I signed up for Spotify premium as soon as the iPhone app was available. That was 3 weeks ago. Since then I’ve been closely evaluating the application on the iPhone and the premium (by which I mean ad-free) desktop player. I’m trying to gauge whether this is worth £10 a month.
There are numerous demo videos of the iPhone application online. Take a look at them to get a feel for the application. The official video is a good place to start. In general it works very similarly to the native iPod application. Spotify takes a little bit longer to load up, but once open it’s just as responsive as the iPod.
You can play tracks whenever you have WiFi/3G/EDGE connectivity and you can download tracks to play when you have no connectivity whenever you have WiFi connectivity. Offline tracks are on a playlist basis only. It takes about 10-15 seconds to download each track on my home internet connection. So a playlist the length of an average album will take less than 5 minutes to get on to your phone.
At first I thought that it would be good to have all my music in iTunes imported into playlists on Spotify so I’d have quick ways to get to music I liked. But then I realized this would put me back to where I had started with all the same songs on my iPhone. There is no such tool available anyway at this stage – but I think it would be a step backwards anyway. Playlists are easy enough to make on the desktop application to build up a collection of things you actually listen to (unlike around 70% of my iTunes library) without getting things cluttered with music you think you like but you actually don’t.
The main drawback of the application versus the native iPod is that you cannot play music in the background using the application. This isn’t Spotify’s fault – it’s Apple’s. They don’t allow background processes for third party applications at present, but one day maybe they will. The Android application, where background processes are allowed, already allows playing music when the application isn’t open. So this is perhaps a bit annoying when you are listening to some music and you suddenly get a vibrate/ding indicating that you have got an email. The only way to look at it is to stop playing your music. I thought it was basically a show stopper when I first read about it, but actually it’s quite ok. A more one thing at a time approach which allows you to concentrate more on what you are doing.
The actual interface of the application isn’t completely ideal either. Typing on the iPhone is fine but it’s not the easiest of places to type. I don’t generally want to have to type the name of an artist to listen to them. Clearly you generally don’t have to as you have a playlist of each artist / collection of artists ready to play. But Spotify need to make this easier. I want to be able to click on an artists’ name and get the option to create a playlist of all of their songs. At the moment you can do this on the desktop application with albums but not with artists. Playlist creation and management on the iPhone itselt is downright clumsy. Here’s how you make a new playlist and populate it with songs you’d like to hear:
- Touch “Edit” on the Playlists screen.
- Touch the “+” symbol at the top right.
- Enter a name for the playlist.
- Touch “Create”.
- Search for Track 1 you want to add to the playlist.
- Touch the name of the track (it starts playing at this point).
- Touch on the album art.
- Touch “Add to playlist”
- You are presented with a list of all the playlists in your account and the one you’ve just created in step 4 is right at the bottom.
- Now repeat from step 5 until you’ve got all the songs you wanted on there.
The fact that you cannot start a playlist playing and then add more tracks to it without jumping to the new tracks immediately is annoying. It means you have to arrange your playlist in advance of listening. Now for entire albums this process is better and you can add the whole of an album to a playlist without having the song playing. But you can’t do this for individual tracks or for artists.
I think they need some sort of gesture – say a swipe over any track that will bring up a button (like the delete button that appears when you swipe an email in the Mail app) which allows you to add that track to the currently playing playlist. Without this you have to have everything prepared on the desktop really – unless you want to type the name of each artist you want to listen to. My present solution is to have a playlist for each of my favourite artists with all of their songs on. This makes all of my favourite songs just a few taps away without any typing.
The other thing that Spotify doesn’t have – and maybe will never have – is podcasts. This is essentially a non-issue in many ways. Spotify is about music which podcasts are not. This however does mean that I am not able to totally replace the iPod with the Spotify app just yet.
Now I’m aware that this section seems incredibly negative. I have been picking on the bits of the application that need improving. In general it is very impressive to be able to play any song in a couple of seconds on a device that fits in your pocket is a fantastic. Overall it is fairly well designed too. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the stuff I like:
- Has indication of progress through the track at the bottom. The iPod has the volume control here – with the progress bar show/hiding as you touch the album artwork. Spotify reverse this and I think it makes much more sense.
- Dragging the album art to skip tracks works really well. Much better than the coverflow nonsense.
- Sync with the desktop application is incredibly quick. If you rearrange some tracks in a playlist tehn the change is updated in a few seconds on the iPhone / desktop. This isn’t true during the time you are downloading tracks to the Offline Playlists – changes are synced up afterwards.
- Sound quality – fine for me, can’t fault it.
- Speed of buffering – takes a few seconds if you are streaming a track. Not more than that.
- Clear colour scheme indication of whether you are in online mode or not – the app is green when you are online and blue when you are not.
One issue I haven’t yet mentioned is battery life. I personally romp through the entire battery on the iPhone every day. It isn’t very good – probably the weakest part of the whole device, ironically the battery is used up so much because of its greatest strength – its malleability to preform so many tasks. Anyway, keeping to the point here – does the Spotify application use up much more battery life than the iPod? I’m not sure. I haven’t done any measurements on this and I’ve never noticed it drain particularly quickly when using it. However I’m nearly always listening to an Offline Playlist which wouldn’t really be expected to use much (if any) more power than the normal iPod. It hasn’t been a problem so far – lets leave it at that.
The desktop application is identical to the free application except for two details. These are:
- There are no advertisements (either on the screen or between songs).
- You can stream music up to 320 kps (double the free version I think).
Personally I found the screen banners more irritating than the audio adverts. The way that they kept moving around the screen adding scroll bars to the panes of the program was very annoying, so I’m glad to be rid of them. The extra sound quality – I can’t really tell the difference – but the music sounds good.
If you haven’t tried the desktop application then really you must. Even the free version is a real breath of fresh air. It feels so lightweight and functional compared to iTunes or Windows Media Player and it plays most songs in an instant. I’d like to see a few things added though. Play counts would be nice, and as I mentioned when discussing the iPhone app better playlist management is essential.
I would also like to be able download playlists onto my computer like I can on my iPhone. Sometimes I don’t have an internet connection and I might want to be using my iPhone for something else (maybe the internet…) so it’d be good to be able to use Spotify on the laptop then.
The other key area where improvement is needed is comprehensiveness. Spotify have lots of tracks. But if they are not the ones you like then that is no good. Almost all of the bands I like are on Spotify and they’re adding more all the time. If Spotify is adopted in the mainstream it could become the place to be for artists. The coverage is good at the moment but if it is going to be your music player you want to check they have stuff you like before making the plunge.
The Spotify model is a subscription service. You are essentially renting the music while you are paying your subscription and at the end of it when you stop paying you are left with nothing. The bonus versus buying specific tracks or albums however is that you have a much wider library choice. You can flit between many different artists without paying any premium for your indecision.
To me – someone who’s semi-obsessed with having things backed up, Spotify also represents a real lift of burden. Subscribing to the service I can forget about the chores of owning digital music. I no longer have to have it consuming 15+ GB of my hard drive and I no longer need to look after it. I don’t have to back it up. And when I get a new computer I don’t need to do any transfers – my music is there as soon as I login to Spotify on any computer. These are big benefits in my eyes.
Since joining Spotify early in 2009 I have discovered and grown to love numerous artists that I had never heard of before. When I went away at Easter I bought albums from two of these artists (around £7 each) so I could listen to the music on my iPhone while I was away. Now with the subscription that sort of payment is not necessary. I can take the artists I listen to on the desktop application with me wherever I go.
Now it’s definitely the case that I almost never spend more than £10 a month on music. So how can I suddenly justify this expenditure? Spotify legally gives access to more music than anyone could listen to in a lifetime. This freedom to “eat as much as you like” changes the way that you listen to music in a very positive way. This is equally true of the free version. But having the ubiquity with the lack of advertisements makes it “non-stop each as much as you like anywhere”. I think this is a personal thing, but to me I think this is a game changer. While Spotify should improve in terms of comprehensiveness, and the applications themselves, which I’m sure they’ll do, even as the service is today I believe for iPhone or Android device owners its worth looking into.