I don’t care who you are, everybody needs music. It’s a necessity and without it life just wouldn’t be the same. But just how much your mind craves music will probably influence the level of investment you’re willing to make. I for one don’t regularly attend live music performances. But despite that I still enjoy finding new music and even listening to some of the main stream pop, hip hop and R&B that crosses our airwaves. So with that said, and with some apprehension, I invested in Spotify, the latest streaming music service to hit US shores.
Spotify as you may know, has long existed in Europe. It has received rave reviews and buzz that is has even the most popular of tech startups drooling with envy.
So what makes Spotify what it is? The service provides access to over 13 million songs. If you’re one of the lucky few to already receive an invite to the free version of the service here in the US, then you know that you can stream any of these songs free of charge on your computer, provided of course you’re willing to cope with ads every once and a while. However, if you’re patience has grown thin, you can get Spotify today, that is if you’re willing to pay for the service.
They offer two paid versions: unlimited and premium. Unlimited costs $4.99 per month and allows you to access 13 millions songs on your computer commercial free. The Premium version costs $9.99 and in addition to a commercial free experience, it enables you to stream music, and download it, directly to a compatible handset or computer. Both paid versions, on any device, provide 320kb quality sound, where as the free version is limited to 160kb. The free version does not allow you to download music to your computer’s hard drive.
Update: Only Premium offers a higher audio bit rate and offline mode. Thanks Pat.
Spotify’s selling point is not only the breadth of their catalog and price, but the fact that the service is extremely fast when it comes to finding and playing music. The service is built upon a comparable technology to Bit Torrent and Skype, and by that I mean P2P. Users of the service must launch an app on their computer to play music. The app initially looks for the music stored locally and if it doesn’t find it there it makes a call to a server that finds it stored locally on other users’ computers. This means that Spotify’s users do the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to streaming and hence why they’re currently giving away unlimited streaming for 6 months to those that sign up and score an invite to the service, which just launched last month. After that Spotify users will be limited to 10 hours of free streaming, unless of course they’re willing to pay.
In order to access Spotify you’ll need to download their application. While their logo leaves something to be desired, the UI is intuitive and easy to use. Searches are fast and speedy, and the music streams without any delay. Pretty damn impressive considering that amount of people probably already accessing the service. You can connect the app with your Facebook profile, which allows you to see which friends have done the same and share playlists amongst one and other. While the app’s homepage will show you new releases and a feed of information regarding news and friend’s playlists, it does not have a recommendation engine based on your tastes, much like Pandora (more on that later). It will, however, show you related artists and what your friends (via Facebook) are listening to.
You can connect your Spotify account with your Facebook account. This allows you to view friend’s public playlists as well as what they’re listening to. Useful if you often depend on your friends for new music, but you’ll need to click on each friend’s profile, located on the right of the app, to view their playlists and info.
Even though Spotify lacks a recommendation engine comparable to that of Last.fm or Pandora, you can view related artists. To do this you must enter an artists page. So if you search for say ‘Jack Johnson’, Spotify will present a variety of artists. You must click directly on his name to enter the artist page. Once on that page there are a few tabs that include ‘overview’, ‘biography’, ‘related artists’ and ‘artist radio’. The latter option allows you to see other artists, but we’re not sure how the differentiates from ‘related artists’.
There are a few bugs in the computer app. For instance, I searched for “Spoon” and once I entered the artist’s page, each album appeared more than one time. Additionally, many fellow free users are reporting that the music intermittently stops. This hasn’t been a problem for me, but I’m also a paying user, so safe to assume my stream will take priority over another, not paying user.
THE IPHONE APPLICATION
Streaming music on the iPhone application, which requires you to pay $9.99 a month, is robust and intuitive to use. While it reflects a fair bit of the UI incorporated by the iPhone’s iPod player, it does boast its own spin to accommodate Spotify’s offering. For instance, you can locate a track and then explore the other songs on that album. It also allows you to “star” tracks and add them to a playlist, which is also available on the computer. You can also add tracks to an existing iTunes playlist. If you so choose, you can sync Spotify with your iTunes library, allowing you to access all your songs on the mobile app free of charge – you already own it so Spotify effectively becomes a cloud player. You can sync over WiFi or connect your iPhone to your computer, though the first option is slow and tedious.
Streaming tunes over AT&T’s 3G service worked virtually flawlessly, though it significantly eats into the iPhone’s battery life. However, Spotify can work without an Internet connection. There is a switch (you must enable the option in the ‘settings’ menu) that allows you to enable “offline” mode. This mode downloads your “starred” tracks to the iPhone’s storage, letting you access the music without a connection. But don’t think for a second that you can subscribe to the service for one month, download all the tracks your heart desires and then discontinue your subscription. You must reconnect to Spotify every 30 days for those tracks to remain active, which is the same DRM we’ve seen instituted on other services, such as the now legal Napster and Rhapsody.
In terms of using the app it’s relatively straightforward. Unlike the iPhone’s iPod player, you can swipe the screen to skip tracks. Instead of a volume slider at the foot of the screen is the time lapse. To adjust volume you must use the iPhone’s volume rocker switch or enter the “info” screen. There is however one small flaw with the application. If you play a track, lock the iPhone’s screen and try to skip forward a song using the shortcut controls accessed by double tapping the home button, the music will stop playing. Annoying, but not a deal breaker.
With a bit of tinkering, I managed to discover a handy shortcut. Swipe your finger to the right across any track and it brings up a set of shortcuts, allowing you to add that song to your queue of playing music, add it to the general playlist, share the track with a friend or view the artist’s entire catalog available on Spotify.
Unfortunately, the iPhone app lacks a related artist tab. In fact, it lacks all of those tabs that I mentioned in the computer app, which makes music discovery a bit more challenging on the iPhone app. Also, the search can be a bit iffy at times. Punching in “Cold Play” as opposed to “Coldplay” doesn’t bring up the well known band, but generally speaking it’s very accurate and find what you’re looking for.
Update: You don’t need to enable “offline mode” in the settings menu to download songs. However, if you don’t want your phone to connect to the Internet, or if you’re on a plane, this is when you’d enable this option.
OTHER MUSIC SERVICES
Pandora and Spotify are to a large degree completely different beasts and if used together can provide a fulfilling experience. Pandora’s service randomly plays tunes based on an entered artist, genre or song. But, unlike Spotify you can’t play a specific track when ever you want. So what I’ve done, is utilized Pandora to find new music, bookmark the artist or song, and then explore more tracks based on that artist using Spotify.
Napster and Rhapsody have long offered a comparable service, but both ask a $5 premium ($14.99) over Spotify when it comes to their mobile version. Additionaly, Spotify claims 3 million more tracks, as to their relevance that still remains a question; the 3 million could be garage bands for all we know. I haven’t used Napster or Rhapsody, at least not in recent, but I can only assume tracks don’t play as quickly since they don’t depend on any P2P tech.
Update: It’s not clear how large Spotify’s catalogue is. I’ve read 15 million and 13 million.
iTunes and Amazon, which is probably the biggest competitors to Spotify just given the size of the services, is a different model. In their case you’re buying the music where as with Spotify, relatively speaking, you’re renting it. However, with iTunes and Amazon you can physically share your tracks with friends.
The sound quality of Spotify is beyond impressive. As mentioned the streaming quality is limited to 160kb using the free or freeium service. But if your’e willing to invest $4.99 a month the quality improves a two fold to 320kb, though it’s questionable if one could discern the difference in quality beyond 256kb. But nonetheless, it’s CD quality sound in a streaming package.
Update: I was wrong, Only the Premium option provides the higher bit rate.
What it really comes down to is whether you’re comfortable with not owning your music. But as a society, at least in the US, we’re becoming more comfortable with not owning our media, hence the popularity of Netflix. Sound quality is stellar, you can download your tracks, build playlists, share tracks and playlists with friends, and listen to an almost unlimited amount of artists without throwing your money at any given one. The apps are well built, they’re slick, fast and seem to work without any major hiccups.
- Seemless streaming without any delays
- Free for everyone with unlimited plays for the next 6 months; 10 hours after that
- iPhone app works almost flawless, plus it’s intuitive
- Can download tracks that last for 30 days provided you don’t reconnect to Spotify
- Lacks a discovery engine like Pandora and those alike
- You don’t own the music
- iPhone app doesn’t show related artist or bio info