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.
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.
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.
As of July 2015, these features are only starting to become available in the iOS app, with plans to roll out to Android shortly. Details are sparse on when they'll show up in the Windows Phone app. Each of these features exists as their own tabs in the menu for easy access.
Introduced in May 2015, Running is a novel new feature that matches music to your running stride. It uses the motion sensors in your phone to detect your pace and then plays music with a beat that closely matches it.
When you fire up a Running playlist, all of which are stored in the app's Running tab, you're asked to start jogging so Spotify can determine your stride in steps per minute. It uses that number to find songs with a similar beat per minute tempo and plays that music through your workout.
The point of all of this is to keep you motivated and energized while running using songs with a beat that matches your running pace. The effect is great, even if the music selection Spotify chooses isn't always spot-on for exercising. For people who religiously run to music like myself, this feature is helpful and fun. I enjoyed testing it out, and for more detail on how it worked, check out CNET's hands-on with Spotify Running.
Spotify isn't the only app that offers this technology, but it's the only streaming music service to have it built into its app. Standalone app Spring also matches your running stride to music and it works just like Spotify.
The latest version of Spotify includes podcasts and video, the app's first foray into content that's not strictly music. In the new Shows tab, you'll find audio and video shows covering a wide variety of topics. Many top podcasts, including Marketplace, WTF with Marc Maron Podcast and Stuff You Should Know, are available, but others -- This American Life and Serial -- are missing. As it stands now, Spotify isn't likely to replace your current podcast app, especially if you listen to offbeat or obscure podcasts, because there are quite a few missing pieces and you cannot manually add a show using an RSS feed.
Spotify makes up for this by including videos of TV show clips and podcasts. Inside Amy Schumer, Jimmy Kimmel Live and TED are just some of the popular shows with clips you can watch. With both audio and video shows, you can follow your favorites to get updates on new episodes and clips.
Though Spotify is packed with new features, it doesn't do everything perfectly. Other services, notably Apple Music, are strong in areas where Spotify is not. One key area is personalization, and Spotify's never been great at learning your music habits. The playlists, albums and other content that it suggests in the apps are the same for everyone and based more on current trends and the season than on your listening history. The only places you can offer feedback is with Radio and by following artists you like. By doing that, the Discover section of the app will offer personalized recommendations, but they're so tucked away that you may never find them.
This is quite different from Apple Music, which is constantly paying attention to what you're playing and relying on feedback from you to craft recommendations for artists, albums and playlists. Those recommendations are everywhere in Apple Music and nearly impossible to avoid.
Spotify has also struggled for years with helping you combine your own music files with its streaming catalog. Using the Spotify Mac or Windows app, you can add local music files (MP3, MP4 and M4P) stored on your hard drive to the service. However, the process is often too complicated and unstable.
It's easy enough to get your music files from your computer into Spotify, but it's a different story getting them synced to your phone or tablet. First, you'll need to be on the same Wi-Fi on both your phone and computer where the files are stored. Then you can open the app on your phone or tablet, head to Playlists and tap on Local Files to see these tracks. However, that process has never worked for me. Instead, I have the best luck manually syncing my own songs by using the desktop app. There, you can click on Devices, select your device and choose which playlists or tracks to add. Even then, with my phone and computer on the same WiFi, the desktop app didn't always recognize my device.
It gets more complicated. Once you successfully get your music onto your phone, you can't find it by browsing the Songs, Albums or Artists tabs. You can only go to Playlists and select Local Files. The easiest way to find your personal music in the Spotify mobile apps is to make a playlist of those tracks and sync it. Then, you can download that music to listen offline. Because this process is confusing and tedious, Spotify isn't a great choice if you want to listen to both streaming music and tracks you've purchased over the years. While Apple Music's version of this doesn't always work either, it's at least better designed, so that when it does work the experience is mostly seamless.
Spotify is one of the most popular streaming music services you can buy, for good reason. It has an immense catalog of music across genres and eras, and simple search tools to find it all. There are hundreds of playlists for every kind of music-listening scenario, from partying on the beach to falling asleep. Finally, social features help you check out what your friends like and collaborate on playlists with them.
Unfortunately, Spotify suffers from a few problems. It doesn't offer much in the way of personalized music suggestions. Combining your own music files with its streaming catalog is not an easy or straightforward process. And while the iOS version of the app is getting new tools, with Android following behind, the desktop and Windows Phone don't show signs of catching up.
Furthermore, if you don't want to pay $10 per month for the Premium service, you're stuck with limitations. With a free plan, you cannot stream any song on demand; instead you can only Shuffle playlists and albums, or listen to radio stations. There's no offline listening either and you'll hear ads frequently.
However, if you're willing to spend the $9.99 every month (which is on par with all of the other streaming music services), Spotify is worth every cent. It covers all of the bases, playing music for every part of your day, activity or theme. And with the inclusion of podcasts and videos, it gets even more versatile without sacrificing the music.
Still not convinced? Check out CNET's guide to the top music streaming services to help you decide. And while you're at it, read up on the 6 things you should consider before you get Spotify or a similar music subscription.