There are many music streaming services to choose from. But the first that comes to mind is Spotify.
It didn't just get there early, Spotify is the most popular music service around despite competition from Apple and Google. Sure, it doesn't dominate as Google does in search enngine land, but it's not all that far off in some circles.
In this review we'll look at why Spotify is so strong, and why you might want to consider an alternative like Apple Music, Deezer, Google Play or Amazon Music.
Free vs Premium
There are free and paid plans for Spotify. Most people we know 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. You can download tracks to three devices at a time for offline playback.
If you have a big family, though, 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. Try to "share" a standard account and you'll be bumped off as soon as someone else tries to play a song.
In 2018 Spotify also re-vamped what you can do without paying a cent. Originally you could only listen to playlists based on an artist you like, with limited skips. Now you can hand-pick 15 playlists featuring up to 750 songs total. These can't be stored fully for offline playback but a low-data-use mode caches some of the data, to go easy on your allowance.
It's the biggest change in Spotify Free in years. However, there are still some restrictions. You can't freely skip tracks in these playlists and there are still, of course, ads. These help pay for artist royalties.
Spotify Free feels more like a taste of the full-fat experience than ever before.
A few years ago there was a big fight among music streaming services for library size and exclusive albums. This has, thankfully, died down as it doesn't benefit us end users.
Spotify has stepped out of the track-counting game altogether. It simply says it has "more than 30 million" tracks, and has done since 2016.
Exclusives are mostly limited to Spotify Singles, which are mostly recordings of live sessions.
And while there used to be quite a few glaring omissions from the library, these were often absent from all streaming services. Some artists just don't like streaming.
If in doubt, your best bet is to browse through a few services' libraries to check your must-have favourites are there.
Spotify works on Android, iOS annd Windows Phone devices. Use a laptop or desktop? It also supports OS X and Windows. There's a web interface too, letting just about any connected gadget with a browser get involved.
Most people we know use their mobile phone for the most part.
The Spotify app has a moody black interface peppered with albums covers and playlist artwork. If you want to use it like a cloud-based local music player, you can add albums and playlists to a "Your Music" area, which helps you separate your favourites from the massive Spotify library.
However, Spotify really wants you to get on-board with its generated playlists. Spotify looks at what you've listened to, and fills a whole bunch of playlists with tracks it thinks you will like.
Discover Weekly is a TechRadar favourite. This features tracks and artists you may not have heard, but it hopes you'll like. It's a good way to find new, and often slightly obscure, music.
If you want something more familiar, the Daily Mix playlists are packed with tracks you've listened to before. And My Time Capsule looks is filled with old tracks that may stoke a bit of nostalgia. It cross references your date of birth with your taste to guess the tracks you may have listened to growing up.
Spotify also offers playlists for all kinds of genres and even moods. When buying music you'll probably search for an artist or album name, but a less traditional approach often works well in Spotify.
One of the playlists we often come to while working is "Electronic Concentration", for example. It's packed with tracks that aren't too distracting. You'll find loads of results for terms like "relax" and "chill", and there are playlists for runners based around the specific bpm 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 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.
The web player is one of the few weak points of Spotify. It lets you use the service on a laptop or desktop without installing anything. This may be handy if you can't install apps on your work PC.
It's a Flash-based interface, though, and therefore will not work on all browsers. You can't use it on Safari, for example.
We think of the web player as an interface to use in a pinch. And Spotify seems to think that way too.
While you can listen to music happily enough, 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.
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.
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 are now similar. As of April 2018, Android just uses more colourful blocks in the Browse section. The iOS app's are more sober.
You have four basics ways to approach looking for some tunes. The Browse part lets you find curated and mood-based playlists easily. Radio uses playlists again, but they are 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 Music, which you can treat more like an old-school digital music collection.
Spotify added Podcasts to its service in 2015. 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.
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 beam tunes over to them directly from the Spotify mobile and desktop apps.
It's a little like a specific Spotify version of Apple AirPlay or Google Cast. If your speaker uses Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi, you don't need to worry about it as Bluetooth simply transmits all audio from your phone.
You can head over to SpotifyGear to check if your speaker supports Spotify Connect.
While Spotify's catalogue and app collection place it as one of the best music streaming services, integration of social makes 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 you can send to a friend over WhatsApp or SMS. We use this feature all the time to suggest bands 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 will take up a chunk of your phone's internal storage.
If you opt for a Spotify Premium subscription you can choose between three sound quality levels, normal, high and extreme. When using the mobile and desktop apps, Spotify plays 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 bit-rate bumps up to 160kbps. Most people will be happy at this level as any compressions trade-offs are not obvious.
Extreme setting uses 320kbps, which is perceptually close to lossless.
Spotify doesn't offer any lossless or Hi-Res streaming, which is one reason audio nuts might want to consider another service.
Deezer and TIDAL are two other options for those who want more. Deezer's HiFi subscription costs $19.99/£19.99 a month and lets you stream lossless 16-bit FLAC files.
Is that still not enough? TIDAL is your best bet. With a $19.99/£19.99 Tidal HiFi 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 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.