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Hitting the pavement with Spotify Running (hands-on)

I took Spotify's new Running feature out for a few laps around the track, here's what I liked and didn't.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Back in May, music streaming giant Spotify gave us a new tool to listen to music while jogging. Called simply Spotify Running, it matches music to your running tempo to keep you motivated to move through your run. It uses your phone's sensors to detect your steps per minute and finds tracks with a similar beat (Spotify doesn't specify which sensors).

I took the feature out for a few test runs to check out how well it works. After a few runs in my neighborhood and some time on a treadmill, I found that Spotify Running is cool, but needs some work.

Start moving

To get started with Running, pick a playlist and the app will detect your running stride in steps per minute. That number is called the tempo, and Spotify uses it to find songs with the same beats per minute. So if your tempo is 160 steps per minute, it play songs with 160 beats per minute, or close to it. You can change the tempo throughout your running on the Now Playing screen, but the app will not automatically change it for you if you slow down or speed up.

Spotify Running supports tempos between 140 and 190 steps per minute. Lower than 140 and you're closer to walking, and the app won't recognize your movement. I even tried power walking, but the app wouldn't detect my tempo. My tempo averaged around 160, which is a steady jog for me.

In my testing, Spotify Running worked both on a treadmill and while running outside. When you set your tempo, you phone needs to be on your person, either in your hand, strapped to your arm or in a pocket. Once that's done, you can set your phone down on a treadmill without any issues.

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Running detects your steps per minute number and matches you with music with a similar beat. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Music selection

Running is built into the existing Spotify apps and is currently rolling out to iOS apps now, with Android coming soon. It's available to both free and premium Spotify members, though with a free account, you'll hear ads between songs and there's a limit on how many tracks you can skip while running.

You cannot pick just any track, album or playlist to listen to with Spotify Running. Instead, You get two pools of music to pick from; "Running Originals" and "Running Playlists." The Originals are new, original instrumental tracks created by Spotify for different running moods, including a beat-heavy pick made by dance music DJ Tiesto. Each has several chapters that are a few minutes long. I didn't really care for these tracks, but if you like background music, they could be great for you.

The Running Playlists is where you'll find playlists that Spotify thinks you'll like, based on your listening history. Each playlist is focused on a genre -- pop, rock, country, hip-hop, etc. -- and uses popular and classic songs to make up the playlist. You cannot see the tracks in those playlists, since they change each time you go running.

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The Running tab has plenty of music to listen to while you run. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

What's great

I'm the type of runner Spotify Running is built this for, because fast songs help push me a little harder during my workouts and I always pop in my headphones when I run. For me, this feature is great at giving me the right kind of music, without having to pick out the tracks myself.

Another high point is that Spotify tries to only play the high-energy parts of each song and then fades to another track when the song's music starts to slow or quiet down. This eliminates those slow beginnings and endings that I might get with a full song that drag me down when I'm trying to power through the last half mile. The app also uses that fade if you change tracks, so there's never an abrupt stop to trip you up.

When the Running feature worked as expected, I was able to pop in my headphones, pick a playlist, wait a few seconds while it figured out my pace, put my phone away and get in my running zone. As songs faded in and out, I got a boost of energy and by the time I was sick of a song, Spotify was already moving to the next. For the most part, the music stayed with my pace throughout my workout and I got to hear new songs I may have never picked on my own.

What needs improvement

As much as I like Spotify Running, there are several issues and improvements to be made. First and foremost, the tempo-setting tool doesn't always work. Many times during my runs, I'd open a playlist, start moving to set the tempo and the app would try to do it for 10 to 20 seconds before telling me the tempo wasn't detected, forcing me to start again. This was especially problematic when I tried running around 140 steps per minute, since the app struggled to detect that I was running.

Once the tempo was set, I encountered two new issues. First, the song selection wasn't always spot-on, leaving me with tracks that sounded slower than my pace. In the pop-focused Upbeat Run playlist, I got Katy Perry's "Wide Awake" which is around 80bpm, even though my tempo was set to twice that at 160 steps per minute. I did get some well-matched songs in the playlist, though it often went off-theme with a few unwelcome country and slower alternative tracks.

The other issue is that once your tempo is set, it won't change for warm-ups or cool downs, so you'll need to fuss with the app if your pace changes in your workout.

Outlook

Spotify Running is a cool concept, though running to songs that match your stride isn't new; users have published many traditional playlists with different beats per minute songs in the service. With Running, Spotify just makes it easier to figure out your steps per minute and to match you with the right music. And because it lives in a service that many people already use, you don't necessarily have to download a new app.

The downside is that the feature still needs some polishing before it can be truly great. With bugs in the tempo-setting tools and some questionable music choices, Running can only get better from here. For now, it's fun to play around with, but it hasn't replaced my traditional running playlists.