How Spotify's Reviving the Car Radio

Car Thing is like an 8-track for millennials

Key Takeaways

  • Car Thing is a dedicated Spotify controller for your car.
  • It’s especially useful in older cars without built-in media apps.
  • Spotify will give Car Thing away for free to invited Spotify Premium subscribers.
Spotify Car Thing attached to car vent


Spotify’s Car Thing clips onto your dashboard air vent and adds a dedicated controller for your music, complete with a big knob. It’s like having a car radio all over again.

Car Thing connects to your phone via Bluetooth, and provides a touch-display, two knobs, a row of buttons, and can be controlled via voice. And while fiddling with yet another dashboard computer is bad for your attention and road safety, it’s a lot better than futzing with your phone. And that may be the entire point. 

“The main advantage of Car Thing is that it's specifically devoted to playing music/podcasts/talk shows,” Adam Chase, president of Music Minds, told Lifewire via email. “It's essentially like a radio device powered by Spotify. It's hands-free if you need it, but also has a display and a large dial for ease of use.”

Spotify's Advantage

Car Thing is currently in a “limited product launch” phase, and will be provided free to selected Spotify Premium subscribers. The advantage to Spotify is clear: once you have this rigged up in your car, it’s much less likely you’ll use competing music streaming services. The unit seems most suited to older cars because newer models may already have easy Spotify access.

"It's essentially like a radio device powered by Spotify."

“Spotify can be accessed in the car via Apple CarPlay,” Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader, told Lifewire via email. “Some cars, Volvo for example, even have a native Spotify player in the car’s central touch screen. [Car Thing] might be good for older cars that don’t allow for Bluetooth streaming.”

Spotify agrees. “No matter the year or model of your vehicle, we feel everyone should have a superior listening experience,” reads the Car Thing press release.

Car Radio

Car radios used to be easy. You’d have a volume knob, a tuning knob, and a few preset buttons. Car Thing offers something similar. 

So, why not just use your phone? One reason is convenience. You can leave your phone in your bag or pocket, and still have a handy heads-up display. Another reason is that anyone in the car can change the music. If you’ve ever streamed music from your phone in a shared car, you’ll know that the passenger is forever asking you to unlock your phone. This is safer.

black 1-din car radio unit

Frank Albrecht / Unsplash

The unit also lets you use voice control to search, select, and play music. This is obviously the safest of all options because you keep your eyes on the road. 

There’s another possibility here. You might be able to use this as a control unit for music at get-togethers, or to run the music in a bar or restaurant. There, a dedicated “head unit” would offer the same advantages as it does in the car: usable by anyone without unlocking a phone, and physical controls. 

Phone Accessories

Spotify’s Car Thing is interesting for another reason. It’s a peripheral that treats the iPhone as a computer, the same way we add mice, trackpads, and video-editing desks to Macs and PCs. Phones already can use accessories like Bluetooth speakers and headphones, but those are extending the functionality of the phone. Car Thing is a computer by itself, and uses the phone merely as a connected brain.

The difference is subtle, but significant. Imagine other peripherals that bypass the phone’s own screen and controls, and only use its processing and connectivity. You could go all-in, with a large screen, keyboard, and mouse, turning it into a desktop computer. Perhaps the phone could be the heart of a camera controller, using the phone’s own camera, but surrounding it with knobs and dials for easier use. Or how about a keyboard with a slot for a phone that uses it as a screen and brain?

"[Car Thing] might be good for older cars that don’t allow for Bluetooth streaming."

Phones are easily powerful enough for this already. Just look at some of the apps you can run on a regular iPhone—video editing, music recording and creating, photo editing. Our phones are as capable as our laptop computers.

While Spotify might not play a part in this phone-augmented future, Car Thing is a glimpse into what’s possible when you view the phone as a portable computing resource. 

“Our phones absolutely have enough processing power to be considered mini-computers with accessories of their own,” says Chase. “I personally find this exciting and I can't wait to see what accessories are developed in the future.”

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