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Spotify, one of the most popular music streaming services in Europe and other regions, today launched in the U.S. as expected. Spotify offers a massive catalog of music for free, but adds features in two paid monthly subscription tiers: Unlimited for $4.99 and Premium for $9.99. Reinforcing the shift away from desktop computing, mobile users will have to ante up for the Premium plan to enjoy Spotify on the go, available on iOS (s aapl), Android (s goog), Windows Phone (s msft), Symbian, and webOS (s hpq) devices.
Here’s a breakdown of the other features in the service tiers, including offline mode to store tracks and advertising-free playback:
The removal of ads is nice, as is truly unlimited streaming, assuming you don’t have bandwidth caps to contend with, but to me, the big feature is Spotify playback on mobiles. And another Premium feature dovetails nicely with the supported handsets: Playlists can be used offline, allowing for music from Spotify’s catalog to be stored locally and played back without using precious mobile broadband. A great strategy for this feature would be to have the software synchronize offline playlists while on a Wi-Fi network. In fact, on the Android version of Spotify, I see options to sync music over Wi-Fi, 3G or both.
Aside from the offline storage, Spotify can help manage mobile broadband use through a playback quality setting. Low-bandwidth mode won’t sound quite as good, but uses a 96 kbps data stream; high bandwidth boosts the audio quality as well as the bandwidth due to a 160 kbps music stream. Such mobile data use can add up quickly: See our recent post on what a gigabyte is for mobile users to get an idea of how much data these types of services use.
On handsets, I haven’t yet found a feature that’s available in the Windows or Mac Spotify client that’s missing for mobiles. It’s easy to create Playlists, search for albums, tracks or artists, play locally stored tracks (yes, Spotify will play back music you’ve purchased and store on your handset) or share tunes with friends. There’s an option to shoot track information to Last.fm (s cbs), Facebook, Twitter or via email. If you have friends on Spotify, you can even share your current track with them directly and a news feed in the app shows what your Spotify friends are listening to, provided they’ve enabled sharing and take advantage of it. If you’d rather hide your addiction to ABBA, you’ll want to see how to manage Spotify’s sharing settings.
I have found two limitations when using Spotify on a smartphone, however. First, not all tracks are playable, although I can’t tell how many are limited specifically to the desktop client. A good example is The Legend of Johnny Cash. When searching for this album, it doesn’t appear in the mobile search results, but does show and is playable in the desktop client. That’s likely due to Spotify’s licensing agreements with music labels and it also brings up the second limitation: You can’t play music simultaneously on different handsets and desktop clients.
That means Spotify won’t allow you to listen to music on your smartphone while your family is trying to do the same on a desktop at home. As soon as I hit the play button in Spotify’s iOS client, for example, the desktop client stopped playing. For now then, it’s one account per person unless Spotify can devise some type of family plan.
Some may compare Spotify to Microsoft’s Zune Pass service, which supports music streaming to phones, local downloads and playback of millions of tracks in a similar subscription approach. Zune Pass costs $14.99 per month, which includes users to download and keep 10 tracks per month. But the biggest drawback I see compared to Spotify is the mobile platform limitation. If you want to subscribe to Zune Pass, you can only use a Windows Phone or the older Microsoft Zune digital audio players.
With support for multiple platforms, hooks into Facebook and wireless streaming playback in addition to offline music storage, Spotify plays all the right notes for mobile music lovers. I’ve long been adding to my music library through Amazon’s (s amzn) MP3 store, which offers daily deals as low as $1.99 for an album. But I haven’t yet bought Colbie Caillat’s new $9.49 album that arrived earlier this week. For just a few cents more, I’ve already heard the full album twice on Spotify and plenty of other songs too, so the new service has me rethinking my mobile music plans.