7th Apr 2014 | 12:50
The best music streaming service on the planet keeps getting better
Spotify was already the best music streaming service on the planet.
But the April 2014 update – which added a new look, new features and new ways to explore music – has seen it finally become the brilliant, comprehensive service we always wanted it to be. I think Spotify just came of age.
In Europe at least, Spotify's success had already been unparalleled up to this point. The service has become a by-word for music streaming, and its star has risen fast, taking the subscription music model into the mainstream.
For a few years the lack of competition meant that Spotify's life was relatively easy, and its biggest worries were turning its free users into paid-up Spotify Premium subscribers.
However, things now aren't so simple. The likes of Google Play Music All Access, Napster, Deezer, Xbox Music, Nokia Music and now even Beats Audio muscling in on Spotify's action means life has never been tougher. To stay ahead, Spotify will have to continue to innovate.
So what has changed with the recent updates? For a start there's a new look which is mirrored across all the various versions of the app, and perhaps more importantly, the 'You Music' section, a new home for your playlists where you can also permanently keep track of all the music you want to 'own'.
The upshot of this new section is that you can now build your own music library within Spotify instead of having to rely solely on a mishmash of playlists, keeping a permanent record of all your favourite bands, albums, singles and songs.
And finally, there's also newly-added Spotify Connect support, a new feature designed to embrace the wireless music movement, enabling you to control music from different sources around your home and play them through different speakers. I'll come back to that.
Spotify's 20 million+ track catalogue was once the envy of the streaming word, and it still edges the competition in 2014.
But line up the main players of Napster and Google Play Music All Access and compare song for song, and you won't find much difference. The selection offered by streaming services is frankly awesome, but Spotify's super strong brand does give it the edge.
You often find that when albums launch, Spotify will provide the deluxe versions with extra tracks and sometimes even a version with 'director's' commentary from the band or producer. It's little extras like that that make Spotify such an exciting place to explore.
And while there used to be quite a few glaring omissions from the library, these are slowly but surely being dealt with.
Last year, for example it was revealed that Spotify had secured exclusive rights to the catalogue of long-time digital dodgers Led Zeppelin. The company also won rights to Metallica and Pink Floyd ahead of its rivals, and showed that being the big player has huge benefits.
It's a tough call, but Spotify's catalogue – coupled with its power to win high profile exclusives and penchant for delivering multiple versions of even obscure indie albums – certainly gives it an advantage over its rivals. But with the line-ups of its competitors also looking strong, there's more to a service than just the selection.
The premise of Spotify is simple. Search for the music you like, and click to play it. If you're a free user you get to add songs to playlists and listen to them in shuffle mode with advertising every couple of songs.
A premium subscription costs £9.99 a month, and gets rid of ads and the playback restrictions.
Spotify's traditional point of entry has been the desktop app, which has been overhauled as part of the new update. Like the mobile apps that sit alongside it, the desktop app now has a 'dark' new look, designed to look super-snazzy with album art at the forefront.
With dark colours, clean lines and Spotify's iconic lime green trim, it's a great new look which would be purely aesthetic were it not for the new Your Music section.
It's not perfect though. Search is still a disappointment, with 'search by genre' still conspicuous by its absence.
Yes, at long last, you can now keep track of your favourite artists and albums in ways that transcend the convoluted list of playlists that has typified the Spotify experience up to now.
You can essentially now build yourself a music library by clicking 'Save' on albums you like. Artists and tracks in these albums are also added to your 'Artists' and 'Songs' sections so it's always super easy to find what you're after.
Your albums can be sorted by artist, title, recently added and most played. And what this means is that you can now explore the music in Spotify entirely on your own terms. This is the feature that Spotify fans have been waiting for: it works and it's awesome.
Spotify's web player is one of the more recent addition to its aural army of offerings, and it provides a way for people to access their music when they can't install the desktop client. It's a big plus for workers who use corporate machines and, overall, it's excellent to use.
The layout is clear and simple, and has been redesigned to match the look and feel of the new desktop and mobile apps. Spotify is a much more feature-rich and mature service than Google Play, and the web app reflects this.
There's no HTML5 streaming feature like there is with Google Play, which means music can stutter a bit depending on what you're doing on your machine (or in the same browser, particularly). But you do at least get access to the Your Music section where your playlists and albums are stored.
Functionality is a tad limited - it's also almost impossible to manage playlists in the web player. It's very much a music playing option, so should not be depended on to optimise your Spotify experience.
You also can't sync music for offline playing using the web app – a feature that has been included in the Deezer web player for some time. Generally though, it's an excellent way of getting Spotify running without having to install anything.
Spotify's mobile app used to be the preserve of Spotify Premium users only, but the service has now opened up music on the move to everyone. However, those who pay out do still get the best mobile deal, as you can 'offline sync' playlists so you can listen to them without the need to stream.
Free users can still only listen to playlists in shuffle mode.
The apps are all stable, easy to use, and are offered on iOS, Android and Windows Phone. They've also just been completely redesigned using the same themes as the desktop and web apps. At the time of writing, the iOS apps are currently lacking the new Your Music and Connect features – but we've spoken to Spotify and have been assured that the features will be added 'shortly'.
Apps for each of the mobile platforms are quite a bit different and work in different ways, reflecting the differing ways each platform works – some employing swipes and taps, others long presses and context menus. Overall, we feel Android phone users get the best deal but, frankly, all the apps do a good job.
Spotify Connect is Spotify's answer to the wireless music revolution. The idea is that you can now stream Spotify straight to speakers in your home without having to hook up via Bluetooth or 3.5mm cable each time. The catch is that these speakers need to either be wireless-enabled with Spotify Connect built-in or attached to a mobile device running the Spotify app.
Spotify Connect allows your mobile devices to talk to each other, with one acting as a remote control over another. For example, we hooked an HTC One Max up to some speakers and played the new War on Drugs album.
Opening Spotify from another device – in this case our Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – we can see what music is playing on the HTC One Max and change it remotely from the Note.
While Spotify's catalogue and app collection place it as one of the best music streaming services, it's the integration of social that crowns it king.
Social features run through the service like musical blood, but instead of being a cheap gimmick it makes the service special.
Users are linked by Facebook accounts, which means you'll quickly have a ready-made community comprised of your existing friends without having to create a whole new online persona. You can then send tracks and albums to any of your friends, and things that you receive are added to your inbox.
It's vibrant, simple and works. Music's about sharing, and unlike the bland sandboxes of Napster and Google Play Music All Access, Spotify mixes the right amount of social features without going overboard.
You can send links to tracks and playlists and subscribe to any other user's, too, and sites like ShareMyPlaylist.com have created sub-communities full of new music to discover.
When diligent users spend hours creating playlists of game and film soundtracks like the True Detective playlist earlier this year, they spread via Twitter and Facebook like wildfire. They become worldwide events supported by Spotify.
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 has no real benefit.
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.
You can choose to stream and sync at different quality settings. The higher the quality, the more battery life your music will consume when you play it and the more storage it will take up. Extreme, the highest available setting, is a pleasing 320kbps.
Spotify is still the undisputed king of streaming, and its reign doesn't look like ending soon with these recent updates.
The new look and the new features take what was already a brilliant service and add the level of polish and comprehensiveness to make it a five-star product. Your Music is the feature Spotify had been missing, and its flawless implementation and integration into the general experience has made things a lot better.
Its fantastic catalogue, ability to use its brand to win major exclusives and superb (and unrivaled) social features make it the obvious choice for anyone looking to take the plunge with streaming.