Spotify: Five CNET editors, five thumbs-up

With Spotify now live in the United States, five CNET editors give the music streaming service a whirl. We've got our gripes, but overall, we're fans.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
9 min read
Spotify offers an iTunes-like experience coupled with a free catalog of all-you-can-eat music. Spotify

After months of delays, Spotify is now available in the United States. CNET's Donald Bell is taking an in-depth look at the online streaming service, but that doesn't mean the rest of us don't have a few things to say about it.

As with tastes in music, we're all coming from different viewpoints: I live in a nice little town outside of London and have been using Spotify for about a year; Rafe Needleman is our start-up guru; Dan Ackerman and Lori Grunin offer their takes as music fans who happen to be experts on PCs and cameras; and Roger Cheng, the newest addition to our staff and a longtime telecom beat reporter, weighs in with his non-audiophile look at the service.

For background, Spotify is available free or through a subscription. The free version has audio ads and plays music back on computers only. Paying $4.99 per month takes away the ads, and paying $9.99 per month brings higher sound quality, support for mobile devices, and caching so you can listen to music while offline. Now, on with the show!

Dan Ackerman

The player controls remind me of the ones on the Amazon Music Cloud, which I've spent a lot of time with lately, as I just finished uploading 3,500 tracks to it.

The first thing I always search for on any music service (being a narcissist) is my own work. Oddly, two old albums I worked on from 2001 are available, but not my much more recent (and successful) one from 2008. All three have the same distributor.

When you search, it's not always clear which results are from the Spotify Cloud, and which are your own local files. In a way, I do appreciate the "sign up and then get dropped into the pool" methodology--it's more fun to figure out these things for yourself than sit through, say, an interminable tutorial video.

Good collection for my other test case, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and I like the "appears on" section below the full albums.

Related stories:
Hands-on with Spotify
Spotify (finally) launches in the U.S.
Spotify sets new limits on free music
What's driving rise in music sales?

Like Roger, I'm also seeing some missing tracks. The full album appears, but certain tracks are grayed out. Clicking on them brings up the message: "The artist/label has chosen to make this track unavailable. If you have the file on your computer you can import it."

I second (or third) the comments about the catalog data not being as clean as it should be. Taking it back to the '70s for a second, T.Rex and T. Rex are separate artists with different albums listed (yes, it's the space between the T. and Rex).

At least on my player app, when I went into "preferences," I noticed that "high-quality streaming" was not checked by default. Seems like the kind of thing I'd want.

Sharing a song on Facebook was underwhelming. My Facebook friends need a Spotify account to listen to it, which, as of this morning, pretty much no one has.

Spotify is definitely fun, however, for discovering new versions of songs. I suspect this works especially well for classic "songbook" compositions. Right now I'm checking out different versions of "Aguas de Marco," "Mais Que Nada," and "Corcovado" -- all oft-covered Brazilian jazz classics.

Other than decent social-media integration, can anyone explain to me how this is fundamentally different than Rhapsody, Zune Pass, and other all-you-can-eat music services?

I must admit, I've had more fun this past week playing around on turntable.fm than I have here. I think the real-time feedback from other listeners on turntable.fm and that shared experience makes Spotify (or just listening to your own music via iTunes, etc.) suddenly feel very isolating.

Finally, and this shows you how far we've come in the past year or so, it's somewhat jarring to be using an actual downloaded app for something on my Windows PC. The Amazon Music Cloud and turntable.fm are browser-based, and I use Google Docs and Gmail instead of Word and Outlook--my entire world has moved into Web-based apps.

On day one of the Spotify U.S. launch, I'd give it a qualified thumbs-up. The real deciding factor will end up being how limited the free version of the service is (we've been testing the premium version), and at the moment the Web site and FAQs are frustratingly vague on some of those specific limitations.

Stephen Shankland

I've been using Spotify for a year and a half here in England, and it's been a real test: I left my CD collection packed up in boxes.

The ad-supported free Spotify service was good enough to convince me to sign up for the low-rent premium subscription very quickly. There are times I'd like some music selection service to stream in some background music of some particular genre, but mostly I'd rather pick my albums myself. When the guests come over for dinner, I fire up Spotify, pick something that suits the mood, and uncork the wine.

Spotify isn't flawless. My biggest complaints are these:

1. Search is really weak for those of used to dealing with Google's forgiving technology. The smallest typo means you'll get no results at all.

2. Good luck with anything classical. There's some good stuff on Spotify, but it can be hard to find it amid "Mozart's Greatest Hits." This is par for the course--if you want something as specific as Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor, you'll likely be disappointed.

3. Naturally, there are some holes in the catalog. This changes, though--The Shins' "Oh, Inverted World" has arrived in the last couple of months, for example.

I cut Spotify some slack when it comes to the problem of presenting search results for their entire catalog. There are countless song names used over and over (try to find Leann Rimes' version of "Unchained Melody"), covers of songs that use the same title as the original, and duplicate performances of the same songs. I counted at least five versions of the musical "Hair."

I've been tempted more than once to upgrade my subscription so I can listen on mobile devices, but then I get stingy and just go back to podcasts when I crave audio entertainment on from my phone or tablet. Maybe when Google Music extends beyond the United States that'll serve my needs for music on the go, too.

Overall: Thumbs-up.

Rafe Needleman

Just found a track that Spotify wouldn't play because it was "DRM protected." It said I could play it if I downloaded it, but I couldn't figure out how to do that.

I have a lot of dupes in my Spotify library. Not sure my if my library itself is messed up or if it's because it's synced to two computers.

I have the Sonos integration, and it's cool to be able to play the Spotify library from Sonos. The interface is not attractive, but has a functional search.

I really like being able to peek into Facebook friends' playlists. Makes me want to create some playlists myself to show how cool my music taste is (which is a delusion on my part).

Roger Cheng adds: Conversely, I'm a little self-conscious about my music tastes when they're available for viewing by my social network. Yes, I love Lady Gaga. Sue me.

Rafe: So am I, but Spotify gives you control over which playlists you share. So you can create playlists to look cool...and private ones you really use.

I'm at work now, and I installed Spotify on my work PC. I'm disappointed to find that a good portion of my library, perhaps a third, can't be played here, because the files aren't local. Much of my music is popular and licensed and can be, but some key artists (Beatles and Yo-Yo Ma to name two) aren't.

Overall: So far, big thumbs-up.

Roger Cheng

I admittedly am not an audiophile. I sparingly use iTunes to sync my iPod Shuffle and Zune player. I don't pay for any streaming music service, and I only occasionally use Pandora. With that in mind, here are my first impressions:

The interface is really slick. It doesn't look like iTunes, but it's definitely just as easy and intuitive to use.

I'm actually a fan of Microsoft's Zune player on the PC. Its user interface is a pleasure compared to other music services. Should I have my geek credentials revoked now?

I should note that I'm on the premium service that I'm using for free. I'm not a huge audiophile, so I'm not sure whether I would pay for this.

The service seems optimized for finding what's popular now. But is there a way to search via category? If so, I'm not sure how.

I noticed discovery of music is kind of tough unless you know the artist or song titles. Which is sort of sucks for me because I can never remember what I want to hear. Rafe Needleman adds: I second that.

Also, no Beatles. I just saw a lot of cover artists. Do they have the same licensing issues that iTunes was previously caught up in? Upon further exploration I am seeing a lot of holes in song selection.

Dan mentioned that he couldn't tell what song was in his local hard drive or in the cloud. I actually don't mind that. The whole potential of cloud services is that it should be seamless for users, right? Granted, that might be unnerving for many who have spent years building up their music collection.

The streaming service works flawlessly here on a PC, but I really want to see how this works on a mobile device, especially one dependent on a cellular connection.

As I continue to use this service, I have to wonder if this is a bigger threat to Pandora than it is to iTunes. Especially if the mobile experience is as solid.

Despite some quibbles, I look forward to spending the rest of the day "testing the service" at work. Thumbs-up--but I'm not sure I would pay for this service.

Lori Grunin

Keep in mind that I'm approaching this from the perspective of someone who hasn't used a music service since the day Real bought Rhapsody. I have troubleshot iTunes problems for people, but won't use it myself. Also, I'm not really looking for a social solution. Just looking for a good streaming option mobile/desktop (and some personal music discoverability).

Some albums seem to be incomplete--only 3 tracks from They Might Be Giants' "The Spine," for example.

Is sorting not sticky? I like to organize by album, not by popularity, which seems to be the default.

Stephen Shankland notes: I see the full "Spine" in my search. It was a way down the list, though.

Actually, Search looks buggy. I seem to get different results when I search again--only one track seems to appear in search now. But when I click on the Album at the top of the search results page, all the tracks show. Does it do some sort of search equivalent of progressive rendering? Or caching issues?

Yeah, it's progressively filling the page with search results. That will account for different results. The application needs some sort of UI treatment to show that.

Android app warns you that it's going to suck up great gobs of bandwidth, so you better have a flat-rate plan.

I wish it had more info about the tracks/albums in the search results view--for instance, I want to see all the albums a particular artist has released in the past n years.

The star ratings are different for the same track in different views (search vs. album). I find parts of the UI unintuitive. Tool tips and rollovers, please!

It's not a treasure trove for musical theater fans. Only one recording of "Company"! I personally have a better Sondheim collection.

I have to say it's got a great (small) system footprint, even on XP. Minimal CPU, RAM, and GDI resources.

Overall: For free, thumbs-up. For pay, sideways thumb.