Pick a song; any song. Type its name in a search box, click a button, and it starts playing. Okay, we could do this five years ago. But now, click the album name, and listen to the whole album, top to bottom, in sequence. Instantly. Meet Spotify ($10/month, $5/month, or free, depending on level of service).
I’m pretty excited about Spotify, and it works very, very well. I use a number of other online music services, and it stacks up against the best of them. Bandcamp often lets you enjoy complete albums, but only for emerging artists. 8tracks contains well-known tracks, but never complete albums, and if you play a mix more than once, their license forces them to shuffle the songs around. iTunes has a huge catalog, but doesn’t provide all-you-can-eat streaming for a flat monthly fee. I could go on, but the point is that Spotify manages to offer something truly unique in the crowded world of online music services.
Spotify started out as a Europe-only service, and recently made its debut in the States. You can download the client and start listening to music for free, but you’ll also get lots of intrusive ads mixed in with your songs. For $5/mo, you’ll get the same music, but without the ads. If you shell out $10/mo, Spotify will also work offline, and you could also use it on your Android smartphone.
One interesting discovery I made was that to use the American version of Spotify, you don’t even need to physically be in the US. You need only a credit card with an American billing address. Once you pay using this card, you can use Spotify from anywhere in the world, without going through a VPN or otherwise faking your location. Even the free version supports this feature, but for only a two-week period.
Spotify also has a radio mode where you dial in a decade (or three), and pick your favorite genres, and Spotify does the rest. As far as personalized radio goes, it’s just okay; Pandora has nothing to worry about. Spotify's catalog is vast indeed, but it lacks Pandora's ability to “thumbs-down” a song to make the system learn about what you like.
Another key difference between Spotify and the other services is that to use Spotify, you have to download a client. It’s nice to be able to use my keyboard’s multimedia keys to pause and play online radio--something that can’t really be done with Web-based services. On the other hand, the client feels like it’s trying too hard to be iTunes, and although vendor Spotify Ltd states that it developed Mac and PC versions at the same time, it feels far from native on my Windows 7 system.
You can also use the Spotify client to play your local music collection, and purchase music you like for offline listening The Local Files section is quite minimalistic--just a long list of tracks with album art and live (as-you-type) search. If you have a Facebook account, you can use the client to network with your friends, check out what they’re listening to, and share recommendations.
In terms of performance, Spotify’s playback was silky-smooth on my modest (5MBps) connection, with no noticeable buffering, stuttering, or any other glitches. All in all, Spotify is fantastic at what it does. It’s like having an unlimited music library in the cloud; highly recommended.