From the outside it can appear that all of the music streaming services are the same -- they each cost $10 a month, and every one has "millions of tracks." But if you're willing to scratch at the surface, just a little, there's a lot more to them, and this applies especially to the two strongest services: Spotify and Apple Music.
- The biggest catalog of music available for any genre
- Excellent social features
- Great compatibility with myriad devices via Spotify Connect
- No Dolby Atmos or lossless music
- App interface is dated
- Podcasts can be hard to find
- Artist compensation is an issue
Apple Music's large catalog offers tight integration with Apple products, as you'd expect, but it also includes some extras including lossless tunes. On the other hand, Spotify offers a similarly large catalog of music, but supplements it with a host of features, including podcasts and excellent streaming capabilities via Spotify Connect.
While other streaming services are only now starting to follow suit, social features have been a core part of Spotify for many years. From the ever-popular Spotify Wrapped annual roundup, to the ability to add friends and see their current "Now Playing" track, no other service has yet come close to the same level of social integration.
While you can't go wrong with either Apple Music or Spotify, the latter is the one I'd choose, especially if you're an Android user or have a voice assistant at home. Spotify is the biggest streaming service for a reason, and if you like sharing your music tastes with friends or having a vast smorgasbord of music to choose from it's the one to get.
What is Spotify?
Spotify is a music streaming service with a catalog of 80 million-plus songs and a selection of apps available for desktop, mobile and smart devices. Streaming quality is capped at 320kbps, which is higher than Amazon Music and Pandora, while the company has also teased a lossless tier for many years.
When it comes to accounts there are two main 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. Though there's also no offline listening there is the ability to stream to other speakers over Wi-Fi using Spotify Connect.
Premium is Spotify's flagship product, full of all of the eye-catching features that make it great. It costs $10 (£10, AU$12) per month and is available in over 150 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 than with most Apple Music tracks at up to 320Kbps.
As part of Premium, Spotify offers a family plan, which costs $16 per month with up to six accounts. Each person gets their own account, so your hip-hop playlists don't get mixed in with your kid's Imagine Dragons albums. Meanwhile, Apple Music's family plan also includes six separate accounts for $17.
When it comes to the desktop and mobile apps there are three main navigation sections: Home, Search and Your Library. For the mobile app these options live at the bottom of the screen while on the desktop these sections are available on the top left corner. The desktop's extra real estate over mobile also enables an expanded playlists section (including ones you've created) on the bottom left, and the Friends list on the right-hand side. The latter list enables users to see what their friends are playing in real time. Be aware that Friends isn't available on mobile, though Spotify is reportedly working on a similar feature called Community.
While it's different for every platform, the Home page mainly consists of playlists, from suggested playlists for the time of day, to genre-based entries to "Made for you" lists which collate your music into discrete Daily mixes. By default, after playing a song Spotify will plays an endless stream of music based on what you choose. If you like a song you can either long press it, click the hamburger button (...) or right-click on desktop and get more information or add it to your library with the Like button. These songs are automatically added to the "Liked" list, which you can then search through and separate according to genre.
In the middle of the three options is search, which opens Spotify's tool for finding any song, album, artist, podcast and playlist. The final tab in the menu is home to your music collection in Spotify, called Your Library. 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.
A plethora of control options
Spotify's biggest advantages are its compatibility and adaptability -- no matter what type of connected device you try to use it will usually work, and it plays nice with every voice assistant too. Spotify Connect continues to show the way you can make multiple devices work together. On the bottom of the interface you will see a speaker icon, and pressing this will enable you to connect to Spotify Connect-compatible speakers, soundbars and AV receivers in your home.
If you do use a voice assistant in your home, you have a number of services available to you, but the one I've used that works the best across both Alexa and Google Assistant is Spotify. I have used a number of music services -- including Apple Music -- but none come as close to Spotify in getting the song you ask for most of the time. It comes back to the breadth of Spotify's catalog. My family and I use Spotify every single day, but our main method of interaction is via Google Assistant, and I only use the Spotify app when making or listening to playlists.
Apple Music is an excellent alternative for people who don't want to give their money to Spotify, but it lacks the same level of compatibility or social interactivity. As great as Apple Music is, and as many advancements it's made to make it less of a walled garden, it's still not great for PC users in particular. There's still no app -- you have to make do with iTunes, even though it's been long-dead for most Mac users. Yes, Apple has both Apple AirPlay 2 and Siri, and they're designed to work together seamlessly. While Apple Music is also one of the services Google Assistant users can choose, I went back to Spotify after two weeks as I found Apple Music failed to find tracks as consistently.
Not just music
When it comes to Spotify, there are even more features -- both hidden and in plain sight -- that not every user will use them all. And new features are being added all the time, with audiobooks the latest in a long line of add-ons. Alongside the fledgling feature, Podcasts has become one of the major tentpoles of Spotify. However, it's only with the latest mobile update that the feature has been visible. But there are plenty of podcasts to choose from including the Spotify Original Heavyweight. The popular music game Heardle is another recent acquisition by Spotify, though it's not yet integrated into the app.
One of the best reasons to choose Spotify over other services is the sheer size of its catalog. As a long-term user, I've only ever encountered a couple of instances where music wasn't available. From the obscure to the popular it's likely that if it isn't on Spotify then it isn't available on streaming. Some artists have legitimate reasons not to be on the platform, whether it's the infamous bust-up between Neil Young and Joe Rogan, or that they would rather be on services that offer better rates, such as Tidal or Bandcamp.
There's still room for improvement, though
From its controversial $200 million deal with podcaster Joe Rogan to what are reportedly the lowest artist payouts in the industry, no other streaming service is as polarizing as Spotify.
In recent years the company's payouts to artists have come under the spotlight, and based on reports the company pays some of the lowest rates in the industry. This is especially galling to some musicians in light of the Rogan deal, and you might well balk at having to pay for podcasts you don't even listen to. (Especially if you don't have the time to listen to a bunch of bros talk for three hours straight.)
Sometimes Spotify features are released that just don't pan out. Take Car Thing, for example: In 2022 this car-friendly dongle came and went, ending before even summer did. Running was another high-profile feature that Spotify retired, which matched a playlist to a person's running cadence.
Lastly, Spotify is beginning to show its age -- from the green-and-black interface it's had since 2014 to its uncanny ability to hide new features such as podcasts or audiobooks on the desktop version. Most of the service's competitors have been able to showcase its expanding range of offerings in a better way -- from spatial audio to radio.
Should you subscribe?
There is no such thing as a perfect streaming service, but Spotify comes closer than most by offering a large catalog of music and a myriad of ways to interact with it. For $10 a month it includes a bunch of fun features, including Wrapped and podcasts, and is more than enough for the needs of most people.
On the other hand, if you want music in lossless quality, or don't want to pay for podcasts, Apple Music is an excellent alternative, albeit better if you have an iPhone, Mac or Apple TV. Yet whichever service you choose, know that you're getting the best value for your money with either option. Not even video streaming services offer this much for this little a month.