There are lots of music streaming services to choose from these days, with new offerings entering the market every month or so, but the one that always comes to mind first for us, and which consistently delivers, is Spotify.
Not only did Spotify get there early and claim the crown of the coolest, easiest-to-use, and arguably best music service around, it’s also still the most popular, despite stiff competition from the likes of Apple Music, Google Play Music and other music-specific services like Pandora Music and Deezer.
One of the main reasons for Spotify's enduring popularity is that it remains true to its roots, offering a stable, intuitive experience with plenty of choice, while at the same time it’s constantly adding new features that are genuinely useful and have real staying power.
These include its super-smart playlists, podcasts and social sharing tools, and there are more exciting developments expected soon, such as a dedicated Spotify smart speaker.
In this review we’ll take a good look at what makes Spotify so special, as well as considering why one of those rival services might be a better fit for you.
Although you’ll obviously get a better experience when you pay for a service, we love that Spotify still offers a decent streaming solution for those who don’t have the cash for a subscription.
Spotify Free isn’t really free, of course – it’s ad-supported. So companies are essentially paying Spotify to give you the luxury of listening without coughing up any cash. But Spotify would still love for you to sign up to a subscription, so the 'free' service isn’t the best or most easy-listening around.
On the web or the desktop app you can play any track, album or playlist at any time or in any order, which is pretty good, but you’ll hear an ad, which you can’t skip, every few songs.
The experience is a little more clunky on mobile. With the Spotify app and a free account you can pick 15 playlists featuring up to 750 songs in total. These can't be stored for offline playback, but there is a low-data-use mode that caches some of the data, to go easy on your allowance. You can't freely skip tracks in these playlists, and there are still, of course, ads.
Although you’ll get a semi-decent experience if you don’t pay, a Spotify subscription is definitely worth it if you can afford the commitment.
Most people tend to sign up for the Premium subscription. This costs $9.99/£9.99 a month, and gets you unlimited access to the 30 million-plus track library on your laptop, phone and tablet.
One of the best bits about a premium account is that you can download tracks to three devices at a time for offline playback too, which turns Spotify from an online streaming platform into a solid music service.
If there are a few of you in your household you can save a lot of money with a Premium for Family account. This costs $14.99/£14.99 a month, but lets up to six people connect to Spotify at the same time. If you try to share a standard account you'll be bumped off as soon as someone else tries to play a song.
A few years ago, in an attempt to get more users to sign up for their services, various streaming platforms revealed how many tracks, albums and artists they had.
Thankfully this trend has died down, as it doesn’t really benefit users in any way; we all know that a great experience and solid selection are more important than a few thousand more obscure tracks we wouldn’t have listened to anyway.
And for that reason it seems Spotify has stepped out of the tracking-counting game for good. It was saying it had "more than 30 million tracks" back in 2016, but these days the website just says it has "millions", although estimates from the community suggest that figure could be closer to 40 million now.
When it comes to exclusives, these are mostly linked to Spotify Singles, which are recordings of live sessions.
And as you’d expect, there are some big omissions in the library, but that’s less to do with Spotify and what it has to offer and more to do with the fact that some artists still don’t like the idea of streaming.
If you’re really not sure which service to opt for, your best bet is to browse the various libraries to check that your must-have tunes are available.
You can get Spotify on Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices. If you use a laptop or desktop, Spotify also supports OS X and Windows.
There are also rumblings that Spotify will be coming to the Apple Watch this year, but there's been no official confirmation yet.
There's a web interface too, which lets just about any connected gadget with a browser get involved in the streaming action. Having said that, most people tend to use their mobile to listen to Spotify on the-move – and it's easy to see why.
The Spotify app has a black interface, which is peppered with albums covers and playlist artwork that really stand out against the dark and minimal background, putting the music and the artists front and centre.
Spotify really wants you to get on board with its generated playlists, and we can't see any reason why you shouldn't. That's because Spotify looks at what you've listened to, and fills a whole bunch of playlists with tracks it thinks you'll like based on its smart algorithms.
Discover Weekly has long been a TechRadar favorite. This features tracks and artists you may not have heard, but which Spotify thinks you'll like. It's a good way to find new, and often slightly obscure, music – and the general consensus in the office is that the algorithms get it right nearly every time.
If you want something more familiar, the Daily Mix playlists are packed with tracks you've listened to before. And My Time Capsule is filled with old tracks that may stoke a bit of nostalgia. If it feels eerily accurate, that’s because it cross-references your date of birth with your current tastes to guess the tracks you may have listened to when you were growing up.
Spotify also offers a great selection of playlists that have been created for all kinds of genres and moods. When buying music you'll probably search for an artist or album name, but a less traditional approach often works well with Spotify.
As an example, one of the playlists we often come to while working is Electronic Concentration, which is packed with tracks that aren't too distracting. You'll find loads of results for terms such as 'relax' and 'chill', and there are playlists for runners based around the specific beats-per-minute of the tracks.
Each artist also has their own 'radio', which is a generated playlist based on the style of that band or singer. It'll feature some of their songs, and others that are similar or relevant in some way.
Spotify tries to make sure that you don't have to think too much about what to play, as you may have done in the old days when using an iPod.
Interestingly, and refreshingly, the service has also announced it'll be removing controversial artists like R. Kelly from its suggestions. That means his work won't be completely taken off the service, but it won't pop up in Discover Weekly or similar curated playlists.
We can’t pick many faults with Spotify, but if we were forced to then the web player would be its weakest link.
This lets you use the service on a laptop or desktop without installing anything, and it might be handy if, for example, you can't install apps on your work PC.
It's a Flash-based interface, however, and therefore won't work on all browsers – you can't use it on Safari, for example.
While you can listen to music happily enough on other browsers, making playlists in the web UI is more difficult, and you can't sync songs for offline playback here. It also doesn't incorporate podcasts, which have become a big part of the mobile and desktop apps.
That said, none of these feel like deal-breakers, because there aren’t many instances where you wouldn’t be able to use the Spotify app on your mobile.
For a few years, Spotify's mobile app was only available for Spotify Premium users, but the service has now opened up music on the move to everyone.
The apps are all stable, easy to use, and are offered on iOS, Android and Windows Phone. There used to be significant differences between the iOS and Android versions, but they're now similar. As of April 2018, Android just uses more colorful blocks in the Browse section.
You have four basic ways to approach looking for tunes. The Browse feature lets you find curated and mood-based playlists easily. Radio uses playlists again, but they're genre-based, more like an array of virtual radio stations. You can manually search for artists, which is what we end up doing. Or you can head to Your Library, which you can treat more like an old-school digital music collection.
Back in 2015, Spotify added podcasts to its service. This may seem like a strange move when podcasts are freely available anyway, but Spotify wants to become the only audio app you use.
In a normal podcast app you subscribe to a podcast feed. But in Spotify you 'follow' them, and recent episodes then appear in an 'unplayed podcasts' part of the app.
Podcasts fiends may not be ready to switch over from a dedicated app just yet, but it's a nice feature for anyone looking to trim down the number of apps they use daily.
In the same way Spotify can recommend playlists for certain moods, it’s good at paying attention to the podcasts you like. It’ll recommend podcasts and individual episodes, and also allow you to pick ones based on your interests, from stories and games to news and politics.
Spotify Connect is one of the most important features for anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled wireless speaker. Many wireless models support it, and it lets you stream tunes to them directly from the Spotify mobile and desktop apps.
It's similar to a Spotify version of Apple AirPlay or Google Cast. And if your speaker uses Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi that's not a problem, as Bluetooth simply transmits all audio from your phone.
You can head over to SpotifyGear to check if your speaker supports Spotify Connect.
While it's primarily Spotify's catalogue and app collection that make it one of the best music streaming services, integration of social features make it even better.
A little three-pip icon by any artist, playlist or song lets you share links to Facebook or Twitter, or copy a link that you can send to a friend over WhatsApp or SMS. We use this feature all the time to suggest new artists to friends.
Of course, some aspects of Spotify's social features aren't quite so good. You can follow artists, which helps the recommendation system, but it's half-baked and is of limited use.
You can download playlists and albums inside Spotify to guard against network outages, but you can only do so with three separate devices. A fourth device will revoke access to your first device without warning – something worth considering if you're using a laptop, phone, tablet and more to access Spotify.
How many tracks can you sync? We've never actually reached the limit ourselves, but you get 3,333 tracks per device, for a total of 9,999.
Even at lower quality that many songs will take up a chunk of your phone's internal storage, so it's worth bearing in mind before you go on an offline syncing spree.
If you subscribe to Spotify Premium, you can choose between three sound quality levels: normal, high and extreme. When using the mobile and desktop apps, Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis. This was a semi-popular format a decade ago, and Spotify continues to use it because it's open source. Spotify doesn't have to pay a license fee for it.
At Standard setting, music streams at 96kbps, which sounds a lot better than MP3 at 129kbps. Switch up to the high quality setting and the bitrate bumps up to 160kbps. Most people will be happy at this level, as any compression trade-offs aren't obvious.
The extreme setting uses 320kbps, which is perceptually close to lossless. Spotify doesn't offer any lossless or Hi-Res streaming, which is one reason why audiophiles might want to consider another service.
Deezer and TIDAL are two other options for those who want ultimate quality. Deezer's HiFi subscription costs $19.99/£19.99 a month, and lets you stream lossless 16-bit FLAC files.
Still not enough? Then TIDAL is your best bet. With a $19.99/£19.99 Tidal HiFi subscription you can stream lossless 16-bit FLAC and ALAC audio, but there are also thousands (but not millions) of TIDAL Masters files that stream at 24-bit. You need to use the desktop app for this at present, though, not your phone.
Spotify is still the undisputed king of streaming, and its reign doesn't look like ending any time soon.
One reason why we think that is Spotify’s dedication to innovation. That might sound a little cheesy, but it’s constantly adding new features and has more in the pipeline, like a feature that auto-mixes playlist tracks and a trimmed-down Android app called Stations that might be rolled out globally soon, as well as a dedicated Spotify smart speaker.
If you're interested in what the service is working on, check out Spotify Labs. The team is consistently testing new services, adding in open source projects, and providing users with an insight into what they might be working on next.
You could argue that constantly evolving the service is vital when there’s such strong competition around, but it’s also refreshing, given that even some of the most forward-thinking tech companies around at the moment seem wary of introducing new features and being bold.
Spotify’s newer features, like Discover Weekly and Time Capsule, take what was already a brilliant service and add the level of polish and comprehensiveness required to make it a five-star product.
Its fantastic catalogue, its ability to use its brand to win major exclusives, and its superb (and unrivaled) social features make it the obvious choice for anyone looking to take the plunge with streaming.