Auto Tech

What Is the Spotify Car Thing… and What Isn't It?

The Spotify Car Thing goes on sale Tuesday. Now that you can buy one, you should probably know exactly what it is.

The Car Thing plugs into your dashboard and controls the Spotify app on your phone.
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Most product names are fairly descriptive about what that product is. The Spotify Car Thing, on the other hand, is like IRL clickbait; its vague name teases you with the question, what is the Spotify Car Thing? The vaguely named automotive accessory was announced and launched early last year in limited release and, recently, CNET took a look at what it's like to live with the device, but with sales locked behind an invitation system for select Premium subscribers, most consumers wouldn't get an opportunity to find out for themselves what the Car Thing's deal is.  

This week the music and audio subscription service announced it's expanding sales to the public. Now that you can plunk down $90 for one of your own and as the hype train prepares to leave the station again, I think it's worth revisiting what the Spotify Car Thing is and, more importantly, what it's not.

Read moreSpotify's Car Thing Is About to Face the Music

Now playing: Watch this: Spotify's Car Thing, Demystified
5:11

What is the Spotify Car Thing?

Simply put, the Spotify Car Thing is a Bluetooth remote control for the Spotify app running on your phone. It's designed for in-car use and mounts on a magnetic puck that's installed with adhesive on your vehicle's dashboard, on a vent with included clips or on a bracket that slips into the unused CD slot on your car's stereo. The puck has a slight angle to it, allowing it to be rotated to point the Car Thing at the driver or account for a steeply sloped dashboard.

The Car Thing is powered by USB and includes a 12-volt to dual USB Type-A power adapter and a braided USB Type-A-to-C cable. The adapter's second USB port is designed to keep your phone charged while using the Car Thing, but you'll have to supply your own cable for that. The Car Thing also includes a few adhesive clips to help you manage your cables.

spotify-car-thing-2.png

The combination of a 4-inch screen, voice command and physical controls is easy to use while driving.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Once installed and powered up, the Car Thing connects to your phone via Bluetooth and communicates with the Spotify app wirelessly, displaying albums, artist and playlist information on its 4-inch color touchscreen. It's not super accurate to touch inputs, but the display is bright and is easily visible even in broad daylight with the top down in my Mazda Miata. An ambient light sensor also lowers the brightness at night, which I appreciated.

In addition to tapping and swiping through your favorite tunes, the Car Thing features a large-ish jog wheel that can be twisted to scroll and tapped to make selections, a small back button and a bank of five physical buttons along the top edge of the screen -- four of which are customizable shortcuts to your favorite artists, albums or playlists and the fifth that brings up the settings menu.

In addition to the physical and virtual touch controls, the Car Thing can be commanded via voice. Simply say, "Hey Spotify" and a command like, "Play Duran Duran," "Listen to Addams Groove by MC Hammer," or, "Next song" to cue up a tune without taking a hand off of the wheel. During her testing, which you can see in the video below, my CNET colleague Lexy Savvides found the accuracy to be hit-or-miss (caveats: she is Australian and she was using the limited release version from last year), but the system understood me well, so long as my windows were up.

Now playing: Watch this: Road-testing Spotify's Car Thing
8:28

What the Car Thing isn't

The Spotify Car Thing is not a way to add audio streaming connectivity to your car. It's just a remote control and so requires that your phone connect directly to your car's stereo, either via Bluetooth or an auxiliary analog input. If your car doesn't support either of these already, the Car Thing won't get you any closer to bringing your tunes on the road. For many older cars, this can be a dealbreaker.

And if your car already supports a standard like Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, the Car Thing will be redundant. These larger touchscreen technologies offer much more robust integration with a broader range of audio streaming services, app types (like parking or messaging apps) and navigation. 

The Car Thing only works with Spotify for now and requires a Premium subscription -- currently $10 per month -- which seriously limits the device's usefulness if you ever stop using or paying for the service.

spotify-car-thing-732805

Multiple vent, adhesive and CD slot mounts make it easy to mount the Car Thing in most cars.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Alternative options

If you're not sold on the Car Thing but are still looking for ways to interact with your media on the go while reducing distraction, there are alternatives.

Amazon's screenless Echo Auto and its ilk double down on voice assistance with Alexa skills for news, multiple music and radio streaming services and more. If you've got room in your budget, upgrading your car's stereo to a receiver that supports Android Auto or Apple CarPlay is also an option -- for older cars, this can be a simple replacement but, ironically, newer cars with more integrated stereos may complicate a swap.

google-assistant-car-mode.png

Android users have access to driving modes for Google Assistant (pictured) and built into Spotify's own app.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

If your car already supports Bluetooth or an auxiliary input, the best alternative to the Spotify Car Thing is the phone you already have. The Android version of the Spotify app already features a built-in Car Mode that simplifies the interface and enlarges the controls for easier use while driving and has built-in "Hey Spotify" voice command. With a $20 dashboard or windshield mount, you're already most of the way to replicating the Car Thing's functionality.

Android phones running the latest version of Google's operating system and voice assistant can also call up a Google Assistant Driving Mode, simply by saying, "Hey Google, I'm driving." Driving mode features Android Auto-esque access to Google Maps, messaging, hands-free calling and deep integration with audio streaming apps like Spotify with browsing and voice command built in. Yes, it's a little buggy, but it's also free.

spotify-car-thing-732819

$90 for a gadget that only really works with a single subscription service is a tough sell.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Is it for you?

Spotify isn't done with the Car Thing. In addition to opening up wider sales in the US, Spotify's designers and engineers are working on future updates that will add the ability to control audio streaming apps outside of the Spotify ecosystem. Don't expect anything more than simple play, pause and skip controls -- nowhere near the deep integration seen with Spotify's own app -- but I reckon that's better than nothing.

Even so, the deck is sort of stacked against the Spotify Car Thing. Ongoing chip shortages have caused the price to climb by $10 since it was announced last year, which makes this a $90 gadget that, for now, only works with subscription service you have to maintain. With updates (or opening up access for free-tier users) it might be easier to recommend, but as is the Spotify Car Thing sits in an awkward place between more robust and more affordable options, either of which is probably better for your needs.