Battle of the streaming apps: Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify

I don’t buy CDs anymore. As a music junkie, unlimited streaming subscription is the utopia I always dreamed of, well worth a monthly fee. Now that technology allows for mobile streaming too, there’s no more reason to save those money: we want music on the road. The streaming app is pretty much the most used app on my iPhone, so I care about accurate selection (high MAO, marketing students!). Here are my feelings after a good couple weeks of testing and switching between Rdio, Spotify and Rhapsody.
I did not take into account the catalogue dimension for 2 reasons. First, good or bad catalogue kind of depends on individual tastes, and who cares about an immense catalogue of crappy music. Secondly, an extensive catalogue is important as companies have to market aggressively in this untapped space, but I truly believe most services will reach an acceptable catalogue in the next year, therefore making this feature less important. Whoever wants to be the dominant streaming service in 5 years must work on one feature above all: the mobile app. And the following descriptions refer to the respective mobile apps, unless otherwise specified.


Rdio

  • Design: spaces are good, but maybe Rdio took it too far. As you start the app for the first time, you see a huge blank space at the bottom. Looks like someone stole the menu! In fact, when you start playing songs, it becomes your status/player bar. But still, I would have enlarged the icons instead, and make the player bar a floating menu (iPod style: you have to tap to see it). I really like the web design, work of this guy who just delivered them a mac app equally nice. Rdio has probably the best desktop version ever for a music service. But the app has issues.
  • Usability: again, the experience is not targeted to the new users. As you tap on the first of 9 items (Collections) you find yourself in the vacuum of a “No Songs”, without a hint to fill it. Second item: Playlists. Again, no Playlists. Next: Web Queue (a very cryptic name… descriptions help). An empty chart. And so on until you get to the last row of icons with the charts and suggested releases. That was hard. In any digital product with UGC (and music collections and playlist are UGC for me) you need at least some hints, some pre-filling to improve usability and, if you have a freemium model, premium user acquisition. On the other hand, the usability of the player is pretty good (copycat of the iPod style) and the search is fast and neat. I love that it automatically search for every field (artist, song, album or even other users) although the thumbnails are definitely too small and the menu has a grey, empty feeling. The bundles are a good idea though: they limit frustrating, extensive scrolling in particularly rich results (although they remind me of iTunes). I don’t like the idea of building a “Collection” alongside the general premium catalogue. It is a remnant of an dying era: when we used to buy mp3. You just create another category which is pretty much useless. and sometimes creates more problems, like being able to add entire albums to the collection but not to a playlist. Anyway, Rdio, if you want to keep the collection page please design it like the “Heavy Rotation” page (which has beautiful, squared previews like Instagram). I also really like the “More [Artist]” button that you get at the bottom of every album tracklist. They should add some tweaks like “similar artists” (great occasion to introduce the “Recommended” feature to a new user!) or “play artist radio”.
  • Functionality (i.e. back-end and streaming quality): the app froze a lot on me (which is worse than crashing). After the last update things are better, but still it is the less solid app of the three. I have never tried the synchronization nor the quality of streaming in 3G (with my home wi-fi I still had some lags, so I don’t predict anything too good also judging by their help forum) but there is no option to reduce songs’ bitrate in case of spotty connection. The good thing about Rdio, at least in the web version, is the enhanced social features where you can find and follow friends. Yet, there is no Facebook connect in the app, that means I can manage my entourage only on the desktop. The “activity” button is nicely located in the center, at least!


Rhapsody has the hugest catalogue in the U.S., almost double Rdio’s. But I can’t stand their website. I hate it. It looks like AllMusic.com 5 years ago and if you want to play something you have to deal with that terrible, winamp-style pop-up. I guess this is the problem of being born a mp3 store and trying to reinvent yourself as a music-in-the-cloud website. Anyway, they just updated the mobile app, and I must admit it is really nice:

  • Design/usability: Splash start page is pretty flat but the linear menu is really neat and clear. You have 5 tabs in the bottom to easily perform the main functions (they could save some space like Rdio by deciding to stop selling mp3s). When you are in album view, you have an additional tab menu on the top that easily tells you how can you manipulate and organize music (I just don’t get the last tab, called “more…” that just leads to 1 single (external!) link to iTunes… Why? Is this masochism?). In the old version they had a nasty automatic queuing mode that was a pain. They tried to fix it with the update with a better interface and with immediate tap-play (finally!) but, honestly, it would just be ok if they tossed the overall queue concept. People can add stuff to their Library (what Rdio called “Collection”) if they really want to. I also like the “artist sampler” option, a nice addition to the usual album/songs, but there are bigger problems to fix first, like why automatically switching to queue mode to view the tracklist of an album or being able to see the different artists for each song if it is a compilation.
  • Functionality: the huge problem of Rhapsody is that it takes a lot to load a track, and also to load information in general. They definitely need to improve the database search. Streaming in 3G is acceptable. Expect 1 crash per day with intense usage.
  • Content is pretty solid. Rhapsody has curated playlists and reviews for a lot of music, although they don’t change the staff picks very often. Playlist discovery (limited to 2 charts: “Just Added” and “Top Playlist”) does not work very well (i.e. the usual crappy playlist of a random user who is simply trying to bookmark songs he likes) but I appreciate that they added the feature (weirdly, Spotify lacks it, although 3rd party services compensated this hole - see below).
  • Social. I don’t want to join the Rhapsody community, I am sorry. I want to be able to add my friends. Stop pretending to be a club.



And finally, Spotify.

  • Design: Spotify people worked more on making the app actually work well and on expanding their catalogue rather than making it look good, but I must admit is pretty decent. Lots of people hate the green, so that’s why they tried to chance the colors in the last update (now it has a dominant gloomy light gray, which is ok). The software version did not change in the last year but for the social menu on the right (basically a friend list). The mobile interface is not glamourous, and even after the update looks flatter that the competitors. They actually improved it a lot in the last update with a smooth, vertical screen change (it is incredible all that changes if you just switch a “back” and a “hide” button), but still Rhapsody does a better job, particularly with the player screen.
  • On the other hand, usability is great. Spotify simply sets the standards for every future streaming service. Everything starts from the Playlists, first of 4 tabs clearly marked at the bottom. Your “starred” songs are automatically added to the first (“Starred”) playlist, then you have an Inbox (tracks that friends sent you) and space for your local files (i.e. tracks not available on Spotify that you import once for all in the desktop version and are then seamlessly integrated as they were part of the catalogue). This makes total sense and I don’t understand why the other services are not copying it. In Spotify, your playlists are your library. A playlist  is often simply a whole album that you like a lot and you want to hold there.  You can even organize them in folders, something that the iPod took away from us (unfortunately the folders pop out on mobile… lots of scrolling for me!). You can search inside the playlist, which is nice, and as everybody else you can download those you want to be available offline. iPod synch used to work but not anymore, and I can see that they are leaving that feature behind for a reason: when the world will start to use music in the cloud instead of in their hard disk, Spotify’s offine playlists will be your iPod. A usability glitch that hasn’t been fixed yet is the shuffle button, which is kind of hidden in the song information and if you accidentally tap it, good luck in finding your way back there.
  • Functionality: Everybody talks about Spotify even if it is not available in the U.S. (yet) because of its great performance, particularly in the mobile version. It is possible to seamlessly stream music in 3G in high quality if you have a strong signal. If it starts to glitch, it is easy to lower the bitrate from the options right away. In one year of extensive use, I experienced very few crashes and zero freezes. Search is basic, but incredibly fast. It is interesting to see the different concepts of search between Rhapsody and Spotify. The latter assumes that most people will search for Tracks, than Albums, than Artists. In Rhapsody’s app, the order is Artsts-Albums-Tracks (the iPod software features Playlists-Artists-Albums-Songs although you can customize the order). Let’s talk about the bad things before this gets too long (oh, it already is, oops).
  • The main defect of Spotify (apart the fact that is not available in the U.S.!) is the music discovery part. The “What’s new” tab is just embarrassing, both in content and design. Most people are just subscribing to a dynamic playlist by Spotify itself to have a look at the new additions, which is ridiculous. Facebook and twitter connect help a lot if you are in Europe, since you can play and share via the social networks, but there is still no friend browsing available on mobile, no feeds of your friends’s activity like in Rdio and even the desktop app often fails to load “Spotify Social” for some reason.
  • Other minor problems: there is no way to read the full name of a song if it’s more than 20 characters or so (Radio has this problem, too; Rhapsody has a smaller font so most titles actually fit). Why horizontal scrolling is not an option? And, as mentioned above, find a way to discover playlists. I don’t want to go to sharemyplaylists.com all the time.


The battle is over, and although I was positively impressed by Rhapsody I will never switch from Spotify, which is still worth those extra bucks per month. Rdio has some good ideas but has to catch up soon. I did not spend time with MOG. I actually tried it right after the launch and I remember that I hated both the website and the mobile app. I think they improved it a lot recently, particularly in adding content (the “playlist by artist” feature is pretty cool) and the last version of the app is very sophisticated (you can even search for playlists, which is a feature that nobody else has, except that I could not figure out how to add a song to a playlist…). The fact that I don’t like the radio-based discovery approach (i.e. Pandora) probably does not make me the most enthusiastic user. But I’ll give it another chance - when they will decide to offer something more than 7 days free trial. A final thought before the wrap-up table below: of all the major subscription services, despite the recent constraintsSpotify is the only one with a free version. And a powerful one. People are spoiled now, the love free music and they want it. I hope they are not waiting for Godot.


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A general idea of the worldwide popularity of the aforementioned services:

Retrieved Apr 12 2011

And finally some screenshots (Taken from a non-retina display).

Rdio home menu:                                                  Rdio heavy rotation screen          

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Spotify start page / Playlists (green notes are collaborative playlists)

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Spotify playlist navigation/management screen            Spotify’s player

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Rhapsody home screen:                                    Rhapsody’s queue / “New This Week”                

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MOG home screen:                                  MOG’s player:

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MOG’s overwhelming options set:

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