Comparing iTunes and Rdio

Disclaimer: I won a 12-month Rdio Unlimited subscription in December 2010

I’ve been using Rdio since the summer of 2010 and have been pretty happy with it. I think within 10 minutes of first using Rdio it became clear to me that music streaming is going to be the next big thing. In fact, I’ve been so reliant on Rdio that on my home computer it seems like I haven’t used iTunes for much other than syncing devices and downloading podcasts.

Rdio is refreshing in a few ways. I don’t have to worry about hard drive storage. There’s no monetary risk in trying out new music. It’s legal. I don’t have to bother tagging music files or fixing other people’s poor metadata.

But when compared to iTunes something feels off in Rdio. I want to touch on two things that I think Rdio is weak in and how I’d like to see Rdio progress.1

Navigation

iTunes offers four ways to browse your library:

  1. List view
  2. List view (with album art)
  3. Grid view
  4. Coverflow

With the exception of list view, iTunes is heavily reliant on album art in its library navigation. The best example of this is grid view, which feels a lot like iPhoto.

iTunes Grid View

This is something that Apple has gotten very right in iTunes. Flicking your fingers across your Mac’s trackpad to scroll through album art in iTunes is reminiscent of browsing through CDs in a music store or your own shelves.

Compare with Rdio:

Rdio Collection Browsing

On your collection page Rdio uses these circles. The size of the circles represent how much you’ve listened to each artist.

On the left you have an artist list that you can sort alphabetically or by collection size. Clicking on an artist lets you drill down into their albums and also shows an alphabetical listing of songs:

Rdio Album Art List

It’s much easier to browse your own collection in iTunes than it is in Rdio.

That demonstrates a fundamental difference between iTunes and Rdio. iTunes is great at displaying your collection, but Rdio is more interested in making digital music a social experience. Rdio’s dashboard shows users what’s been in heavy rotation among the people they follow and what activity those people have taken on the site. The way Rdio is designed puts priority on users discovering music more than browsing through their own collections.

When I write about Rdio’s “perpetual music discovery”2 problem that’s what I’m talking about.

Playback models

Both Rdio and iTunes offer queues, but they’re used in different ways.

The iTunes queue is called iTunes DJ. It used to be called Party Shuffle. Its intended use is for occasions when you might have company over and want to have continuous playback of music. But I’ve found iTunes DJ to be a useful feature just for me. I can hit play on iTunes DJ, fill the queue with music, even define a source for the queue (like a playlist or even a genius mix) and the music just keeps on going and going.

iTunesDJ

The great thing about iTunes DJ is that it’s just a playlist. You can live in iTunes DJ for a while, but you’re free to go to other areas in your library: the entire music section, the playlists you created, streaming radio stations, Genius mixes. It’s your choice. When you come back the queue is the way you expect it. It isn’t the be all and end all of iTunes’s playback.

In Rdio (and other streaming music services) the queue is the be all and end all of playback. It’s the only way to play music.

rdioqueue

You can place all those albums in heavy rotation into your queue. Somebody just synced an album to their mobile phone? Must be a pretty big deal — add it to the queue.

One problem I’ve had is that I add a ton of stuff to the queue because I want to make sure I don’t miss anything good. As I write this sentence I’ve got 159 items in my queue, mostly full albums. If I don’t skip anything I will have gotten through 1755 songs, 7,676 minutes and 29 seconds of stuff.3

An apt description of this may be that the Rdio queue is like Instapaper for music, but I think it’s more like a big vat filled to the brim with music and all I have is a crazy straw.

So I have plenty of stuff to go through. But music doesn’t work like that. What if I want to listen to a specific album right now? That goes into the queue. I can’t go to the album on Rdio and hit play without changing the queue.4

Rdio Stations are a cool way to listen to music that’s by or similar to an artist you like. It’s like iTunes Genius, but better because it’s not limited to your collection of tracks. It’s limited to Rdio’s collection of tracks, which is likely bigger than yours.

But if you listen to an Rdio Station it’s not a separate thing. It also goes into the queue. If you activate iTunes Genius in iTunes you move to the Genius playlist. Your mode has changed and iTunes leaves whatever you were listening to intact. Rdio removes whatever you were listening to and replaces it with whatever you just took action on.

In iTunes I can freely move between tracks, playlists, and albums and things are the way I expect them to be. In Rdio there’s more friction because everything goes into the bucket without as much freedom to move around.

Proposal

I think I like what Spotify did, but since I’m in the United States I haven’t tried Spotify’s service, so I don’t know for sure.

Spotify didn’t develop a web application, but they did develop desktop applications for Windows and OSX. Spotify’s desktop application lets you play your local library alongside the music they offer for streaming.

This solves two problems:

  1. It provides one application for music playback that’s not limited by a licensed catalog.
  2. It gives users a much better experience than what they can currently, and reliably, do on the web.5

I think I’d like to see something that takes iTunes’s excellent library management with streaming and social features. Perhaps Rdio could take a page from applications like Ecoute and Everplay that access the iTunes library and create something new from it. Or maybe their talented users will do this when/if they create an Rdio API.

I think 2011 could be the year streaming music begins to take off. Rhapsody has been making a big marketing push. Rdio seems to be preferred among those who miss Lala.com. Spotify is (always) on the cusp of launching in the United States. And Apple has been building this huge data center that’s gonna get used for SOMETHING (not to mention Ping, which has been lumped into a class of Apple failures, yet I see it more as Apple’s baby steps into bringing together social features and streaming music).

In the meantime I’ll be using Rdio until something better comes along.


  1. There are more, but I think these are the two biggest ones. 

  2. This is something I think that all music streaming services I’ve tried suffer from. They’re so concerned about the social and discovery components that your current library of beloved albums and songs gets neglected

  3. Rdio’s queue becomes difficult to use after it exceeds the height of a page. Scrolling through it gets really slow and rearranging with drag and drops feel weird. It’s similar to when you rearrange your Netflix queue and you have to give it a second to realize you’ve made a selection. Netflix offers a “move to top of queue” button that Rdio should consider adding. 

  4. Rdio’s Secret Hidden Features show some useful keyboard shortcuts including a command similar to iTunes’s “Play Next in iTunes DJ.” You still shift the queue, and I have found the command to be pretty hit or miss–sometimes it works, most times it doesn’t. 

  5. In this piece MarsEdit developer Daniel Jalkut presents an argument against statements like “the future of software is on the web.” If App stores are any indication maybe the future of web software is on the desktop.