Spotify is the king of streaming music, with a catalog of 30 million songs, several social features and clever new tools that cater to the many different ways you listen to music. It's been going strong for nine years, gaining steam quickly and left other streaming services in its wake. Spotify has apps for the three major mobile platforms, Windows and Mac desktop and a Web player. Add to that Spotify Connect devices, which allow you to stream the service over Wi-Fi to a growing number of audio products, and you've got a full-range music ecosystem you can listen to anywhere you go.
On the surface, Spotify is just another app that lets you play millions of songs you don't own for a monthly fee. But look deeper and you see a constantly evolving service that seeks to reinvent how we find and play music. In recent months, Spotify has branched out and added video, podcasts and a feature that matches music to your running pace. It also has a strong community that has built thousands of unique playlists anyone can stream. Social features let you connect your Facebook account, follow your friends also on Spotify and share playlists directly with them.
The competition in the on-demand streaming music category is increasingly fierce, as the market transitions from techie early adopters to the broader mass market that is still focused on buying digital singles and albums via iTunes and Amazon. But while the likes of Rdio, Rhapsody and the newly minted Apple Music try to stake their claim, Spotify's superior feature set keeps it ahead of the pack -- at least for now.
In this review, I focus on the iOS and Android apps, the ones getting the most attention from Spotify. There are apps for Mac and Windows desktop, plus Windows Phone, but you'll get a somewhat different experience with them than what I'll cover here.
Editors' note, July 14, 2015: This review has been updated to include new features in the latest version of the Spotify mobile apps.
Free vs. Premium
Spotify has two ways to listen, Free and Premium. The Free plan costs nothing, using advertisements that play between songs to cover costs. The trade off for the Free service is that there are fewer features, plus restrictions on the music you can play and where you can play it. With a Free subscription, you can only shuffle songs from an album, playlists or radio station when using the mobile apps. You aren't able to pick a song and play it on the spot. There's also no offline listening.
Premium is Spotify's flagship product, full of all of the eye-catching features that make it great. It costs $9.99 per month (£9.99, AU$11.99) and is available in around 60 countries worldwide. With Premium, you can play any song, album, playlist or radio station on-demand. You can build your own playlists and add music to your library -- a personal collection you can come back to over and over. There are no ads to be found, giving you an uninterrupted flow of music at all times. You can download music to your computer, tablet or phone to play it offline. Finally, you get better audio quality, up to 320Kbps.
As part of Premium, Spotify offers a family plan, which costs $5 (£5, AU$6) per month for each extra person you add to your subscription. Each person gets their own account, so your hip-hop playlists don't get mixed with your kid's One Direction albums. That's a good start, but Apple Music's family plan is an even better deal, with $15 buying up to six separate accounts, all in.
Spotify's sound quality is great, as is streaming stability, when connected to a reliable data signal. If you have a strong Wi-Fi or data signal, songs will load quickly and often you can keep playing even if you briefly lose your connection.
With a strong Internet connection, you can also increase the sound streaming and download bit rate from Normal (96Kbps) to High (160Kbps) or Extreme (320Kbps). The Extreme level is only available to Premium subscribers in the mobile apps. A higher bit rate can offer better-quality audio, with a fuller range of sound, but most listeners won't notice much difference between the three choices. Overall, I've been happy with how music sounds on Spotify, as an average listener, and having the control to change the quality is a plus.
Find the music
There are 30 million-plus songs available in Spotify, and several ways for you to find them. In the mobile apps, get acquainted with the slide-out menu that appears when you swipe from the left edge of the screen or tap the three lines at the top left. That menu lets you jump around to different sections of the app, each with different kinds of media. In the latest version of the iOS app, rolling out now, things look a bit different than before. I'll describe that in detail here, but keep in mind the Spotify app you download may look different.
At the top is search, which opens Spotify's search tool for finding any song, album, artist, show and playlist. I almost exclusively use search to find something to play, instead of browsing. It's the fastest way to find a band, and it's particularly useful for finding a playlist with a few keywords, like "1999 summer" or "pop running."
Below search is the new Now page, a nifty section of the app that gives you suggested playlists for the time of day, from early morning to bedtime. You can swipe left or right to select a new playlist which begins playing automatically. This page's job is provide music for every part of your day; when you wake up, get to the office, hit the gym after work and unwind before bed. You could easily spend your entire day in this tab, letting Spotify suggest new playlists as the hours tick by.
Other tabs organize music by mood (Moments) and genre (Music). These pages have trending playlists or albums at top, followed by folders where you can browse music by category. On the Music page, you can also see top music charts.
Spotify's Radio feature also lives on the Music page. Using it, you can pick an artist, song, album, playlist or genre and Spotify plays an endless stream of music based on what you choose. For example, a Pop radio station plays the top pop hits from the last several years. You can give feedback on each station to train Spotify on your musical tastes. Every song you give a thumbs-up to is automatically added to the "Liked from Radio" playlist.
The final tab in the side menu is home to your music collection in Spotify, called Your Library. Spotify lets you add any music to Your Library so you can easily find it later, but many people I've found don't use it, favoring simply use search to find music again and again. This page is where you'll find any playlists you've created, and that's the only reason I ever venture there. I've built hundreds of playlists over my years of using Spotify and rely on them a lot, especially while traveling. Other parts of Your Library include tabs for the music you've saved organized by artist, song and album.
Spotify started as a simple streaming service and has slowly added extra features to help it stay ahead of the curve. In 2015, it added some of its biggest new features in a while; Running and Shows. These new tools make Spotify more versatile. It's not just merely a streaming service any more, it's also a place to watch music videos, keep up with news and listen to podcasts. What's more, these features continue to set Spotify apart from its newest big adversary, Apple Music. At its launch, Apple Music is missing podcasts and doesn't have anything like Spotify Running, which I'll explain in more detail below.