12th Dec 2013 | 14:10
The best music streaming service on the planet keeps getting better
In Europe at least, Spotify's success has been unparalleled. 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.
But does Spotify still have the advantage over its rivals? Or is the incumbent lagging behind the new pretenders on the streaming scene? Let's take a look.
Spotify's 20 million-track catalogue was once the envy of the streaming word, and it still edges the competition.
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.
In the latest update to the service, it was revealed that Spotify had secured exclusive rights to the catalogue of long-time digital dodgers Led Zepplin. The company also won rights to Metallica and Pink Floyd ahead of its rivals, and shows that being the big player has huge benefits.
Being the big brand also works against them, too. In 2013 Thom Yorke famously pulled his solo work from the service citing poor returns for small bands and artists – but Erazer and Atoms for Peace are still available via Google Play.
It's a tough call but Spotify's catalogue, coupled with its power to win high profile exclusives certainly gives it an advantage over its rivals. But with the line-ups of its rivals looking strong, there's more to a service that 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 of shuffle with advertising every couple of songs.
A premium subscription costs £9.99 a month, and gets rid of ads and the playback restrictions. It's a mighty free service, which none of Spotify's rivals can match, and it's worth anyone trying out.
Spotify's traditional interface has been the desktop app, which is used by the majority of its customers. It's not terribly well designed and could sorely do with an update, but the layout is functional, enabling you to see a lot of tracks at one time, which was one of our criticisms of Google Play.
If you like an album you save it as a playlist for posterity. Everything is done through playlists, whereas most services use a personal library for saved albums and playlists for things you build yourself.
It does keep it simple, but after three years and 200 playlists, it can be hard to find what you want. Spotify does nothing to keep regular playlists on top, so it's up to you to find what you need. It's not the best system, but it works.
The search is also terrible, and one thing that doesn't seem to have improved since day one. Get a song name or band name wrong or incomplete and you'll be thrown absolutely nothing in return. Search for J Dilla's "rough draft" instead of "Ruff Draft" and you may as well have searched for "infinite monkey cats".
Spotify's web player is the most recent addition to its aural army of offerings and it provides a way for people to get access to 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 will be familiar to any Spotify user. All options are clearly labelled on the left hand side, so it's easy to access playlists, inbox tracks and more.
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 though which means music can stutter a bit depending on what you're doing on your machine or in the same browser particularly.
The web player also doesn't work smartly with the desktop app. If you're listening to music using the desktop player and click a link, the web player opens - and there doesn't seem to be any obvious way to stop that from happening. Perhaps we should just ditch the desktop player altogether? A scary thought, but with such a comprehensive set of features, we could easily do that.
It's also almost impossible to manage playlists in the web player. It's very much a music playing option and should not be depended on to optimise your Spotify experience.
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 only listen to playlists in shuffle mode.
The apps are all stable and easy to use and are offered on iOS, Android and Windows Phone. There's also a dedicated iPad app, but Android tablet users just have a ported version of the phone app, which works well, but doesn't look quite as good as the iPad version.
Bizarrely, each app is different and works a different way – some employing swipes and taps, others long presses and context menus. Overall, we feel Android phone users get the best deal. That particular offering has some neat additions such as placing synced albums at the top of the screen, and is designed a little cleaner that its iOS counterpart.
All options are accessed by swiping from the side, and you can again access every Spotify feature from your phone. Your inbox, playlists, friends and recommendations are all present, and the seamless integration of features means you could use the mobile app as your only entry to Spotify, and still get the maximum from it.
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 user spend hours creating playlists of game and film soundtracks like the fantastic GTA V list 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.
Spotify is still the undisputed king of streaming, and its reign doesn't look like ending soon.
There are still things to work on for a perfect score. A better desktop app and brushing up the organisation and search features should be top of the agenda, as well as new features such as party modes and better discoverability of new music.
However, 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. Add to that the fantastic free features and it's a no-brainer to give Spotify a try.