Heralded as the next big thing in music, Spotify offers on-demand access to over 15 million tracks on your PC, as well as on the iPhone and Android devices. Using an iTunes-like interface, Spotify automatically imports your existing tracks and lets you create playlists using a combination of your own music and Spotify’s vast library. If you sign up for the $9.99 monthly premium service, you’ll get offline access and the ability to stream tunes to your phone (Android and iOS). Spotify also has a robust social networking component, allowing users to share tracks and playlists via Facebook and Twitter.
So does Spotify live up to the hype? We gave the service a quick test drive on a Windows PC and Android phone to find out.
Service Options and Setup
We checked out the Premium version of Spotify, which costs $9.99 per month. But once you get an invite you have to other options. Spotify Free lets you stream millions of tracks and has the same social networking features, but includes ads. For $4.99 Spotify Unlimited removes the ads but doesn’t include any of the goodies that make the Premium offering so tempting (playing music on your phone, offline mode on your desktop and mobile, and enhanced audio quality).
Getting Spotify up and running is a cinch. Once you get your invite, you go online and create an account, then download the desktop client for Windows or Mac. That’s right, Spotify doesn’t have a web-based player like Pandora or Slacker. But Spotify is different than those services in that it automatically sucks in your music from your PC’s hard drive into the Library. From there you can connect your iPhone or Android device to the same Wi-Fi network as your computer and sync your music.
The real appeal of Spotify, though, is getting instant access to the songs you don’t already own.
From the solid gray bar up top to the playback controls to the menu options on the left panel, Spotify’s UI has a lot in common with iTunes. However, the desktop player has plenty of unique features, too. Up top you’ll find the search bar, as well as back and forward buttons. We used back quite a bit, because when you drag and drop a track onto a playlist from a search, the playlist opens. We’d back out to return to our results.
The left pane has several options, starting with four items: What’s New, Play Queue, Inbox (music sent to you from friends), and Devices. Beneath those choices you’ll find Library (music you’ve starred, imported, bought, or added), Local Files (tracks on your desktop only, Starred (your favorites), and New Playlist. Once you’ve created a playlist, their names will appear right underneath Starred.
The right pane on Spotify shows your Facebook friends. When you click on a friend, you’ll see any playlists that they’ve made public.
At the bottom of the screen you’ll see a fairly large album cover in the bottom left corner of whatever is currently playing, and beneath that you’ll see playback controls. Overall, the Spotify desktop interface is clean and fairly easy to navigate.
Discovering and Playing Music
Spotify places a heavy emphasis on the search box, which you can use to hunt for tracks, albums, and artists. The service returned results quickly, but it didn’t auto-complete or offer suggestions.
Another way to discover new music on Spotify is the What’s New area. When you click on this option you’ll see thumbnails of new releases from various artists, as well as Feed, which combines music shared by Facebook friends with news from Spotify.
To the right of What’s New you’ll see three tabs: What’s New (the homepage mentioned above), Top Lists, and Feed (so you can see all of your Spotify friends’ activities on one screen). Top Lists displays the most popular tracks and albums in order. Unfortunately, Spotify doesn’t let you drill down by genre from the What’s New menu, which was a turn-off.
However, you can use the search bar to search by genre; you just type something like “genre:alternativepop/rock” Of course, we didn’t know to type this shortcut. We looked it up on Spotify’s site. (You can find it here: http://www.spotify.com/us/about/features/advanced-search-syntax/genre-list/.)
Once you perform a search you’ll arrive at a page that shows Artists and Albums. For example, we searched for Muse, then clicked on Muse under Artists. Spotify then displayed an Artist page with a bio and a Top Hits list that showed the 5 most popular tracks up top. Spotify then lists albums from the artist in chronological order below. One especially helpful feature for discovery is Related Artists, which are displayed on the right side as thumbnail images. But you can also access more related artists by clicking the Related Artists tab up top, next to the Biography tab.
At any time you can just drag and drop a track or album to your Play Queue, Starred, or a playlist. If you sign up for Spotify Premium, you can turn on offline mode to listen to your Starred tracks or specific playlists without an Internet connection.
Spotify gives users a few ways to share what they’re listening to. To the right of the track you’re playing you’ll see a share button; when you click that you’ll see four options: Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Messenger. We tried Facebook, and within seconds our update was online with our comment and a link to the song. Assuming your friend is on Spotify, they’ll be able to click on the track and start playing it on their desktop.
The People panel on Spotify’s interface lets you click on Friends who are using the service, then view any playlists that they’ve made public. You can then subscribe to that playlist. Pretty neat, but we wish you could send messages to friends from within the interface as well.
Interestingly, when you start playing a track on one computer, Spotify automatically pauses playback on another that you’re signed into. We’re assuming this is a DRM issue. The same thing goes with mobile devices; when we started playing a tune on our Android phone, playback halted on our desktop.
Spotify on Mobile
Spotify is lots of fun on the desktop, but it’s even better when you can take your music to go Android device or iPhone. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Spotify Android app on our EVO 3D already had our Alt playlist ready to go when we logged on. The app has an intuitive tab-based interface, with playlists on the bottom left, then Search, What’s New, and More (which includes settings).
After tapping on Coldplay’s Fix You, playback started immediately on our Android phone. However, when we skipped a track, it took seven seconds to kick in over 3G. To listen to music offline, you tap on playlists, then check the specific playlist that you’d like to sync. We recommend doing this over 4G or Wi-Fi, as our EVO 3D had only synced to tracks after a few mintues.
When you’re playing a track, you’ll see the album art, big playback controls, and an info button. This button displays the artist name, which will link you to an overview, Top Hits, and Biography, just as if you were conducting a search. You tap a large down arrow at the top of the screen to return to the main menu.
The mobile app has a social component as well. For example, when we pressed and held on a playlist, we had the option to share it via Facebook, email, or Twitter.
So far we really like Spotify. It has a slick and easy-to-use interface on the desktop, and we like how simple it is to add music to your library and create playlists. The social networking component of Spotify also feels well integrated. Spotify is especially useful for those who have a lot of music already and want a one-stop shop for syncing and managing their tunes.
How does Pandora stack up? Pandora is better for those who are looking for a more laid-back listening experience. In fact, a lot of those users will look at Spotify and feel like it's just too much work. Slacker Premium Radio ($9.99 per month) gives you a personalized Internet radio experience with the ability to drill down into genres more easily than Spotify. You can also play albums and artists on demand, though Spotify makes it simpler to create playlists. It all comes down to what kind of music experience you're looking for.
Overall, Spotify is kind of like the iTunes we wish Apple would roll out, with instant streaming of millions of tracks, offline access, and wireless syncing with your existing collection. And that’s definitely something worth getting excited about.