Rdio vs. Spotify Unpacked: Part 1

A Little History

The music industry, without a doubt, is largely influenced by the digital age. Before online streaming, listening to your favorite tunes while on the go required a walkman and many cassette tapes. Later, a device which spun discs prone to scratches against a laser, although reminiscent of an older generation, awed us. Although many of us found it to be a significantly less stable system as we tried to jog with our CD players while simultaneously holding down the quite useless anti-skip button, it was nonetheless a higher capacity yielding medium than the cassette tape. Then, came MP3 devices with the most notable being the iPod.

In the good old days, with popular content sharing websites like the now-defunct Imeem, or peer-to-peer file sharing and file hosting services such as the similarly defunct LimeWire and MegaUpload, respectively, people were able to share an unlimited amount of music for free without worry of copyright overlords shaking their fists in rage.

Of course, this is all history and one would be hardpressed to discover a site which streams copyrighted music for free that doesn’t have the RIAA or the DOJ closely following in pursuit. Even though the Digital Millenium Copyright Act was passed over a decade ago several years before many of these sites were founded, internet service providers have just now begun complying with this crackdown within the last half decade with countermeasures such as subpoenaing subscribers who download copyrighted content over their internet using peer-to-peer programs. This atmosphere has allowed the advent of digitally restricted music streaming services to flourish.

Rdio Unpacked

When choosing a music streaming service, the general consensus between users on the deciding factor for which service to use is whichever has the most music available, but since Spotify has a music catalog of over 15 million songs and Rdio has 12 million, the difference isn’t too major in that regard. However, the user experience regarding each respective service are very different when placed side-by-side, so here is part one of the breakdown.

Rdio for iPad

Upon launching Rdio for iPad, you’ll see that Rdio has a left-hand sidebar with 7 different tabs to choose from: Heavy Rotation, Activity, Collection, Playlists, New Releases, Top Charts, and Recommended. Heavy Rotation highlights albums and songs frequently listened to or heavily “rotated” within three sub-categories: You, Your Network and Everyone (in the Rdio network). From the jump, Rdio presents a very convenient and aesthetic layout as can be seen below.

The Activity tab shows a stream of music recently listened to within the aforementioned three sub-categories. The Collection tab is where the music you choose to listen to regularly is sent. All you have to do is search for the song or album and tap the small gray checkmark icon near the song and choose Add to Collection. You also have the options of Sync to Mobile, Add to Playlist and Share this Song. The rest of the tabs are self-explanatory by title, but it is fair to note that each subsequent tab, except for Recommended, has different filters.

Viewing your music on Rdio for iPad is fairly smooth. When searching for a song or artist, search results are categorized into Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists (made by other users) and Artist Profiles. After you find the song, you can add the song itself or the entire album to your alphabetically categorized personal collection or to a custom playlist.

When viewing an album or a song alone in an extended view, the tracks appear neatly on the left with the album art on the right. On the bottom of the app are the Pandora-like controls of previous, pause/play and next, and at the top of the app are a repeat option, shuffle and a seek bar.

When not viewing music in an extended view, the album art is snug underneath the seven tabs with the previous, pause and next controls available; a simple tap on the album art will reveal the other controls (as seen in the very first pair of screenshots on the right).

Rdio for Desktop

For the desktop version, Rdio gives users two options: the in-browser experience and a downloadable app experience for Macs and PCs. The only difference between either option is a matter of personal preference as the design for the browser and desktop are identical and not too dissimilar from the iPad version.

I was initially disheartened by Rdio’s choice to not create a completely different interface for its desktop platform which was more friendly to click-and-scroll interaction, but I acknowledge that sometimes with UX, a sense of continuity has a natural feel that places people at ease or at the very least does not confuse them. Still, I would be remiss not to point out that translating iPad user-friendly techniques to a desktop version of an app is, frankly, not very thoughtful.

Rdio for iPhone and Android

Rdio for iPhone and Android share identical interfaces: both show a 3×3 chart of categories from the jump with the seven categories we are familiar with, plus a couple of extras (Queue and History).

It is quite easy to navigate through the music selections, just a few taps on the well-designed icons here and there will get you where you need to go.

Rdio Shortcomings?

My experience with Rdio, despite the random one-time crash with Rdio for iPad, was a great experience overall and there is much to appreciate about the design, to say the least. However, the bulk of my reservations come from the strange lack of creativity in the iPad and Desktop interfaces. The somewhat subtle absence of certain features in the UI for these platforms might leave a more UX-oriented person wanting.

After downloading Rdio, the first thing you will notice is the icon and, as we all know, icons are key. Rdio’s design of the icon logo is fairly standard: round edges and recognizable logo, but on my iPad’s retina display, the icon seemed far too 2-dimensional compared to the Spotify and iTunes icons; there are no layers, no shadow or shading of any kind. It’s just as flat as the Pandora and SoundCloud icons.

Also, consider the steel-gray nature of the iPad application and the stark white of the desktop’s. Perhaps you are the kind of person who likes to change the color of your music player, but there is no point in attempting to change the color scheme of Rdio in the Settings because that is not even an option in the app.

With Rdio for iPad, since the device has a generous touchscreen, it had me wondering, “Why is there not a ‘drag and drop’ feature?” After adding an entire album to your collection, try removing certain tracks you don’t like. What you will find is that there is no “Select All” option, meaning you would have to choose each track to remove in a sequential order. For users who have tons of music, and because the Collection tab in Rdio is the only other source of playing custom music besides the Playlists tab, there should at least be an alternative to tapping gray checkmarks repeatedly.

Additionally, I discovered Rdio’s Activity tab to be rather useless as I was unable to add my social networks from the iPad app. I was able to connect my Twitter, Facebook and Gmail via the Rdio desktop feature; however, only seven people were registered, two of which were celebrities I had met and connected with in the past, and neither were online nor was my Activity feed updated with any music they might have listened to recently. Whatever the case may be for this unfortunate development, I believe Rdio has to step up their marketing tactics to create a more fun listener environment as well as adjust the Activity feature for the Rdio mobile app.

Lastly, Rdio’s “Play Station” feature leaves much to be desired. Although I think the option of playing all collected songs in a singular playlist is an important feature to many, dubbing it a “station” is politically incorrect and a mean swindle. So, no, Rdio doesn’t have the option of creating stations of music similar to your favorite tracks, it can only play all your songs in a shuffled manner. These are small UI/UX nuances that, although I hope Rdio gets to address soon, will not necessarily affect many users’ overall quality of experience too greatly, especially since, as far as streaming and connectivity is concerned, everything plays perfectly and, if you’re a true music lover, the subscription fee of $10 per month shouldn’t be a big deal. Try Rdio out today and you can experience it unlimited for 7 days.

Tomorrow Monday, in Rdio vs. Spotify Unpacked: Part 2, I will discuss Spotify.

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The State of Design Leadership

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions