The bottom line: It's the best free music option since stealing.
As a first-time user, you install the free Spotify Mac/PC application, open it up, and watch as it automatically imports your music collection and playlists from iTunes and other music software and presents you with a landing page filled with new releases, top lists, and music shared by your friends. Setup is swift.
Spotify's polished, iTunes-like interface is as inviting to music fans as a well-stocked record bin. Each portion of the bento-boxlike layout can be resized, and playback, volume, and track scrubber controls are placed neatly across the bottom. Browser-style back and forward buttons located to the left of the search box allow you to dig your way back out out of the rabbit hole of music discovery.
Features and support
Spotify's big trick is a little search box at the top of the screen that lets you search for any reasonably popular artist, song, or album in existence and stream it immediately. You can't get The Beatles, but we had no problem finding greats like The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, as well as obscure indies such as The Ghastly Ones or Four Tet.
Put simply, you tell your computer what you want to hear, and it plays it for you...for free, and without limitations for up to six months. It doesn't play something similar to the song you want (like Pandora), or a 30- to 60-second clip of the song you want (like iTunes)--it plays you the whole song or album, just as if it were in your personal music collection.
Of course, there are a few other bells and whistles that make Spotify its own special thing. Facebook and Twitter integration enables you to easily share music discoveries with friends. Artist pages encourage discovery with bio pages and links out to similar artists and top hits of the decade to add context. Without any friction preventing you from jumping from one great song to the next, Spotify also provides a play queue off to the side, allowing you to stash your discoveries without interrupting the currently playing song.
Spotify's music service is uniquely generous, but it's not without limitations. Using the free version of the service, full songs can be streamed on demand in unlimited numbers for up to six months (with the occasional audio ad popping into rotation, similar to Pandora). After that time, free users can only play a given track a maximum of five times per month and are also subject to a cap of 10 hours of streaming per month. If you cough up $5 per month, those restrictions (and ads) disappear, but you're still limited to listening only from your computer. At $10 per month, you can use Spotify on mobile devices (including iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7), and even cache your favorite music and playlists for offline listening.
We are happy to report that Spotify's song streams have a near-instant response upon start-up. For the most part, the experience feels just like listening to your locally stored music collection. The illusion is broken when you go to jump to the middle of a song or hit the skip button, which introduces a minor lag.
We had no issue with Spotify's default sound quality (96-160Kbps Ogg Vorbis), but fickle users have the option of digging into the software's Preferences and enabling high-quality streaming (320Kbps Ogg Vorbis).
Should you try it? Absolutely. Any and all music fans are encouraged to give it a whirl. The smart people at Spotify have made the free service incredibly attractive to new users, and there's really nothing to lose. Whether you find it important enough to upgrade to Spotify's premium options is entirely up to you, but they seem like a great value for any music fan with an insatiable appetite.