A competitor to Pandora, Rhapsody, and a rising number of other rivals, Spotify has quickly become one of the most widely listened to streaming music services in the US. How does it stack up against the rest of the pack as a way to listen to music, find tunes, and share playlists of your favorite songs? We'll find out in this review.
Where Internet radio offers the equivalent of broadcast radio stations that you can tune into, streaming music works differently. With it, you select songs, albums, artists, or create your own "stations" and either listen to your selected music in realtime or build playlists of songs you like that can be listened to at your pleasure.
For years, music lovers in the U.S. gazed enviously on those lucky users in other countries that had access to the Spotify service and its database of about 15 million tracks. Then, Spotify was finally able to work things out so that users in the U.S. could avail themselves of the service and its enormous music catalog.
Spotify is available as a downloadable app for Windows PCs and Macs, as well as for mobile platforms like iOS, Android, and some BlackBerry phones. If you don't want to download an app, you can now try out Spotify's new Web player, which lets you play the whole Spotify catalog directly from supported browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome.
In any case, you'll need a Spotify subscription service, too. You can start out with a free one if you'd like, and then upgrade to either the $4.99 a month "Unlimited" or $9.99 a month "Premium" version. You can also buy Spotify gift cards to provide others with a Spotify Premium subscription.
Aside from being a terrific streaming music service, Spotify offers some great features for finding music, creating playlists, and sharing them on your social networks, which are detailed below. It can also act as a launch pad for other music applications. It isn't perfect, though, especially the free version with the ads (which I find somewhat intrusive).
Those ads disappear with the $4.99 or $9.99 subscription. The paid subscriptions also offer a radio mode not found on the free version. The main differences between the Premium and Unlimited services are that the Premium edition offers some exclusive content, enhanced sound quality, and the ability to listen to music offline on either your PC or mobile device.
Download and installation of the Windows app took less than a minute on the Lenovo T400s laptop I used for most of my testing. I also downloaded the Spotify app for the iPad (it's free) from the App Store. This took a bit longer, which is usually the case when downloading and installing apps on my original iPad. Finally, I installed Spotify on my iPhone. All of these installations went off without a hitch. (For expanded views of the screenshots at right, please click on the images.)
When you start up Spotify, it asks that you log in. This is usually done by using your Facebook login, but you can set Spotify to have a separate username and password if you'd like. Once you're logged in, you can use the settings menu to start Spotify whenever the laptop or device it's installed on boots up. This obviates the need to keep logging in. At this time, you can import your current music library from iTunes or Windows Media Center and start searching for tracks and/or artists, import playlists from other Spotify users, or start creating your own radio channels.
But Wait, There's More...
If you use iTunes, either for music that you purchase, or to organize music that's already on your system, your iTunes playlists can be found on the left-hand panel. So, too, can the other playlists that you've created and/or imported from services such as Slacker, iHeartRadio, and others.
Spotify itself has the ability to create "radio channels" based on a particular artist's style or a song that you like. In this respect, Spotify works very much like Pandora or Slacker. You start with picking a song by an artist that you like or that's in one of your playlists.
Then Spotify will start presenting songs that it thinks have similar characteristics to the base song that you start out with, asking for thumbs up or thumbs down on the choice to fine tune the "station." In my experience, Spotify finds something I like about 30% of the time, which isn't much different than my experience with Pandora or Slacker.
Spotify has the ability to integrate other applications like these into its menu, and you can easily pick from a growing list of available applications to add. This is a nice way to add applications that you might not be aware of. As an example, I added Sidekick Concerts to my Spotify menu. This app looks at the artists in my playlists, and presents me with a list of concerts they will be performing in over the next several months. This list, in turn, has a ticket button so that I can buy tickets should I want to attend.
Finding and Sharing Great Music
One thing I really like about Spotify is that it makes it easy to music surf. When I find a song I like, I frequently will use the search feature to see who else has done the song, and trace it backwards to its origin. For example, a friend suggested I might like the group Gov't Mule. Listening to some of the songs on their album, I focused in on the track "32-20 Blues."
Tracing it backwards, I found covers by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Muddy Waters, but the original was recorded in 1936 by blues legend Robert Johnson. His version sounds very different from the Gov't Mule version that started my search. I probably spend as much time on these musical archeological adventures as I do listening to my playlist. And it's not unusual for my playlist to contain multiple copies of the same song performed by different artists.
Spotify also makes it simple to share. It was really designed to be a social application and importing other people's playlists and posting your playlists online for others to try takes only seconds. You can also create a list of people who can follow what you're listening to, or set up a follow list so that you can see what your friends and others are listening to.
Most of the time, I'm not particularly sociable, so I generally set my listening to "Private Session" on the File menu, which disables sharing my music sessions. My only complaint with the sharing feature is that there does not seem to be a way to change the default to Private Session so I don't have to do it each time I use the application.
Regardless of whether you intend to integrate other applications with it, Spotify by itself has a lot to offer, especially in the Premium version. For that $9.99 a month, you get higher quality streaming and the ability to listen to your playlists offline.
Not everyone will feel that paying $9.99 a month is worth these extra features. If you think you really don't need them, begin by downloading the free version. The old saw says that "you can't get something for nothing." But with Spotify, that's just not true.
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