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Streaming music showdown: Xbox Music versus the world

Brad Chacos | Nov. 19, 2012
If music soothes the savage breast, then why are so many 800-pound gorillas slugging it out in a battle for your eardrums? Microsoft recently stepped back into the streaming music fray with Xbox Music Pass, a revitalized Zune Pass replacement that's baked right into Windows 8 and Windows RT. It may be pretty and it may be (somewhat) free, but Xbox Music Pass faces stiff competition from a crowd of contenders that includes heavyweights such as Pandora, Rdio, Slacker and Spotify.

Spotify

Spotify's cluttered desktop client doesn't come close to matching Xbox Music Pass's eye candy, but it does deliver an abundance of functionality: Most options are only a click away. The 18 million-strong tune selection is just as large as Microsoft's, and you can fill the gaps by integrating your local music library with the Spotify client.

One area where Spotify outshines Xbox Music Pass is in device support. Spotify doesn't support Windows Phone 8, or have a Windows 8 app yet, but the service is available on every other major mobile and desktop clienteven on Nokia's Symbian platform and a wide array of home theater equipment. The lack of a Web client stings, however.

Listening to Spotify on anything other than a desktop client requires a $10 monthly premium subscription. That subscription includes an audio-quality boost to a best-in-class 320 kbps, which is a vast improvement over the desktop client's 160-kbps standard and matched only by MOG. (Mobile devices have the option of dropping down to 96 kbps to save on cellular data.) On the desktop you can tune in for free and forever if you don't mind hearing frequent ads, or you can pay $5 monthly to scrub the commercials from the PC client.

The service hosts a bevy of third-party apps, including offerings from Billboard Top Charts, Last.fm, Rolling Stone, TuneWiki, and song-discovery services. It's a huge attraction for Spotify. The Last.fm app in particular makes up for Spotify's so-so music-discovery talents; in fact, I consider it a must-have.

Spotify's widespread device support, deep on-demand catalog, and no-strings-attached, no-limits-involved free listening option make it an extremely compelling service for the average userassuming that you don't mind hand-picking tunes. Spotify's Radio functionality sucks.

Catalog size: 18 million-plus

Audio quality: 160-kbps Ogg Vorbis by default; 320-kbps streaming for $10-per-month premium subscribers; 96-kbps option for mobile listeners

Subscription plans: Unlimited ad-supported free listening; $5 monthly fee removes ads from desktop client; $10 monthly fee unlocks device support, higher audio quality, and offline mode

Device support: iOS, Mac, Android, Symbian, Windows Phone 7 Mango, BlackBerry, Sonos, Logitech Squeezebox, WD TV Live, Boxee, Onkyo/Marantz/Denon receivers, Phillips Streamium, Samsung Smart TV

Extras: Radio stations, third-party apps, offline mode, "inbox" for shared music, related-artists listings, gift cards, local music library integration, collaborative playlists

Rdio

In song selection, Rdio goes toe-to-toe with any top-tier streaming competitor, but the service truly shines on the social front. It encourages new users to start following other Rdio users, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, and email pals, before the service even shows off a single track.

Keeping tabs on your friends is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Rdio prominently displays the songs, albums, and playlists that users are currently listening to, and the service generates a "Heavy Rotation" list of suggested albums based on your listening history and follow list. Collaborative playlists are another fun social-oriented extra.

 

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