Spotify Review: An iTunes-beating Music Service?

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About Spotify

Spotify
Spotify. Image © Spotify Ltd.

Since its launch in 2008, Spotify has steadily enhanced its digital music platform and matured into a major streaming music service. Now it has broken free of its European roots and made its way to the U.S., can it really compete with the more established services like Pandora and others? To find out the answer to this question and more, be sure to read our full review of Spotify which delves into its inner workings.

Pros

  • Unlimited streaming music.
  • Huge library of songs.
  • Compatible with iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, Android, and other mobile platforms.
  • Excellent social music networking tools.
  • Offline Mode negates the need for an Internet connection.

Cons

  • Alternative email sign up option (compared to the Facebook one) is not that obvious on Spotify's website.
  • Free account is limited: Unlimited streaming only for the first 6 months.
  • Can't directly purchase DRM-free songs via the U.S. version of Spotify.
  • No radio facility like the European version.

System Requirements

  • Broadband connection
  • Windows 7 / Vista / XP
  • Mac OS X 10.4.0 or later (PowerPC G4 or higher (or Intel CPU))

Supported Formats by Spotify Software Client

  • MP3, AAC (M4a, MP4, M4r), M4v, Mov, 3g2, 2gp, m4p (DRM protected format -- not directly playable, but track will be available if in Spotify's music database)

Streaming Audio Specifications

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Music Service Options

Spotify Service Plans
Spotify Service Plans. Image © Spotify Ltd.

Spotify Free
If you want it for free and don't mind listening to short advertisements, then Spotify Free is a great primer. With it you can: access millions of full-length tracks; use Spotify to play and organize your existing music library, and use Spotify as a social music networking service. If you're going on vacation overseas and want to listen to Spotify, then the free account also allows you up to 2 weeks access (providing you are in a Spotify country) before you need to upgrade to a subscription tier.

Before you get too excited though, there is a downside to Spotify Free. It is currently invite only in the U.S. and so you'll need a code for access. The best way to get one is from a friend who may have a spare invitation code. Failing that, try requesting one via the Spotify website -- you'll probably have a long wait though using this route.

Once you get past this hurdle, the big advantage of course is that you don't have to blindly commit to a monthly subscription plan until you've tried out their service. In fact, if you're happy at this level, you don't ever have to subscribe! But, there's a lot you'll be missing out on like: Offline Mode, mobile device support, better quality audio, and more. Incidentally, Spotify Free has no limits on music streaming for your first six months -- but after this period, streaming will be limited. This will most likely be in line with what the European version (Spotify Open) offers -- currently 10 hours streaming per month and tracks can only be played up to 5 times.

Spotify Unlimited ($4.99)
This subscription tier is aimed at providing a quality basic service without you having to worry about restrictions on streaming. One of the first things you'll notice (especially if upgrading from Spotify Free) is that there are no annoying advertisements. This is an important factor to consider if you don't want any interruptions during your music listening experience. If you don't need enhanced features that the top subscription tier, Spotify Premium, offers, then this is the one to go for. There's also no limit on accessing Spotify overseas (providing Spotify has launched in that country) so you can listen to your music wherever you are.

Spotify Premium ($9.99)
If you want maximum flexibility when using Spotify's services, then the Premium subscription plan gives you everything. This level is especially useful if you want the freedom to listen to music almost anywhere. Using Offline Mode, you can listen to tracks (via desktop or phone) without having to be connected to the Internet. Alternatively, you can also access Spotify's entire library using compatible home stereo devices like Sonos, Squeezebox, and other audio-visual systems. You also get exclusive content (pre-release albums, competitions, etc.) and a higher bit-rate of streaming up to 320 Kbps. Overall, for the price of an album per month, Spotify Premium offers an impressive deal.

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Finding and Listening to Music Using Spotify

Finding, Organizing, and Listening to Music Using Spotify
Spotify Top Lists. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

To be able to use Spotify, you need to download the software client that's compatible with your operating system. This is because the tracks in Spotify's music library are DRM copy protected. If you use Offline Mode, these tracks are locally cached on your computer but are still encrypted.

Interface
The Spotify user interface is well laid out and doesn't require a steep learning curve to start using its basic functions. In the left pane there are menu options that once clicked on change the main display -- there's also further menu tabs running across the main screen in order to drill down to specific functions. For example, one of the first areas that you'll most likely want to explore is the What's New feature -- this lists new releases. Running along the top of the main display area are further options such as the Top Lists sub-menu which is used for viewing the most popular albums and tracks. Other main menu options include: Play Queue, Inbox, Devices, Library, Local Files, Starred, Windows Media Player, and iTunes. Overall, the interface is clean and simple to use and doesn't suffer from an over use of eye candy.

Searching for Music
The quickest and easiest way to use Spotify to search for your favorite music is to use the search box. On testing, we found that typing in an artist or track name yielded good results. You can also type in a music genre that you like to expedite the search for new artists -- this is a great tool for music discovery.

Organizing songs in Spotify
There are a few ways to organize your music tracks in Spotify. You can drag and drop tracks to the Play Queue in the left pane, tag tracks using the star icon next to each one (like a bookmark), or make playlists. Making playlists is probably the best method as you can share them with others (via Facebook, Twitter, or Windows Messenger) and sync them to other devices like your cellphone. Another neat feature in Spotify for playlists is making them collaborative. Not only can you share your playlists with others, you can also work with your friends on playlists to make them even better. This is a great two-way feature that really makes sharing music using Spotify a great social pleasure.

Offline Mode
If you've got a Spotify Premium subscription then you can use Offline Mode to great effect. With this feature you don't need to have an Internet connection to playback songs or playlists. It works by downloading and storing a local copy of the songs in your library (up to a maximum of 3,333 cached tracks). This is useful for listening to music when you can't easily go online like on a plane, in the car, etc. It is also a useful feature to have if you need to conserve data usage for your broadband package or want to minimize bandwidth usage.

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Spotify's Tools for Importing, Syncing, and Sharing Music

Importing, Syncing, and Sharing in Spotify
Spotify Library Screen. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Importing Your Existing Music Library
The Spotify desktop client also doubles as a software media player for your existing MP3 library. It isn't as feature-rich as dedicated software applications like iTunes, Windows Media Player (WMP), Winamp, etc., but it does have an ace up its sleeve -- linkable MP3s! When you import your existing music library using playlists created in iTunes or WMP, the program checks to see if your MP3s are in Spotify's online music library. If so, your MP3s become linkable making your pre-built library shareable.

Syncing Music
Depending on your Spotify music service level, you can sync your music either via Wi-Fi or by a USB cable. If you've got a smartphone with Wi-Fi then having a premium subscription enables you to easily sync your playlists wirelessly and listen to your music offline -- just remember to sign into Spotify at least every 30 days.

Spotify Unlimited and Spotify Free don't come with Offline Mode, but you can still use an iPhone or Android-based device using Spotify's apps (available via their website). Once installed on your device, you can sync music files from your existing music library (not from Spotify).

Social Networking Features
There are many social networking facets to Spotify which makes it an excellent tool for interacting with others using the power of music. You can use the built-in Facebook option to share your playlists with friends and also see what your friends have been listening to the most. Right-clicking on a playlist or song also allows you to share via Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, or Windows Messenger. And there's collaborative playlists (mentioned earlier) that you can set up to give your friends the ability to edit them -- working as a group can create some awesome playlists.

If you don't have an external social networking account (like Facebook), you can still connect to other users on the Spotify network. To do this, you can right-click a playlist or the starred menu for example and select Publish.

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Spotify Review: Conclusion

Spotify Music Interface
Spotify Music Interface. Image © Spotify Ltd.

There's no denying that Spotify has quickly positioned itself to be one of the top streaming music services out there. If you'd rather have a Smörgåsbord of millions of tracks to listen to rather than actually owning any of it, then Spotify offers a huge music library to tap in to. It also offers a good deal of flexibility on how you connect to music and interact with others via social networking.

But, which option do you choose?

Spotify Free: If you're lucky enough to get an invitation code to access Spotify Free (not needed for Spotify Open (Europe)), then you can try out their service without having to part with your money. However, keep in mind that you'll only have unlimited streaming for the first six month and the tracks you listen to will sometimes have advertisements in them -- upgrading to subscription doesn't have these limits. Another hurdle you'll face by following the Spotify Free route is trying to get an account in the first place. This could prove difficult if you don't know anyone who has a spare invitation code. Spotify do have a facility via their website to request a code, but you'll be waiting in a very large queue with no word on how long you'll have to wait.

Spotify Unlimited: If you simply have to try Spotify and want to jump straight in, then the basic subscription tier, Spotify Unlimited, gives you a never-ending supply of music that is free from advertisements for $4.99 a month. This is a great starting point that's good value for money, but remember you won't have access to enhanced features like Offline Mode or be able to stream Spotify's music library to your phone or compatible home entertainment system. If mobile music and offline listening are important to you, then Spotify Premium is recommended.

Spotify Premium: For the price of an album every month, Spotify Premium gives you both barrels. The Premium option opens up the world of mobile music with good support for smartphones and home entertainment systems like Sonos, Squeezebox, and others. You also get better sound definition in your audio streams with many tracks being provided at 320 Kbps. One of the big boons of having a premium subscription is undoubtedly Offline Mode. We tested this feature out and was very impressed with its seamless integration with the desktop and mobile devices. With all the extra features that this subscription tier provides (including exclusive content), Spotify Premium is recommended if you want maximum flexibility to listen to millions of songs without having to be tied down to just one device.

Overall, if you're looking for a flexible online music service for streaming content rather than purchasing songs to keep, then Spotify is a well-balanced service that has enough options to probably suite most people's needs.