Mobile Cloud Music Showdown – Subscription Services, 2nd Place: Spotify
Ed. – This article is part of our roundup featuring all of the mobile cloud music services currently available in the US. Click here for more.
Digital music fans in the US have been awaiting the Spotify launch for years, and it landed on our shores just in time for this feature. They took a cue from Google with an invite-only rollout for their free service, but the Premium service (which we tested) has been available from the get go. We took a crack at their ballyhooed mobile app and did our best to answer the question: “Can this European darling possibly live up to the hype?”
iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows Phone 7, WebOS
8 million DRM-free Ogg Vorbis tracks. Tracks can be streamed at 96 or 160kbps on the mobile app(user-defined in preferences). Desktop tracks are streamed at 160kbps, and premium subscribers can enable high-quality streams of 320kbps for select tracks.
The Shuffle Test
Ed.- we took 10 songs shuffled from our iTunes library and checked how many each service had.
10/10 – Roxy Music – 2HB (Y), Big Star – Life Is White (Y), Sufjan Stevens – Jacksonville (Y), The National – Slow Show (Y), Daft Punk – Da Funk (Y), Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter (Y), Big Punisher – Dream Shatterer (Y), John Legend – It Don’t Have to Change (Y), Desaparecidos – The Happiest Place on Earth (Y), The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (Y)
We experienced a slight delay each time we booted up the Spotify app. We also had a few crashes, but for the most part the streamlined app ran smoothly; we’d much rather wait a few seconds upon startup for a browsing experience sans delays. We would frequently get messages informing us that our device was full, but there were no unexplained error messages or interruptions in playback.
Software (User Interface)
Spotify aspires to replace iTunes—the most popular online music store–as the place you acquire, store and playback music on your computer. It’s design and interface share much in common, though Spotify eschews showy UI elements like Cover Flow displays in favor of a more streamlined experience. It lists all your iTunes playlists as well as every song in your iTunes library, and even syncs your iPhone/iPod wirelessly. Especially appealing to Android users who use iTunes, it allows wireless syncing with Android devices, something iTunes does not.
Album art never gets displayed larger than a couple hundred pixels on the desktop app, but even the fullscreen view on the mobile app’s “Now Playing” screen didn’t seem to bog down the app.
A quick tap of the album art brings up a menu that allows for browsing of the current track’s album and artist, and options to share the track via email, Spotify, Facebook or Twitter (on the desktop app, any artist, album or track can be dragged and dropped into other application windows, like an IM or an email). Songs can also be starred or added to a playlist from the same screen. Shuffle and repeat buttons supplement the basic playback controls, but the scrubber bar had no measurement of the stream’s buffer.
The streaming speed over Wi-Fi was excellent; playback almost always started within two seconds of selecting a song. We rarely experienced a delay or pause in playback due to buffering, even with other bandwidth-heavy applications running on the same network.
The experience over AT&T’s 3G network was a different one entirely. Streams would take about 5-6 seconds to start, and we felt like we could hear each time we crossed from one cell tower to another, as the music would frequently pause for a few seconds if we were listening while moving. Verizon’s 4G network performed a little more admirably, but we still experienced gaps as we moved from tower to tower.
Recommendations (Finding New Music)
As far as social integration is concerned, Spotify and Facebook attached at the hip. Users can add any Spotify user to their “People” list, but the easiest way to populate it is by linking your Facebook account. Users can hide the Facebook friends whose music tastes they do not wish to view, but adding friends to Spotify happens automatically when they connect their accounts.
While it is certainly possible to build a “People” list without Facebook, it’s difficult to know which of your friends are on Spotify without it. And without any sort of playlist charts (showing the most popular playlists on Spotify) or an artist/Spotify staff-curated section, your playlist selection is only as good as your friends’.
What users can do is see releases that are new to Spotify that week, as well as the top played tracks on the service. The “Feed” tab shows users when their friends subscribe to a new playlist; your default friend, “Spotify,” serves to issue notices and announcements from Spotify’s staff. We loved how a popular playlist could easily go viral; when your friends like one of your playlists and subscribe to it, their friends see that in their feed, and can subscribe to the playlist as well. Users can also create collaborative playlists with their friends, and though they can’t be published, they can be shared directly with any user.
Despite the aforementioned caveats, the Facebook-centric sharing system was easily our favorite way to find new music out of all the services we tested. Our first friends to adopt the Spotify platform were our tech-savvy music nerd friends, and they proved to be an excellent source of new music and quirky personal playlists. Because Spotify can import playlists that already exist on users’ computers, it’s easy to quickly populate your Spotify profile with snapshots of your taste in music. But those especially acute and obscure playlists can be a tease, as Spotify will only let you look at (but not listen to) music that isn’t in its licensed library.
Available only to Premium subscribers, offline playback can be enabled for tracks on both the desktop and mobile applications. We loved that it automatically syncs via Wi-Fi when both apps are open, and quickly at that.
On the mobile app, songs are organized in the “Playlist” tab into four sections: “Starred,” “Inbox,” “Local Files” and “Playlists.” The “Playlist” portion of the list is comprised of users’ iTunes playlists as well as each playlist they’ve subscribed to on Spotify.
Because it can sync both “starred” Spotify tracks (tracks selected for offline playback) as well as tracks from your local library, it may be wise to abandon syncing music via iTunes or other side-loading methods to maximize storage space.
Free (invite-only, advertisments), $4.99/mo Unlimited (no ads), $9.99/mo for Premium (mobile access)
We liked most things about Spotify’s mobile app and service. It may not be the prettiest app, but there was absolutely no excess, and the experience was pleasant. The biggest knock against Spotify may be the lack of depth in its features list, but we must say that everything Spotify does do, it does extremely well. We would have liked to see a more rounded out social experience, connecting us with users who we may not necessarily know already, but could possibly share common musical interests with. In its current state, avenues to find new music within Spotify are limited by the musical tastes of your friends–great for the cognoscenti, not so much for Joe the Plumber.
Overall, our personal experience with Spotify was overwhelmingly positive. We found ourselves compelled to use it more than almost every other service, and we loved sharing playlists with our friends. While it didn’t quite make No. 1 on our list, we could easily recommend the Premium service to most users, and think that everyone should have at least a Free account.
For more on our mobile cloud music feature, and to read reviews of the other services, click here.