Who Wins the Free Radio Battle? A Spotify Fan Checks Out Rdio

Posted by | November 30, 2011 | Apps | No Comments

I love Spotify. In my opinion it’s just about the best thing to happen to radio in my lifetime. I use it more than Pandora, more than Last.fm, even more than Grooveshark.

So what happens when this loyal Spotify user finally agrees to cross over and take a look at Rdio? Read on to find out.

Checking Out the Competition

I had the privilege of checking out Spotify for the first time far before it came to the United States. I had a buddy in the UK sign me up for a free account and I was able to use the service for two weeks in “vacation mode,” after which the service would cease if you continued to use it in a location where it wasn’t supported. From the minute I first opened the app, I was hooked. It was everything I’ve ever dreamed that radio could be. When it finally came to hit the U.S., I published an article telling everyone to go sign up as soon as possible.

The responses that I’ve received from that article are largely directed towards what is perhaps Spotify’s most significant competitor: Rdio. They offer a very similar service that lets you listen to whatever you want whenever you want. However, I was quick to point out to Rdio fans that there wasn’t a free account. There’s a long list of things I don’t mind paying for, but radio is not one of them, especially when Spotify is such a worthy free alternative.

The folks at Rdio seem to have realized that Spotify poses a significant threat and have decided to let you use the service without paying a cent. In fact, they go one step further than Spotify and even offer free users 100% commercial free music.

Sound to good to be true? It is, there’s a big catch that we’ll get to later, but in the mean time, let’s jump in and see what this Spotify fan thinks of Rdio. There is of course a web application for Rdio but today we’ll be checking out the Mac app.

Rdio Jump Start

As I open Rdio, for the first time, I’m not sure what to expect. I hadn’t done too much research because I wanted the experience to be fresh and honest. Spotify has a nice, dark iTunes-like interface that I really like so I was ready to be disappointed with whatever Rdio had to serve up. Before the main interface launched though I was greeted with this window:

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Rdio Welcome Screen

The stuff on the left is pretty basic, you can use your Mac’s keyboard to control the app and you can rest assured that the full Rdio web experience is present in the Mac app.

The item on the right though was much more interesting. In a few quick clicks, I was able to tell Rdio to look at my iTunes library and automatically add the music on my computer to my Rdio collection. It wasn’t able to match my entire library, but it did impress me by finding and adding over 1,800 songs.

Understanding what this means is important. Spotify has a feature that looks at my iTunes library and allows me to play it locally, thereby saving me from opening iTunes. But I still get ads, even in my own music, and again, this is a local feature. With Rdio though I suddenly, without any work, have access to a healthy chunk of my personal music library from anywhere that I have an Internet connection. Eat your heart out iTunes match.

This impressed me right away. Maybe Rdio will give Spotify a run for its money as my favorite music service.

Using Rdio

After getting a huge head start on my Rdio collection, it was time to check out the main interface. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The design is fairly unique (not a Spotify ripoff in the least) and super attractive. It sort of looks like iTunes thrown on top of the Rdio web interface (in a good way).

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The Rdio Dashboard

I’m not a huge fan of sticking web pages into a frame and calling it a native app, but I’ll make an exception here as the experience is very smooth and enjoyable. The Dashboard is your homepage, where you can keep an eye on what your friends have been listening to, look in on your queue and view your history.

Searching and Browsing

The first thing you’re going to do on a service like this is search for music to listen to, so the features for this represent an important aspect of the service for me.

As it turns out, Rdio nails music search better than either iTunes or Spotify. When you start to type, the results are instant and appear in this friendly pop up categorized by artists, albums, etc. Hitting enter brings you to a page that’s similarly organized.

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Searching

Unfortunately, the same praise can’t really be given for browsing music. Clicking on the “Browse Music” tab gives you great options for looking around the new release, recommendations and popular sections, but that’s all you get.

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Browsing Music

Neither Spotify nor Rdio give me the ability that iTunes does to simply look around within a given genre. This seems like a pretty basic feature for browsing music and I’m not sure how these guys miss it. However, if I had to compare the two, Rdio comes out on top for both searching and browsing.

Listening

In my own testing, the Rdio library doesn’t quite seem up to par with Spotify, but it’s still quite exhaustive and you’re perfectly likely to come to the opposite opinion depending on the obscurity of your tastes.

Listening to music with Rdio is a pretty standard experience. The quality is just fine to a non-audiophile’s ears and you have all the options you need to build playlists and queues to your heart’s content.

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Listening

For each song you have the option to share, buy, add to your collection, throw in a playlist, or sync to your mobile device (premium accounts only).

No matter what window size you prefer, Rdio has you covered. There’s a Lion full screen mode, the standard windowed mode and even a clone of the iTunes mini player.

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Rdio Mini Player

Wait, Is This Really Free?

So to review, Rdio is nearly as good as Spotify in some areas and flat out better in others. The service is stellar, the Mac app is beautiful and functional, it’s a great package. To sweeten the deal, it’s ad free. For those that haven’t tried Spotify, the frequent multi-ad breaks on the free plan can be brutal.

So should you from drop Spotify right now and run to Rdio to sign up for your free account? Further, with such an awesome free plan, how will Rdio make enough money to break even, much less turn a profit?

It turns out that Rdio isn’t very enthusiastic about talking about how the free plan works. I had to dig around quite a bit just to figure it out on a basic level and I still have some unanswered questions.

For starters, your free access is limited to a certain number of streams. How many you ask? They don’t say, but they do give you a meter that sits in the top right of your app that shows how much free music you have left.

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The Free Music Meter

I listened for a long time before that meter moved even a little bit, but I still couldn’t help but wonder what happens when it runs out. Does it fill up again the following month? The Rdio documentation is quite scarce on the subject. They simply love to tell you that it’s free and don’t care to elaborate.

I found the solution by going back through the sign up process. There’s a single sentence on the sign up screen that seems to hold the answer.

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A generous number of streams per month for a limited time

Here we find the key to the entire quandary of the Rdio free plan. First of all, the statement implies that your limit is in fact monthly, which is great because that means I didn’t come close to hitting my limit before getting a fresh month’s worth of streams. More importantly however is the most significant piece of information you can find on the subject: for a limited time.

This leaves Rdio the right to revoke this amazing free service at any time. You sign up, get hooked, accept the monthly limit in light of the ad-free listening, then one day it all goes away and they start asking for your credit card number.

Sounds sleazy doesn’t it? Spotify fans can’t point the finger though, because Spotify is following the same strategy. The free unlimited streaming at Spotify is only for a limited time, they eventually plan on throwing a cap on your monthly streams like they’ve already done with the UK.

Of course if you don’t mind a monthly subscription, this is all moot. The two services offer very similar paid plans so you should pretty much just try each out on the free plan while you still can and decide which you like better.

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Premium Plans: Rdio vs. Spotify

Rdio vs. Spotify: Who Wins the Free Plan Battle?

This is a complicated question. From a pure app standpoint, I’d say that they’re pretty evenly matched. There are a lot of things that I like about the Rdio app better than Spotify app, and vice versa. I definitely can’t help but admit though that Rdio wins on both searching and browsing, which are key to the listening experience.

As a service too, it’s a close call. Both have enormous libraries of music that you can listen to with complete freedom. Last I checked, Spotify wins the most tracks prize (and performs better in my own tests). However, Rdio does have the awesome feature that allows you to listen to a good chunk of your local music from anywhere. It’s a simple idea but it saves you a ton of time that you would be spent manually making playlists on Spotify.

I’m completely blown away by how many times during this article that I’ve been forced to admit that Rdio has the upper hand in a given area. It’s an amazing service and I’ve been using it like crazy lately. In the short run, there’s a strong argument for using it instead of Spotify, the leading logic being the lack of ads. Listening cap or no, you can’t beat ad-free listening.

“Just like a presidential candidate making promises he’ll never be able to keep, Spotify and Rdio are giving us a glimpse at a utopian world of radio that will never truly exist.”

However, in the long run, I say this one is impossible to call at this point. The reason I say this is that both services are effectively in campaign mode. Just like a presidential candidate making promises he’ll never be able to keep, Spotify and Rdio are giving us a glimpse at a utopian world of radio that will never truly exist.

Sure, Spotify gives me unlimited, ad-supported free streaming, but who knows when they’ll decide to cap that and how many streams they’ll give me? On the other hand, Rdio already caps the free plan but they still give me a ton of free streams and go for the kill with ad-free listening. If you read the fine print though you see that this is only for a limited time. Once that time is up, I’ll likely end up right back at Spotify where I started.

What Do You Think?

Let’s keep the discussion here limited to the free plans since that’s really the focus of the article (the services are pretty closely matched on the paid plans). I’d love to hear what you think of Spotify’s free plan versus that of Rdio. Will Spotify impose a cap soon and if so, how much? Is the Rdio free plan worth using instead of Spotify in the short run? If so, what happens in the long run?

I’m anxious to hear your answers to these questions so be sure to chime into the conversation by leaving a comment below.