To call Rdio's latest beta a complete overhaul might be a bit of a misnomer. The feature set is largely the same, even if the design has gotten a facelift. However, seeing as the music streaming wars are heating up, it seems like a perfect time to take a second look at the service that always seems to play second fiddle to the behemoth that is Spotify.
Update: This version of the app is now live.
For the uninitiated, Rdio (ar-dee-oh) is a music streaming service with both web and Android-based applications. New users can get a limited amount of free music via the site. Pricing starts at $5 for unlimited browser-based listening. $10/month unlocks mobile streaming as well. If you want to share Rdio with your family, you can get discounts on multiple accounts for extra users, which is a point that will matter in a bit. First, though...
A Word On The UI
This isn't the dramatic upheaval one might have expected, but the changes are certainly nice. The biggest change is the new sidebar. In case you've been sitting out UX trends over the last few months, the slide-out side navigation is a growing trend that, frankly, the more I see, the more I like. Like Spotify and Facebook Messenger (but curiously, not Facebook itself), you can slide the panel out with a gesture. Most options in the app are available here.
The one thing that is inconsistent though, and in somewhat of a bothersome way, is the Now Playing screen. This one section of the app is the place you'll need to visit the most, so it makes sense to have it be permanently accessible. The way Rdio does this is with a drawer-like panel that slides up from the bottom. Curiously, if you've been with Android for a while, you might expect to be able to pull this up with a gesture. Oddly, you can't. You can only do so with a button that conveniently points up to indicate an action can be taken.
Makes perfect sense. Kind of. Eventually.
When you're in the Now Playing panel, you can't pull out the sidebar. Additionally, you can tap on the playlist button and the album art will slide to the right to reveal your queue, coming from the same direction you'd expect the sidebar to slide out from.The design language is a little odd; psychologically, it feels like entirely different options are occupying the same space. Once you get used to the "drawer," it makes sense, but you never quite shake the feeling that you should be able to do all of this with gestures.
Where Rdio has the UI advantage, though, is that it seems to be one of the unnervingly few apps that supports the notification playback widget. Pause and next track options are available, but that's about it. Unfortunately, the homescreen widget is similarly limited. There's enough real estate here for at least a last-track button. Still, it's better than nothing. Really, it's secondary to the main thrust of the service. The question is, how does it stack up to others like it?
Can Rdio Kill The Spotify Star?
I'm going to put any bugs I've found in a separate section in a bit. For right now, I'm going to focus on features, and here's the short of it: if music discovery is a major factor in your decision on which service to use, Rdio may not be for you. There are a few options for finding music that everyone else is listening to, but those are severely limited. Things like "Heavy Rotation" and "Top Charts," which are both very ambiguously named. You can add people to your friends list and you'll get a feed of the songs your friends are listening to. The usefulness of this really depends on how good y our friends' taste in music is. And how willing they are to share. For myself, I only have two friends who use Rdio to begin with, so it's a little sparse.
Managing collections is nice, though. You can add whole albums, create playlists, and sort your collection by just about any metric you'd like. For someone like me, this works out nicely as I sometimes listen to entire albums or pre-made playlists straight. However, I'm also in the minority of users. Many people prefer to pick a style and let the radio/app take it from there. In Rdio's case, you likely won't get much help. In a music streaming world, lacking good discovery can be a death sentence.
Where Rdio takes the lead, however, is with novel features like Remote Control. As I mentioned when the beta first came out, this thing kinda takes the cake in terms of awesome features. When you start playing a song on your desktop, any mobile device running the app immediately becomes a remote control. Play, pause, next and last track. You can even search for a track on your phone and play it via another device. This works in all directions. Control your desktop with your tablet, control your phone from your desktop, even control your tablet from your phone, they all work. All you have to do is press the big blue "Play Here" button.
It's certainly a welcome addition. Most services will simply kill playback on one device if you start listening on another. This actually turns that limitation into a feature. It's a very consumer-friendly decision. For the most part it works great, though there are a few bugs. Which reminds me, we were supposed to talk about those, weren't we?
With The Beta Comes The Bugs
As I said, this is a beta. Bugs are expected, so it's certainly not fair to criticize a new app for having them. That being said, if you're thinking about trying out the beta, be warned, there are a lot of them. For starters, while the Remote Control feature is great, it still needs some work. In theory, when one app takes control of a song, it should start up right at the spot you were just listening to. I say "in theory" because, while this did work once or twice, more often I would find that if, say, I pressed "Play Here" on my phone, more often the app would start playing the last song I was playing on my phone, not the one currently playing on the desktop.
The bugs didn't end there. Once, while I was riding in a car, I tried to stream songs from an album I was also trying to sync to my phone. Under the best of circumstances, I don't expect this to go very well. I am on Sprint, after all. However, the app ground to a complete halt. It force closed multiple times and, when it restarted, navigation was nearly impossible. Oddly, playback didn't stop.
There was no shortage of other bugs. A force close here, a skipped track there. At one point, for some reason, the menu options that are available when tapping the "+" button on a track or album were duplicated. Clearly there is still some work to be done across the board. For some things, the beta is usable. If you want to download an album or playlist for local playback, and then listen to it in offline mode, for example, that works just fine. However, the full experience still isn't quite finished.
At this point, the competition couldn't be fiercer for music subscription services. As we've mentioned before, Xbox Music is coming out soon, and with Spotify and its difficult-to-beat desktop client and much-improved mobile experience becoming ever more popular, Rdio has to bring its A-game. This beta is a step in the right direction. Better music discovery would be welcome, and while the sidebar navigation is a much better arrangement than the previous version, certain elements of the UI could use some polish. However, in broad strokes, Rdio hits a lot of the right notes. It uses Android's built-in capabilities very intelligently.
Unfortunately, for streaming services like this, features like notification controls are easy to implement, while something like music discovery is much harder. Rdio has a good foundation, and the overhaul is a nice change. However, Spotify, MOG, or any of the other apps out there are an update away from implementing comparable features. Hopefully Rdio can keep up the improvement trend.
Still, unless you're feeling adventurous, I'd suggest waiting for the beta tag to be removed.