Hands-on with Spotify

The Spotify streaming-music services lands in the United States, but was it worth the wait? CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell takes a look at Spotify and its competitors, and weighs in on whether the service is worth your time.

Spotify
Spotify offers an iTunes-like experience coupled with a free catalog of all-you-can-eat music. Spotify

You know something is good when it feels illegal. Such is the case with Spotify, the on-demand music-streaming service that seems too good to be true--or, certainly, too good to be free. Yet, here it is, the "celestial jukebox" we've been dreaming of since the days of illegal gorging on the original Napster. It's called Spotify, it's finally available in the U.S., and music fans have reason to cheer.

What it does
What Spotify does is so simple and seemingly harmless, it's actually a sad comment on humanity that it counts as a groundbreaking product. As a first-time user, you install the free Spotify Mac/PC application, open it up, and watch as it automatically imports your music collection and playlists from iTunes and other music software and presents you with a landing page filled with new releases, top lists, and music shared by your friends. The big trick, though, is a little search box at the top of the screen that lets you search for any reasonably popular artist, song, or album in existence and stream it immediately. You can't get The Beatles, but we had no problem finding greats like The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, as well as obscure indies such as The Ghastly Ones or Four Tet.

Put simply, you tell your computer what you want to hear, and it plays it for you...for free, and without limitations for up to six months. It doesn't play something similar to the song you want (like Pandora), or a 30- to 60-second clip of the song you want (like iTunes)--it plays you the whole song or album, just as if it were in your personal music collection.

Of course, there are a few other bells and whistles that make Spotify its own special thing. Facebook and Twitter integration allows you to easily share music discoveries with friends. Artist pages encourage discovery with bio pages and links out to similar artists and top hits of the decade to add context. Without any friction preventing you from jumping from one great song to the next, Spotify also provides a play queue off to the side, allowing you to stash your discoveries without interrupting the currently playing song.

And let's not forget the small but not insignificant matter of style. Spotify's polished, iTunes-like interface is as inviting to music fans as a well-stocked record bin. Each portion of the bento-boxlike layout can be resized, and playback, volume, and track scrubber controls are placed neatly across the bottom. Browserlike back and forward buttons located to the left of the search box allow you to dig your way back out out of the rabbit hole of music discovery.

The catch
Spotify's music service is uniquely generous, but it's not without limitations. Using the free version of the service, full songs can be streamed on demand in unlimited number for up to six months (with the occasional audio ad popping into rotation, similar to Pandora). After that time, free users can only play a given track a maximum of five times per month and are also subject to a cap of 10 hours of streaming per month. If you can cough up $5 per month, those restrictions (and ads) disappear, but you're still limited to listening from your computer. At $10 per month, you can use Spotify on mobile devices (including iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7), and even cache your favorite music and playlists for offline listening.

A chart comparison of Spotify's various plans and what they offer.
A comparison of Spotify's various plans and what they offer. (Click to enlarge.) Spotify

So, yes, if you get addicted to Spotify and want it with you everywhere, you could be out $10 per month. That still beats many of subscription music options out there (such as Rhapsody), which run closer to $15 per month for mobile access.

Another hitch worth mentioning is Spotify's reliance on standalone software, as opposed to a browser-based player. With so many browser-based options out there (Grooveshark, Last.fm, Pandora, Rdio), the concept of downloading and updating a desktop application seems outdated.

The competition
In the years it has taken Spotify to arrive on U.S. shores, many new competitors have sprouted up while old and familiar brands have braced for impact.

In terms of pricing and features, fans of Rdio, MOG, and Rhapsody are probably shrugging their shoulders over the Spotify news. These services have been offering all-you-can-eat browser-based and mobile streaming for some time now. What they haven't been able to offer, though, is a free version of their services. Taking a page from Pandora's playbook, Spotify is counting on rapid adoption of its free service to eventually lead to a solid base of happy, paid subscribers.

Screenshot of Grooveshark.
Grooveshark offers many of the features of Spotify, but it lacks the funding, the deep music catalog, and the killer app. Donald Bell/CNET

Grooveshark is Spotify's closest competitor in terms of pricing and features, and the company also offers a similar free version of the service. But while Grooveshark has its fans, its music catalog is limited and its user-uploaded music approach could prevent the kind of direct label relationships Spotify benefits from. The company has also had its mobile app yanked from the iOS catalog, which, for many users, is a deal-breaker.

Is it too late?
Spotify's strategic position among its competition doesn't mean it has a lock on success. In the three years since Spotify originally launched in Sweden, we've gone from a nation of iPod fanatics looking for the ultimate workout mix to an app-crazed nation of smartphone users. Finding new and ever-more-ingenious ways to cram music in our pockets just doesn't seem as vital as it once did.

It's also important to note that if Spotify's ultimate goal is to make the subscription music model work or go broke trying, it could be just a flash in the pan. There's a trail of dead or stalled music services out there. No one has been able to ride the subscription music service to great success. Urge, Imeem, Muxtape, Napster, Rhapsody, Slacker, Zune, and dozens of others are surely looking at Spotify's U.S. debut with a skeptical eye.

Should you try it?
Absolutely. Any and all music fans are encouraged to give it a whirl. The smart people at Spotify have made the free service incredibly attractive to new users, and there's really nothing to lose. Whether you find the service important enough to upgrade for Spotify's premium options is entirely up to you, but they seem like a great value for any music fan with an insatiable appetite.

To hear five other CNET editors weigh in on Spotify's appeal, check out our editorial roundtable .

 

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