July 21, 2011
Never have to buy music again
Can sync content to iOS devices
Share music with fellow users
Interface could use refinement
Don’t truly own the music you listen to
No support for non-iOS iPods
Search can be overwhelming
Free - $9.99/month
Mac OS X
iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad
Spotify, which has dominated the music industry in Europe, has the chance to transform how people on this side of the ocean use music. While it's a web-based service, it's more than Pandora. While it allows you to listen to songs offline, it’s different from iTunes. It's more like a combination of some of the best features of both.
How It Works
Spotify works much like other online music services. Search for a song, album, or artist and when you find it double click it to play. It's that simple. The free version of the service (more on that below) limits to how much you can listen to and you hear ads. Paid upgrades remove limits, ads, and add other features, too. In this way, Spotify is like Pandora.
When you hear something you really like, you can drag the song or album to a playlist stored in Spotify's desktop app. Then, whenever you're connected to the web (and sometimes even when you're not; more on that later, too), you can just double click on a song or album in a playlist and hear it. In this way, Spotify lets you build something close to a library and works much like iTunes.
Songs are streamed at 160 kbps for free accounts and 320 kbps for paid accounts. By comparison, Pandora streams at 128 kbps or 192 kbps.
The desktop app's interface is a little rough--it's basically a long column of playlists and folders of playlists on the left, with what's playing or what you're browsing in the main window. This tends to lead to a very long list of playlists to scroll through. If you're used to iTunes and its more organized, browsable library, this feels a bit unwieldy.
Like iTunes, Spotify offers a huge catalog of music. At 15 million tracks, it actually offers more music than iTunes. While you'll find most of the music you're looking for quickly, there are some odd gaps. For instance, search for Metallica and you'll find just one album, despite the band's entire catalog being available on both iTunes and Amazon.
Spotify's huge catalog can sometimes lead to its own problems. While searches can return a tremendous amount of content, sometimes it's overwhelming and unclear what truly matches your search. It's surprisingly common for a search for an album to return multiple results that aren't substantially different. In most cases, in fact, the albums appear to be identical except for the brightness of the color in the cover art. This makes it hard to know which is the correct version of the album you're looking for (or if they're all correct. And, if so, why show them all?). Spotify needs to refine its search experience a bit to make it feel more precise.
It could also stand to make its desktop program more robust. Launching processor-intensive programs while playing Spotify music often leads to skips or the music to stop playing entirely, something I haven't experienced with iTunes. Of course, Spotify is streaming content rather than playing files stored on my hard drive, but wherever the music is stored, I want the experience to be the same.
Spotify's desktop program also doesn't support AirPlay, something it desperately needs to add if Spotify is to become my main music library.
What It Costs
As noted above, Spotify's most basic account is free. With this, you can listen to music on an unlimited number of devices (besides desktop OSes, Spotify runs on iOS, Android, and other mobile devices). You are, however, limited to 10 hours of listening per month and have to listen to ads.
A $4.99/month plan removes ads and the 10-hour limit, letting you listen to as much music as you like.
The $9.99/month plan give you those features and adds some major benefits: you can listen to higher-quality streams, play music on mobile devices, listen to music in countries other than your home country (great for traveling), and--most importantly--lets you save music locally so you can listen to it even when you're not connected to the Internet.
You Can Take It With You – Sort Of
It's this offline listening feature that may be of greatest interest to people who own iOS devices since it allows your Spotify music to act as if it's part of your standard iTunes library whether or not you have 3G or Wi-Fi service.
In the desktop or mobile app, you just need to flip a switch to make an album available offline. The songs are then downloaded to your computer or device. Playing music offline is perfectly smooth, just like the music was in your iTunes library. In fact, if some songs from an album you've gotten through Spotify are already in your iTunes, it won't download those songs and will instead play them through Spotify. This seamless background action is very nice. You can play all your iTunes music through Spotify, too, but again Spotify's interface is a bit harder to use than iTunes'.
Spotify tries to replace iTunes in another way, too: you can use it to sync your device via USB or Wi-Fi. Connect a device running the Spotify mobile app via USB or Wi-Fi and you can sync any iTunes or Spotify music. Spotify's playlist-based approach means that syncing individual Spotify songs is a little harder than in iTunes, but not much. The bigger issue here is the interface: there's no way to see a text-only list. You just have to scroll through one long list of songs and albums.
It's important to know, though, that mobile devices that can't run apps or lack Internet connections—like the iPod Classic or nano, for instance--can't sync Spotify songs. Spotify doesn't make this clear at all, especially since it touts its desktop app as being able to sync your music. Technically this is true, it can sync your music--but only your iTunes music. Since Spotify pays artists based on how often you listen to their music, it needs to be able to track your listening. IPods without apps or Internet connections can't track this, so you won't be able to move songs set for offline listening to them.