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. 

iTunes Controllers

With Sophiestication taking heat over Coversutra 2.5 a lot of suggestions of other iTunes controllers have been popping up. I’ve tried out the following:

  • Bowtie
  • Tracks
  • TunesArt

All three of these are good iTunes controllers, but here’s why I’m sticking with Coversutra.

Coversutra lets me use shortcuts for rating music a specific star rating.

coversutra25ratingsshortcuts

None of these, with the exception of TunesArt, lets me do this.

You can increase and decrease ratings through shortcuts. Here are the shortcut preferences for Bowtie 1.3:

bowtieshortcuts

But increase/decrease ratings shortcuts don’t feel right to me. You need to think about too many things. What is the current rating of the track? What is it now that I’ve hit that shortcut 2 times? Did it stick? Is there a bezel or something that pops up to confirm my rating?

I’d rather hit a shortcut to rate something a specific number of stars than to have to think about that stuff.

That said, if that stuff isn’t important to you then I highly recommend Bowtie.

So why Coversutra over TunesArt? I just think Coversutra looks nicer.

Short Review of Coversutra 2.5

I’ve been using Coversutra since 2.0. 2.5 is an OK update. Some visual differences in this version. The text in the controller window looks heavier.

Screen shot 2011-01-06 at 3.17.15 PM.png

The option to use Growl for track notifications has been removed. I kind of miss them, but I’ll probably get used to their absence. It kind of makes sense to completely remove them if you don’t want to get distracted so much. For now I disabled track notifications, thinking that if I want to see what’s playing I can just look at the album artwork on the desktop.

Man, that desktop artwork is big.

Screen shot 2011-01-06 at 3.16.16 PM.png

No big new features. I can only think of two features I’d like to see.

  1. Let me skip to the next album without having to show iTunes
  2. Let me hit that Genius button without having to show iTunes

After poking around in the iTunes Applescript dictionary I’m not sure if it’s possible to do that.

Coversutra is App Store only now. Some people are getting their panties in a bunch since they expected free upgrades until version 3 (it said it right in the Coversutra preferences). I don’t think charging the $5 for 2.5 is a big deal, but that’s just me. I can see how it’s not the price, but the principle.

Still, Coversutra 2 was released like 2 years ago. I got my license from a Macheist. With the Mac App Store it’s clear that the game has changed. It’s only $5.

Coversutra is still my favorite iTunes controller.

EDIT: Be aware of some shortcomings with manually managed iPods and iOS devices. If you play your music off a manually managed iPod or listen to music with your iPhone / iPod Touch as a source, Coversutra will not update ratings. Ratings are reflected in Coversutra, but not in iTunes.

Ecoute 2 Teaser

PixiApps has a teaser for Ecoute 2.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the first day of the Mac App store. Their projects page lists it at 98% done.


EDIT: There’s a brief preview of Ecoute 2’s Social Preferences UI on Daily Motion. You can share with Facebook, Twitter, and scrobble to Last.fm. Not sure I would have picked the Silent Hill music to go with it, but I sure like this guy’s taste in music.

Things was never really a GTD app

People like Shawn Blanc and Ben Brooks are abandoning the todo app Things because of its lack of over the air syncing.

Ben Brooks:

…I think you are throwing away good money if you buy Things at this point. The development has stalled and seems hell bent on only releasing bug fixes. OTA sync should have been done over a year ago — I just can’t recommend this app anymore.

Things is a beautifully designed application that was never really a good GTD app. That’s where Omnifocus really shines. Omnifocus isn’t as pretty as Things, but it has contexts, someday-maybes, all of these features that are essential for those that follow David Allen’s methods.

I don’t recall Things having any waiting contexts and someday/maybes, but it’s been a year or so since I last tried it. How do you do a weekly review in Things? Omnifocus has a whole mode dedicated to letting you sleep well at night having a better weekend.

What did Things have? Tags. Tags are ok for sites like Delicious and Last.fm, but for a todo app? It’s just another thing to manage.

The Indie Mac Gift Pack

I would get it just for Marsedit, Acorn, and Sound Studio.

I also like how they head the Macheist debate off at the pass.

Q: Hey… you’re ripping these developers off, aren’t you?
A: No… we ARE these developers. There’s no middleman here: we’re six friends who own our own independent Mac companies, and we decided we’d band together and do this promotion and see if it works for us. We’re splitting all the loot between us, even-stevens. Now it’s up to you!

Angry Birds Plush Toys

Angrybird

Might be a nice idea for my brother, but he wants airplane shirts or something.

He’s been getting obsessive about Angry Birds since I showed him it on my iPhone. Since he has a Droid he’s got the complete ad-supported game. I’m still on the Lite version.

But the ads, if you don’t know they’re coming, feel like Android notifications – especially ones that are like “Your Battery Is Almost Dead.”

Feels like a dark pattern.

Is Songbird A Viable iTunes Alternative?

No.

Just looking at it you know it’s a ripoff of iTunes. It doesn’t offer anything over iTunes with the exception of a built-in browser and 7digital built in, not stuff that’s a huge leap over iTunes.

Songbird is a good example of what’s wrong with some open-source software. It just waits for some bigger company to break the trail and then does it the freetard way.

The Story of Cosmic Machine, Eventbox, and Socialite

Milen, one of the founders of The Cosmic Machine, writes about the beginning phases of Twitter/Facebook software Eventbox, its acquisition by RealMac Software, and its rebranding to Socialite.

I looked at Socialite earlier this year. Reading that post today I think some of the things I wrote were unfair. Many of those shortcut problems have been resolved. You can also read Facebook comments in the all events view (but not the HUD, which is what I like). Still, Socialite feels too, I don’t know – heavy, but if you wish you had Twitterrific for Facebook then Socialite is your best option on the Mac.

Realmac wrote that they want to have Socialite 2 out before the end of 2010, so maybe things will be different soon.

Boxer – A DOS Emulator For Your Mac

If you want to catch up on tons of old DOS games on your Mac this is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

Boxer plays MS-DOS games on your Mac. It’s based on the robust DOSBox emulator, with a lot of magic sprinkled on top.

Run DOS programs from Finder. Wrap your games into tidy gameboxes that launch like Mac apps. Painlessly install games from CD—then bundle the CD with your game so you don’t even need it in the drive.

Don’t struggle with mounts and emulation settings; don’t nurse a greedy games database; don’t bang your head against a DOS prompt; just play your games. Boxer takes away the fuss and leaves the fun.

I installed Quake on my Macbook Pro. How weird is THAT?!

I haven’t tried it with gamepads, so I don’t know enough about how well it works with games like Commander Keen, or Out Of This World, or Flashback.

I can’t think of any other DOS games I’d like to play.

Instagram makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah

Instagram makes it easy to put your photos on a bunch of sites at once, but it also makes it easy to apply filters and make your photos look like old Polaroids.

Or ass, depending on how you look at it:

Why the fuck do you need your digital photos to look vintage? You are not decorating the set of some 1970s version of Mad Men. You are not fooling anybody into thinking you are taking polaroids and scanning them before uploading them to twitter. People take these fucking faux-vintage shots of current events, things that happened five minutes ago.

I haven’t tried Instagram yet, but I also wonder why people need to have more than one place to put their photos. My process for photos on the go with Twitterrific is to use Gdzilla to send all my photos to Flickr. I’d much rather have a direct upload to Flickr though.