Hands-on with Spotify: Promising, with Let-Downs

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(UPDATE: Spotify has clarified that the software made available to me is the U.K. version of the service, not the U.S. version. Therefore, things may change before launch, and these should be considered early impressions.)

Spotify’s U.S. launch has been a long time coming, and now it’s nearly here. Although the subscription music service hasn’t announced a launch date for the United States, you can now sign up for an early invite.

Spotify is a big deal because of its free service. Imagine if Apple let you stream its entire iTunes catalog in exchange for only an occasional advertisement, and that’s basically what Spotify is.

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The catch is that you can only listen to 10 hours per month, and only 5 listens per track, or you can lift those restrictions for $10 per month, or $5 per month without mobile access. (UPDATE: This information was taken from the sign-up page provided to me, and from Spotify’s terms of service, but Spotify says it hasn’t announced pricing or conditions for U.S. users yet.)

Other subscription music services, such as MOG, Rhapsody, Rdio and Zune Pass only offer brief trials, so Spotify is a better service for music discovery, and it has more potential to convert people into premium members.

I just took a hands-on tour of the service, using a press account provided by Spotify. And while the service has great potential, much of it is squandered on a mobile app that doesn’t keep pace with the competition.

But let’s start with the desktop experience.

Instead of offering its music through a web browser, Spotify requires you to download some software, and for good reason: The software can import your existing music library, including playlists, so you theoretically never have use iTunes again. Any gaps in Spotify’s own library—say, unsigned indie artists or obscure labels—can be filled in by your own local collection, and you can use Spotify’s streaming catalog to augment your existing playlists. Very cool.

If only the mobile experience—available on iPhone and Android, among other platforms—was as useful. The ability to sync your local music library is still there, but unlike the desktop application, the mobile app has no way to browse through your song queue. (You can add songs to a queue, but you can’t remove them or visualize the entire list.) Playlists are handy for songs you want to hear often, but Spotify’s app needs some sort of way to manage songs on the fly.

Spotify’s system for marking favorite songs and albums also needs some serious work. As it stands, all your favorite tracks appear in a single list, with no way to jump between artists or albums. If iTunes was laid out like this, it’d be unusable.

But the real deal-breaker for Spotify’s mobile app is the lack of a radio function, which on other subscription music services lets you hear a random selection of songs by a single artist, or by related artists. For a service that’s focused on discovering lots of new music, the absence of this feature is inexcusable. The U.K. version does have a radio feature, as confirmed by our own Giles Turnbull, so perhaps that’s coming to the U.S. version as well.

I’m still intrigued by Spotify because its free service is unparalleled, and because it has the potential to finally sell people on the idea of streaming, on-demand music. But its mobile app is so feature-limited that if you’re thinking of becoming a premium user, I recommend trying the competition first. MOG and Rhapsody, in particular, are miles ahead.

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