review: Spotify music streaming for iPhone and iPad is an inviting app
July 19, 2011 by Steve Loopipe
by Steve Loopipe
Spotify is here! If you have friends across the pond or read the tech news over te last few months, it’s quite possible that you’ve been anticipating Spotify’s arrival from across the pond as though it were the Beatles in 1964. If not, you might be hearing about it now and wondering what the big deal is. But is the service worth the wait, and more importantly, is it worth begging for an invite just to try it?
In case you’re in the latter camp, Spotify is a streaming music service, similar to Rhapsody or Rdio. It comes in three flavors: A free, ad supported version that is capped at a certain number of hours of listening per month; a $5/month plan that removes ads and allows for unlimited access on a computer; and a $10/month version which adds mobile access on top of all the features of the $5 plan. Currently, access to the free plan is by invite only, but anyone willing to pay for either unlimited plan can jump the line and access the service immediately.
Spotify requires a desktop app to get started; there is no web component as there is with other streaming services. One nice feature is that the app will scan your iTunes library and add all your tracks to your Spotify library (much as iTunes Match is supposed to work). Spotify even imports all your standard playlists (but omits Smart Playlists), so you could theoretically replace iTunes with Spotify on your computer entirely if all your tracks are in Spotify’s database.
That “if” could be a sticking point, however. If your tastes stay solidly within the mainstream, Spotify should have you covered; searches on poplular artists (we tested Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Black Eyed Peas, Lil Wayne, and Kings of Leon) came back with fairly comprehensive discographies, and even some artists below superstar status that I searched on, like My Chemical Romance and Blues Traveler, were well represented. However, there are some surprising holes in the catalog when searching for indie bands; a search for Ra Ra Riot’s “The Rhumb Line” came back with their other two albums but not the one I was looking for, which is odd given that all their albums are on the same label. A similar search for Mates of State came back with only two out of their six albums. This may be a function of how new the service is in the US and may sort itself out in time, but it’s something to consider if you’re planning on spending money on the paid plans today.
What really sets Spotify apart from the competition is the social integration into the app. The app uses Facebook to find other friends who are using Spotify, which gives you access to any playlists that they make public, along with a list of their top tracks and artists (though you can choose to keep those things private if you don’t want to out yourself as a closet Justin Bieber fan, for instance). You can also share tracks with your friends, which show up in their feed on the main page, and even set up collaborative playlists with other people. Other services have similar social features, but Spotify’s free option makes it more likely that your friends will be participating; I’d done a trial of competitor Rdio at one time, for example, but only found one friend there who had since abandoned the service once their free trial had finished.
Once you’re ready to take Spotify off the desktop, there is an app available for the iPhone (but not yet for the iPad, pixel doubling notwithstanding). Without the premium subscription, Spotify purports to provide access to your iTunes music, but in practice, the way it does so is not all that compelling. Before activating a premium subscription, I opened the app and attempted to stream one of my songs, only to be told that I needed to be on the same wifi network as my iTunes library and then sync it over. So, instead of being able to stream tracks I already own, I need to essentially copy them to within the cache in the app (using up free space on the device), which really doesn’t offer any advantages over just syncing music over normally, other than that it’s over wifi rather than over a cord, and even that will be moot once iOS 5 is released in September. Otherwise, the only real benefit of the app without the premium subscription is the ability to search for tracks and add them to playlists for later listening on the desktop, which may not be enough to justify keeping the app on your phone.
Once you pay for the full premium subscription, though, the iPhone app becomes much more useful. Being able to listen to any album in Spotify’s 15 million track library at a moment’s notice is great, and the streaming is generally consistent even over 3G. I randomly decided I felt like listening to an album in the car while running errands, and within 30 seconds it was playing, and didn’t skip or stutter once through the entire length of the album. Wifi streaming is equally solid, though I did run into some odd behavior toward the edge of my wifi range (one track ended suddenly and another just stopped playback altogether), which is to be expected and proved to be more the exception than the rule. Of course, tracks can also be synced to the app for offline play (which is important for those of us not on unlimited data plans or in spotty 3G areas).
In general, the app is a great companion to the service, but I do have a couple of complaints after spending a few days with it. One is that, while listening to playlists that you already have set up is a snap, navigating the app can be awkward. If you’re listening to a full album, for example (yes, I know no one does that anymore, but I’m old, so get off my lawn and humor me for a moment), and you want to save that whole album to a playlist or star it so you can get back to it more easily, you can’t just do that from the info pane in the player; you need to quit out to the album page and know that the button with three dots means actions to take on this album. It’s not difficult, but it can be unintuitive. Similarly, it appears that the only way to sync tracks to the app for offline play is to add it to a playlist that is set up for offline access; you can’t just pick a song or album and tell the app to sync it. A bigger issue I have with the app is that there is no option to prevent the screen from auto-locking while the app is open. This is annoying at minimum, and can be downright dangerous in a car, where skipping a track potentially means having to press the home button, slide to unlock and enter a passcode just to be able to skip a track. Again, in the grand scheme of things, these are minor quibbles, but when Spotify clearly wants their app to be a replacement for the stock iPod app, they become fairly glaring when spending a lot of time with it.
So is Spotify worthy of all the hype it received before it finally crossed the pond? So far, I’d have to say that it is. While there certainly are other choices for streaming music, Spotify’s free option (once it opens up more) makes it more likely that your friends will participate, making it potentially a better source for music recommendations than something like Ping. As for the paid option, if you buy more than one album or ten individual tracks a month, there’s really no downside to subscribing, provided that Spotify has the music you want to listen to in its library. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to browse the library without an invite, but those should be getting easier to come by soon, in all likelihood.) The iPhone app still has a few kinks left to work out, but otherwise, Spotify is an excellent option for any serious music fan. After all, millions of Europeans can’t be wrong.
Rating: four stars out of five • Price: free app, free or paid monthly service • Spotify in the App Store