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Silver Linings – a Review of Rdio

This review has been a longtime in the works for a few key reasons, each fairly central to my entire project of evaluating cloud-based media services.  With great dedication, I have probably logged about 75% of my music listening over the past 2-3 months on Rdio.  This left plenty of time to form many opinions about Rdio itself (detailed below) but having access to a large library in the cloud changed my listening habits and gave me a new perspective on the experience of “the cloud.”

To begin with, I signed up for Rdio’s Unlimited Plan ($9.99/mo.) and started integrating it into my daily music listening routine (detailed more here http://bit.ly/m8hHco).  After installing it on my home PC where all my music is stored, it offered to scan my iTunes library and match my songs to those in its cloud database (sweet!).  It probably found about 75% of the songs in their library, which instantly makes them playable from any of Rdio’s apps anywhere.  My iTunes was officially in the cloud!  However, the other 25% of my music collection that were not in Rdio’s 10 million track are inaccessible via Rdio, as there is no way to upload your own music into their system.

Rdio’s Apps

Rdio makes and supports incredible applications, and this will prove a great asset against its competitors. Rdio’s library is accessible from any web browser supporting Flash or through any of their VERY slick dedicated applications (PC, OS X, iOS, android, WP7, Blackberry, Sonos, Roku).  To get access on your mobile device, you will need to pony up for the Unlimited plan at $9/mo. I’ve tried many of them across my iPhone, PC and iMac and always came away impressed.  The apps are fast, easy to navigate, colorful and social throughout.  For comparison’s sake, on each of these points, Spotify’s app falls totally flat.

Rdio’s Social

During the signup process for Rdio, users are promoted to follow both official brands using the service and their friends/contacts from various other networks.  The brands are a great selection of mainstream media outlets, record labels and smaller publications, and I had no trouble finding some worth following.  As those I am following play music on the service or create new playlists, that activity is logged into an activity stream (which I’ll be honest I never really looked at much).  However, the social activity is compiled by Rdio to make a Heavy Rotation section within each app.  This shows off the most listened to albums from my network as well as Rdio at-large and proved to be a very effective way to discover new music.  This contributed to me listening to a lot of new music during my time with Rdio in a way that I wasn’t accustomed to.


Rdio’s Mobile

As I detailed in my original post on my listening habits, I listen to most music on my iPhone while underground riding the subway.  This makes the cloud a tricky proposition as I am usually jamming tunes without any connection to the interwebs.  Rdio’s way around this is to allow wireless pushing of songs, albums and playlists to a user’s mobile device.  Either within the iPhone app itself, or on any of the other applications, users are given the option to “Sync to Mobile.”  When this is done, that song, album or playlist is pushed onto the user’s mobile device for streaming when no connection is available.  One of the greatest “wow!” moments I’ve had with Rdio was reading about an album while at work, syncing that album to my iphone and that same day playing that album on my commute home.  In a world like that, why would I ever open iTunes again?

Rdio’s Playlists


Building on the Social and Mobile points above, another great wow moment can now be explained.  Playlists on Rdio are inherently social and integrated into the entire experience.  They can be shared, searched for, collaborated on by groups of users, etc… from right within the applications.  (Again for contrast, Spotify allows easy playlist sharing with your facebook friends.)  That is all well and good, but it pales in comparison to the next trick up Rdio’s sleeve.  When a playlist is synced to your mobile device, that playlist will push every song onto your device.  Should that playlist change, then the changes are also pushed to your device.  This allows for dynamic shared playlists like “Top 200 iTunes this Week” “Billboard Top 100” with other users diligently keeping these up to date for all us subscribers’ benefit.  While Spotify allows for a similar playlist subscription, it is again limited to your Facebook friends.  By making the playlist database public and open, this presents an excellent end-user experience along with a great new way to “publish” a playlist that anyone and everyone can listen to right away.  Also, the community-built 80s and 90s playlists are a totally sweet.

Is Rdio an on-demand radio?

In various scenarios, I tried to use my 3G connection to stream songs from Rdio and the experience came out about as I had expected, totally meh.  At times while walking around Brooklyn and Manhattan, I’ve been able to stream songs without much issue.  Other times, I seem to lose the connection from block to block.  Heading out in a car, I was never able to successfully grab a consistent enough signal to make the on the go streaming experience worth the effort.  Of course, AT&T is my provider and their coverage and network performance is driving this.  As such, my experience streaming with Rdio mirrors that of the majority of other mobile cloud-based media apps.  Just a note that with our country’s current network, on-demand streaming while on the go is inching closer to reality but still needs to make progress.

Rdio’s Impact

As I mentioned opening this post, using Rdio so diligently for a few months has altered the way in which I listen to music in a significant manner.  This is not necessarily due to Rdio itself (though the Heavy Rotation feature definitely did help), but rather was mostly due to having unlimited access to a music library in the sky (Rhapsody, Zune Music, Spotify, and Grooveshark all do roughly the same).  Before I had such access, I had a certain flow of music listening that went as follows:

1. Hear about an album

2. Acquire album

3. Likely wait a while (maybe lose interest), dreading an iTunes sync

4. Endure a painfully slow sync to my iPhone

5. Play album for a few weeks

6. Rate 4 or 5 stars the songs I like

7. Remove non-4 or 5 star songs from iPhone

8. Repeat and move on

Looking back, this model of consumption is entirely driven by the process of getting music onto my player, which has limited memory space.  I call this the tradeoff audition mode.  While I did want to check out this new album and enjoy it, I knew it was taking up space on my crowded 32GB iPhone that would eventually be needed.  Once I had removed an album from my iPhone, it was incredibly rare that I would dig it out of my library again and queue it up for another slow iTunes sync.  Once it was gone, it was really gone.

With Rdio, my process mutated quite a bit.  The cost of putting 1 album on my iPhone via iTunes is about 50 minutes of clearing a bit of space and waiting around for iTunes to finish syncing.  The cost of putting one album on my iPhone via Rdio is one click.  The decreased cost meant I was actively seeking out many more new albums to check out, but was also not so weary of removing them as I would always have them in my history on Rdio.  The pains of performing an iTunes sync also meant that in the past I would get a CD, procrastinate due to a hatred of iTunes syncing, and then lose interest and possibly never listen to the album.  With Rdio, the same day I think “hey, i should check out that album” I can be on the train playing the entire thing.  This process is all about listening and consuming the music itself.  In many ways, the greatest strength of Rdio and services like it, is that nothing stands between you and the music.

The short message here is clear, iTunes is getting in the way of music in a major way.