Concerts in your Pocket: Spotify Mobile App Review

Spotify originated in Sweden, moved across the EU, and gained a lot of buzz from onlookers across the Pond who were eager to get the service in the United States. That time has finally come. Spotify opened up in the US in July 2011, providing the paid version of their service to anyone, and the free version to anyone with an invitation.

Spotify

Spotify Logo in a Pocket

Spotify In Your Pocket

Spotify is music over the Internet, but it’s not “Internet radio.” One of the core principals of radio is your inability to pick the next song. That changes with Spotify, which is purely “on demand.” If they have the track, you can find it, press play, and hear it immediately. That bit about “having the track” is important, as is your subscription level, but we’ll get to that.

Spotify does provide “artist radio” stations that mimic genre radio play, though they aren’t based on anything quite as complex as Pandora’s integration with the Music Genome Project. The real core of Spotify is the Playlist functionality, where the user creates a Playlist and adds tracks, either individually or entire albums. These Playlists can be shared, and other Spotify users you “friend” can add songs to your Playlists if you allow it.

Spotify is down with the whole social media thing as well. It can integrate with both Facebook and Twitter.

Can We Just Get Past the Mission?

Comparisons to Pandora are inevitable… so allow me to embrace the inevitable. Spotify is the font of immediate gratification that Pandora, and radio in general, is not. My best example from Pandora is the Tori Amos track “Past the Mission,” which I added to an already established Pandora station years ago. I can never recall actually hearing it, and I listen to the station often: “all-day-at-work” often.

One of the first things I did after signing up with Spotify was play that track. No waiting, just played it.

To be fair, I feel with Spotify you lose that sense of exploration Pandora provides. The urge with Spotify Playlists is to create them based solely on music you’ve already heard. There’s a lot to miss that way. Spotify integrates with Last.FM and uses their system to find “like” artists in their artist Playlists, but that isn’t quite as robust as Pandora’s system.

Spotify Mobile App

The mobile app provides access to your Playlists, “What’s New,” and searches by artist, album or track. It also integrates any saved audio files you have on your phone, and allows you add them to your Playlists. The one real frustration with the Spotify mobile app is the difficulty adding single tracks to Playlists when looking at albums. You can only add the entire album to a Playlist. You can add single tracks, but you have to search them individually.

Unlike Pandora, the Spotify app doesn’t start playing by default. Another Pandora pet peeve solved.

Spotify really shines with mobile because paid subscriptions can download tracks to their phone. If you have more free space on your phone than monthly data, just find a Wi-Fi connection, download your Playlist, then enjoy your tracks anywhere without worrying about overages or even connectivity.

Price

Mobile access is only available to Premium users, and that’s the most expensive level, currently $9.99/mo. This is a lot more expensive than Pandora, but the feature set, on-demand, unlimited play, and track downloading certainly make up for the disparity. If you’re cool with the desktop only variety, you can get the “Unlimited” version for $4.99/mo. The “Free” version in the US is currently by “invitation only” (Premium and Unlimited users get invites to give out). Free users get unlimited play time for the first 6 month, then are throttled back to 10 hours/month.

The higher tiers also have access to a deeper song catalog. Even with Premium there’s some gaps. It’s unfair to single Spotify out for this, since all online services have this issue. The size of any library is dependent on a number of factors. Still, I’ve discovered it’s not easy to cover AC/DC… Also, you also won’t get the Beatles in the US, as they’re exclusive to iTunes.

This isn’t to say they won’t eventually fill in the gaps. In the few weeks since I signed up and a recent check, they added Carrie Newcomer and added the rest of Vienna Teng’s albums.

Recommendation

I have really enjoyed Spotify. The gaps in the catalog are a minor inconvenience. I still fire up Pandora from time to time, to see if anything new hits, but my first impulse is to load up Spotify next and see if I can add that track to a Playlist. Some form of unholy union between the 2 would probably be the ideal music service, but for now Spotify has become my primary source for music online.

So, take the advice from me, some guy on the Internet: get Spotify.

Concerts in your Pocket: Pandora Mobile App Review

Since there’s not a live show 24/7, and your ears probably wouldn’t appreciate it if there was, sometimes you just need to enjoy music on the go. This series will review some of the internet radio apps out there, starting with one of the more popular ones: Pandora.

Pandora Internet Radio

Pandoras Box Graphic

Box graphic. Big surprise, I know.

The service itself is unique in that it is driven by the Music Genome Project. The MGP “classifies” songs along a very, very deep range of criteria, which Pandora uses to map out a series of similarities between tracks. Users “seed” a station with a single track or artists, and Pandora plays tracks similar to that seed. While the station plays, users can thumb-up or thumb-down tracks, further customizing a station based on those like/dislike controls. At least, that’s the plan…

It’s probably beyond the scope of a review of their mobile app, but what review of Pandora would be complete without mentioning the promise of the service and the reality don’t match up all the time. You’ll never have to look hard online to find a “how did Pandora decide to play that?” story. Not to dissuade you, of course, the system usually functions quite nicely. “Thumb-down” controls help keep Pandora’s flights of musical fancy under some control. Two thumb-downs will remove an artist completely from a station.

I am leery of some of the song matching criteria. Some of them include lyric similarities, and I don’t consider that a particularly strong thread. I don’t seek out new music because it contains “narrative lyrics.”

Pandora is not “on demand”. If you pick a song to seed a station, it’s guaranteed you won’t hear that song first thing. If you’re the impatient sort, you can either write your congressman about the messed up situation with internet radio royalties, or just get Spotify. I’ll be reviewing that later.

Users have the ability to skip 12 songs (thumb-downs included) per day. While the service previously allowed more, the change isn’t particularly onerous unless you’re exceptionally picky.

The Pandora Mobile App

The mobile app provides basic functionality similar to the web based based player. Like the online service, it simply starts playing the last station, something I found frustrating on the mobile platform, but less so on the web. You can buy tracks, thumb tracks up/down, create/delete stations, but, and this is key, you can’t edit stations from the mobile app.

I’m not sure why this functionality is left out, it’s fairly core to the Pandora experience. Once you’ve created a station, either via song or artist, you can “add variety” to it by adding additional song and artist seeds via the web interface. That functionality is absent here. If you accidentally thumb down a song on the mobile app, you’ll need to wait until you reach a computer to fix the mistake.

The app allows you to pick the quality of the stream, something anyone with a metered data plan will appreciate. Even at low quality, it seems insistent that it only plays when hooked up to a 4G signal. If your 4G drops, so does Pandora. That was my experience with the Android version on Sprint.

Price

Pandora comes in two flavors. The free version provides both commercial interruption of the stream, and a limited listing window of 40 hours per month. Paying 99 cents will allow you to keep listening for the rest of the month.

The paid version (Pandora One) isn’t quite so expensive , currently $36/yr. This removes commercials and the listening window, but not the skip limits. Might want to lock in that price though, as Pandora’s “sweetheart” licensing deals with the music labels run out in a year or two.

Recommendation

Despite the limits placed on the mobile app, it’s a good way to stay in touch with your favorite music on the go. Pandora’s recommendation engine, while hardly perfect, may clue you into artists or tracks you’d never have known about otherwise. In-between the odd bout of “where did that come from,” I discovered quite a few artists I liked while listening to Pandora. The $36/yr. price tag on Pandora One is too good to pass up (record companies agree, so get it while you can), and a must-have if you’re listing during your work week.