It may be a small sum, but splashing out 79p for every track you buy on iTunes soon adds up. That’s why Spotify became such a smash hit when it arrived on the Mac and PC, allowing music lovers to listen to tunes for free as long as they could put up with adverts every 30 minutes. Now Spotify is available on the iPhone but you have to be a premium subscriber to use it. So is this an iTunes killer – and is it worth the monthly cost? David Crookes checked it out.
The first thing which sprung to our minds when we used Spotify on our computers earlier this year was the question of when it was going to make it to mobile devices. Being able to stream music on your Mac or PC is all well and good but the wonder of Apple’s iPod means we’re now used to taking our growing music collection around with us – so it just had to be Spotify’s next step.
And so it has finally come to the iPhone. We’ve had a chance to play around with this much-awaited app for a short while now, allowing ourselves to become au fait with its inner workings, foibles and all. It hasn’t been an easy ride for Spotify to get to this point – there was talk that the application was set to be rejected by Apple – but the good news is that it works well. And the bad news? You have to be a premium subscriber to Spotify and it costs £9.99 a month.
But then a service like this was never going to be free. To do so would have put it directly at odds with Apple’s own iTunes and, given the quality of Spotify’s service, it would have most likely caused some major damage. It may well be that Apple and Spotify work more closely together in the months and years to come (maybe Apple will even buy Spotify?) but until then, you can add the £9.99 to the many other monthly payments you undoubtedly shell out for entertainment.
So is it worth it? The most important aspect of a streaming music service such as this is obviously the quality of the playback. Using Wi-Fi, Spotify streams music within a second or two and there is no lag. There really is no difference between Spotify’s sound and that which results from iTunes either. Songs play at a bitrate of around 160kps and best of all, it’s so impressive that using the app in view of non-iPhone users gives you a rather smug feeling.
Streaming audio over 3G is also faultless. The delay in playing a song is ever so slightly longer than with Wi-Fi but we’re still only talking mere seconds. When the song is underway, there is absolutely no stop-start frustration and it’s a seamless experience that will have you dancing with joy (even if, like some of us, your choice of music is decidedly ropey).
Spotify is let down when using an Edge connection, however. It was always inevitable but it makes the app almost unusable whenever there is a lack of 3G or Wi-Fi to tap into. Improved Edge buffering would most likely make this an iTunes killer. As it is, the hesitant nature of the streaming jars and damages the Spotify experience in some respects.
The saving grace is that you needn’t suffer if you are in an area with poor – or indeed no – reception. The app has the ability to save music to your iPhone, allowing you to listen to songs offline, perfect for when you’re travelling by air or Tube or, perhaps more rarely, sitting atop a mountain and in need of some stirring music to accompany the views.
The offline playlists are accessed via the chunky grey “Offline playlists” link at the top of the Playlist screen. Tap it and you can select the playlists you want to make available offline. You simply tap the required playlist and it immediately starts to download. It can take a little while, though – seven Michael Jackson songs took us five minutes so if you’re intending to have a couple of thousand tracks available offline, be prepared to wait.
Downloading is only available via Wi-Fi and you are “limited” to 3,333 tracks for offline playback although that’s more than enough for even the heaviest of users. Syncing between the iPhone and the Mac or PC application is dynamic too. When you add a playlist on your computer, it immediately appears on the iPhone.
Another plus point in Spotify’s favour is the interface. Apple-esque in nature, it’s a breeze to navigate and you’ll be familiar with it in minutes. It’s not without its faults, though. Everything within Spotify is displayed as a list and this could prove a problem when scrolling through them – maybe a future version could make organisation a little better. It’s okay when you have a few songs on the phone but get thousands on there and you are likely to run into problems. When offline, there’s no way to search your tracks, for instance.
Searching online, however, is fast and simple. One tap of the Search icon on the bottom of the screen and you can use the prominent search box at the top. Results are listed under tabs for Tracks, Albums and Artists. With Wi-Fi, we did a search for the Pulp B-side Mile End and it came up instantly, top of 12 results, which shows some depth to the Spotify catalogue. It was just as quick with 3G but Edge took slightly longer and yet in all cases, we just hit the title and the album cover immediately showed. The song began to play, either straight away or after a hardly noticeable delay depending on the connection.
This is only the first version of the Spotify app and it’s fair to say that it’s extremely promising. Overall, there’s a mix of excitement and disappointment. It’s good to see that songs still play when the iPhone is locked but annoying that you can’t control the settings without unlocking the phone first (although you can adjust the volume using the iPhone’s controls). We wish the radio function was available and bemoan the lack of Play Queue and a simple way of setting up Playlists but we adore that offline mode, like the fact we have millions of songs at our fingertips and that songs pick up where you left off if you quit the app and then resume it.
Spotify has promised to continuing improving the iPhone app so we may well see the app saving searches and a spelling correction facility when tapping in track, artist or album names. We’d also like to be able to use the headphones to play or stop songs and some way of ensuring that battery doesn’t drain half as much as it should. And are our moans justified? They are, given that you’re shelling out close to £120 a year for the service. If it was cheaper, we’d brush much of them aside as mere annoyances.
So is it worth the cost? It really depends on how heavy a music lover you are and we guess that by reading this far, you most probably are. In many respects, it’s like having a subscription to an online DVD rental service – you are, in a sense, renting these songs for use on your iPhone and, as soon as you stop paying, you don’t get to listen. The bonus is, you don’t lose all the hard work you’ve put into building up your playlists because you still get to listen to them for free on your computer should you quit the Premium service, albeit it with ads.
On the iPhone, though, It’s not quite a substitute for iTunes just yet but it’s certainly on its way. When you think about it, £10 is the price of three pints nowadays and for that you’re going to get drunk on quite a lot of music. If it was a little cheaper, particularly to compensate for some of the failings, we’d obviously award it a higher mark. As it is, it’s still a worthwhile purchase, the future of music in many ways, and we reckon Apple will tweak iTunes sometime soon in order to match it.
Fast streaming via Wi-Fi and 3G
The offline mode is a killer feature
You can take your music with you
Spotify can’t run in the background
Edge connection is poor
Some will find £10-a-month just a tad too much
Fun Factor: 9.0
Value For Money: 7.0
Kung Fu Verdict: 8.25
Our suggestions for Spotify 2.0
Although we are loathe to over-complicate our apps, some greater depth is called for with Spotify.
-Suggestions of similar artists we may like
-A list of recently played thus avoiding the need to add all of our music to playlists