the + button. Clicking it allows you to add something to your collection, share with friends, sync to mobile, listen later, add to a playlist… it does everything. The + changes to a check when it moves into your collection and shows a phone icon if it’s synced to mobile. It’s easy to use and very useful.
Desktop - Look and Feel
Everything about Spotify is dark and gray and counterintuitive. On the desktop Spotify is dark gray, light gray and brushed aluminum (more gray). The audio controls are on the bottom of the app, which goes against the standard as decreed by iTunes. The only thing on the top of their application is the search bar. Which tells me that is how they want me to use their service.
It was really easy for Spotify to scan my entire library and show me which songs I have stored locally, which was really nice. After that it works similarly to iTunes. Local tracks are can be sorted alphabetically by artist, song, or album. You can scroll through your local tracks or search for something using the bar at the top. Functional.
I quickly noticed that Spotify has a lot of little icons inline with their songs and I honestly don’t know what they all mean. I tried hovering over them with my mouse but it still didn’t give me any clues. I figured out that the music note on paper means it’s locally stored and the green arrow means it’s a new playlist that (I think) I am syncing to mobile. The fact that I’ve been using the desktop app for more than a month and I still don’t know all of it’s iconography is not good.
Rdio follows the more standard convention of button layout and arrangement. It’s also much cleaner with larger type. It’s really easy to navigate for first-time users. The landing page shows artists that have been in heavy rotation for you/your network (people you follow if you follow anyone… more on that soon). You can browse your collection in a variety of ways: a strange chart of artists frequently listened to, album grid view, or song list. You also have the option to search the Rdio catalogue.
To get down to it, I think Spotify is ugly when I use it I often settle on listening to things I already own. With Rdio I find myself not only listing to things in my collection but also listening to albums I don’t own and using their recommendations to listen to new things. (More about recommendations below.)
Point - Rdio
Desktop - Functionality
Once your library has been scanned (a totally painless process on both services) you can jump in and play the stuff you already own/in your collection or begin the search for new music.
Spotify scanned my library, imported everything I had and allows me to play anything without DRM. Rdio scanned my library and added most of it my collection. Where Rdio runs into trouble is when you own music that isn’t in the Rdio library. Notably I can’t listen to anything by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Anamanaguchi or Ella Riot (possibly my current favorite band).
Rdio also has this problem with exact spelling and grammar. I often find that it will have added an album to my collection but left a song out. Often times it is a song with parenthesis. Rdio left out Platypus (I Hate You) and Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) from Green Day’s 1997 album Nimrod. They were left out because Rdio uses brackets instead of parenthesis and it couldn’t tell the difference. This seems like a minor detail but I noticed several albums that were missing a song or two.
I wish Rdio was smart enough to think “if someone has 90% or even 80% of an album I should just add the whole thing to their collection.” Better, it would be great if Rdio had a “complete my collection” button where, even if you had one song from an album, it would add the whole album to your collection.
One thing that is bothersome in Spotify is duplicate search results. For a service that relies so heavily on their search I often get three or four versions of an album or song when I type it into the search bar. If Spotify displayed its results better it would be a non issue but as it stands I have to click on albums hoping it’s the version I want. Take a look at the search results for Watch The Throne:
Spotify shows four results, explicit and clean versions of both the regular edition and deluxe edition, but there is no way of figuring out which is the one that you want without clicking through.
I’m being nitpicky here but I feel I have to be. Both desktop applications do a great job of sifting through and playing back the music I want to hear but neither are perfect.
Point - Spotify (I just can’t live without the Beatles, Zeppelin, Anamanaguchi or Ella Riot)
I have been paying for eMusic for a few years. The thing that stands out about eMusic is they make it really easy to discover new artists. Spotify has almost no way to discover new artists. The landing page on the desktop application shows a few new albums, but that’s it. There is not a single byte of data farmed from your past searches or current library to taylor this list to you. While it’s a bit liberating, this will not help me find my next favorite band.
Rdio runs deep with music discovery tools. You can follow other users or even publications (like Pitchfork and Paste Magazine) and scan their collection adding pieces of it to your own. You can subscribe to their playlists and if you follow them their heavy rotation will appear in your music feed when you boot up the desktop app. It’s a quick and easy way to discover new things.
There is a button on Rdio labeled “Browse Music.” Aside from showing you the new releases it also displays what is popular on Rdio and recommended albums just for you, based on the music in your collection.
Spotify allows you to subscribe to friends playlists as well but it seems very tacked on. All of the social stuff is linked through Facebook, which is good because Facebook has such a large install base, but bad because it’s clunky and limits my source of possible discovery to friends who use Spotify.
Both desktop applications allow you to share songs via message blast. You can share to Facebook, Twitter or a Spotify/Rdio user. Spotify also adds Windows Messenger (which is huge in Europe) and Rdio adds a direct link. They’re easy enough to use. A right-click on Spotify or a click of the + button in Rdio.
Point - Rdio
Desktop - Playlists
I oscillate between listening to carefully curated playlists and full albums. I am in the playlist phase right now. On Rdio that means manually rebuilding each playlist. It means searching for every song, finding the right one (and sometimes the right version), and adding it to the playlist. It’s tedious. And even more frustrating when I can’t find a song (right now there is a gap on a playlist called Adventures in Winter. Rdio doesn’t have the Decemberists version of Bridges and Balloons).
On Spotify my playlists appeared in the desktop app when it scanned my iTunes library. Spotify doesn’t care that it also doesn’t have the Decemberists version of Bridges and Balloons because I already had it and it just pulled it from my iTunes library and dropped into the playlist all by itself.
On both services you have the option to share your playlists with others. Spotify’s method is limited to Facebook friends also using Spotify while Rdio playlists can be shared and found by anyone on Rdio.
Point - Spotify
Mobile - Storage
Both Rdio and Spotify allow you to store things locally on your phone inside their mobile applications. Since one of these will eventually replace my iPod app I’ve gone ahead and removed the music previously stored on my phone. I am only storing tracks sent to the phone by either Spotify or Rdio.
Rdio makes it extremely easy to send music from the desktop application to the app on my phone. Two clicks and you can send playlists, artists, albums or individual songs to your phone. On the mobile application there is a modified version of their + button and it is just as easy to add things to your local storage over 3G or Wifi.
Spotify’s UI is a little more complicated. You can select playlists to move over or you can star a song or album (just make sure that starred songs are selected for offline play). If you selected tracks that aren’t on the Spotify library then you need to plug your phone into your computer or be on the same wireless network. Still pretty easy, just not as easy as Rdio.
Point - Rdio
Mobile - App
Both Rdio and Spotify have online and offline functionality for mobile. When using it online (over 3G or WiFi) you have access to their entire music catalogues. If you are worried about data overages both applications have an offline mode.
The entire Rdio system suddenly makes way more sense when you are using the mobile app. Since you have either scanned your iTunes library or added music to your ‘collection’ you can see all of your stuff, the stuff you want, immediately. The collection gives you a segmented list (alphabetical by artist) and if something is stored locally it get’s a little mobile icon. If you are looking for something else, then you can search for it, the way you would on the desktop application.
The Rdio mobile app changes colors when you are using it offline. It goes from blue and white to silver and orange. This allows you to immediately know if you are using the offline function.
Spotify, on the other hand, is based on search. When it’s connected to the internet the Spotify app is pretty good. I don’t think the layout is as intuitive as the Rdio or iPod apps, or even SoundHound but it works. Jumping from track to track, and searching for more music is pretty easy and upfront, where you want it to be. What’s even better, and easily Spotify’s strongest asset, is that it will sync tracks you own even if they are not available on the streaming service. It means my playlists remain in tact, (that version of Bridges and Balloons stays in its place) and artists like Anamanaguchi and Ella Riot are seamlessly synced and stored locally.
Spotify Mobile runs into problems when you aren’t connected to the internet. The search function is a broken mess if you don’t have service (like when you are riding the subway in NY or existing anywhere in LA). You can search for something stored locally but it will only sort the results in tracks, not by artist or album. And if you are searching for an album it won’t put the tracks for that album in order.
In navigating through your locally stored tracks you just get a list of songs. This massive list is sorted alphabetical by artist there is no organization beyond that. Albums appear out of order and since there is no letter gates (see Rdio) you will have a tough time knowing where you are in the alphabet. Also, if you select a song when it’s over it will just move to the next song in the random order, not the next song on the album.
If you are offline your best bet is to circumvent the massive locally stored track list by jumping to a playlist. It might not always be what you want to do but unless you’ve memorized track order on an album and want to select each one it’s your best option. Worth noting, if you started an album online, and were listening in order and you moved to offline it will continue to play the tracks in the correct order. But moving to your next album is where you will run into problems.
It’s not all negative for Spotify. There are some really good ideas here, they just only work if you’re connected to the internet. For example if you are listening to a song you can easily jump see more from an artist or see that whole album. Really nice if you are in a playlist. For some reason this only works if you are online. The app actually darkens the option to jump to more songs from that artist or to the album. It’s totally bonkers and it is a hindrance on the mobile app.
Spotify also allows you to share a song on twitter or Facebook from their mobile app. It’s nice to have, but both times I tried posting to twitter it didn’t work, so there are some kinks.
Rdio doesn’t have any of this functionality but you don’t notice. Because Rdio is laid out logically, with an alphabetical gated list (similar to iPod) you don’t need to jump into an artist or album because you can easily find them yourself. I didn’t even notice I couldn’t do it until I was actively looking. It’s a nice feature on Spotify, but I didn’t miss it on Rdio because everything else is so intuitive.
On Rdio you can’t search your locally stored tracks if you are offline. There’s actually a pop up telling you to connect to the internet, which can be a problem sometimes. It wasn’t actually an issue for me, again, since scrolling through your artists is really easy and works like iPod.
I think Rdio is doing some crazy black magic to its streaming music. I’ve been trying to stream as much as possible to really test both of the services. One time I was streaming the album The Resistance by Muse and I walked into the subway. Rdio played the rest of my current song and then the next 2 songs before I got off the subway and was back above ground and back in service. It was amazing. That never happened when I was using to Spotify.
The iPhone’s inline remote functions (single click - play/pause, double click - skip track, and triple click - track back) work with both mobile apps. In both cases, however, the lock screen does not display what song is playing (as it does for iPod), it will only tell me the name of the app that is open. So if you are listening to a friends playlist and something comes on that you are interested in, you have to unlock your phone and go into the app. Not ideal.
Point - Rdio
I live in LA so I spend a lot of time in my car. I firmly believe that the best way to listen to an album is loudly while driving.
I ran in to some streaming hiccups while driving using both services. They happened more often on Spotify, but I don’t totally blame them. I think it’s just an issue that LA and AT&T have to work out, or it’s more of that black magic that Rdio has going on. Most of the time driving and listening to music was fine though.
There is one major thing worth pointing out. I try my best to keep my eyes on the road at all times. I don’t read or send emails or text messages while driving. It’s dangerous and you shouldn’t do it. Equally as dangerous is trying to use Spotify while you’re driving. Since the local storage is poorly organized it means I have to type my searches, keeping my eyes off the road longer than I feel comfortable. Using Rdio I can glance at my screen and sift through my online and offline collection easily.
Point - Rdio (Using Rdio while driving is much safer)
If you leave Rdio alone for a while it won’t remember where you left off listening to a song. This goes for the desktop client as well as streaming and locally stored tracks on the mobile app. It’s really weird.
Lyrics are very important to me. Neither Spotify or Rdio will allow me to see the lyrics of the songs I’m playing. You can do that with the iPod app (it means adding them manually) and it is something that I missed tremendously. Spotify also doesn’t show album art if you are using it offline. Rdio also has a weird problem where some of the album art is really low resolution. Midnight Organ Fight, for example, has really poor quality album art.
It would be great if lyrics and album art were embedded (or could be embedded manually) in the streaming files on both services. So weather you were online or offline you could see lyrics and album art. Just an idea.
Rdio won’t get you podcasts of any kind. If you have subscriptions on iTunes they will show up in your Spotify library and with one click you can send them to a mobile playlist.
You know how Pink Floyd albums tend to blur the line between where tracks begin and end? When you’re listening to a record, tape or CD the transition is seamless. In early versions of iTunes there was a tiny gap between tracks. I don’t know what you call that tiny gap but it’s really annoying.
iTunes was updated in September of 2006 and it introduced gapless playback support both the desktop and on iPods. Unfortunately both Rdio and Spotify still have this gap issue. Rdio solved it on the desktop but Spotify has not. And neither have figured it out on the mobile side of the equation. It feels like I have gone backwards in time, revisiting a problem that only existed for a few years.
Rdio has applications for PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry.
Spotify has applications for PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, WebOS, Symbian, Sonos and Roku.
If you’re following my point system, the score is 5-2 in favor of Rdio. But now that we have all this information together I don’t think you can take stock in the score. Rdio’s mobile application is leaps and bounds better than Spotify’s even though it has less functionality. It works better offline, you can quickly find what you’re looking for, it’s easier sync to mobile and it’s prettier.
But there is something to be said for not losing any of your playlists or any of the music you already own, especially when you own (and regularly listen to) music that isn’t available from either service. I think most people, have a music library on their computer and therefor have a music base already for them. Spotify does a great job of adding to that base, while retaining playlists and all the music you already have.
There are also some inside baseball things that I can’t help but think about. Spotify has been around for years in Europe. They fought to get to the United States. They want to be here and they will likely be around for a long time. Rdio is a relatively new service that launched just last year. I can’t help but think they could vanish any day.
Also Spotify’s mobile app could be on par with Rdio’s with an update. All they need to do is fix their local search and improve their “Local” list. An update to Spotify’s mobile app changes this entire landscape. It doesn’t change the social/discovery part but it makes it’s product package way more appealing.
If Rdio added local syncing (which seems unlikely but that’s just a gut feeling and there is no indication of that coming from their developer blog) their package would feel more whole than Spotify’s.
I know this is a cop out but I don’t actually know which service is better for me. Spotify’s use of my tracks and playlists gives it more functionality but Rdio’s desktop and mobile applications are more user friendly.
At the end of the day, using iTunes and my iPod app is better than Rdio or Spotify. I don’t have access to everything but it’s easier to use the things I want to listen to or already have. I know I spend more than 120 dollars a year on music but not much more, so the it’s more beneficial for me to spend the money on the music I want. I know I shouldn’t have to use the streaming services in conjunction with iTunes but for now that may actually be the best bet for me.
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