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This is a review, in the most part, of the Spotify Mobile Phone application simply because this is how I access the Spotify service most of the time. This requires a Premium Spotify account which is currently advertised as costing £9.99 per month. The UK Mobile Network 'three' are currently offering 24 months of free Spotify Premium access when you take out a new £35 per month contract on the HTC Hero.
There is a "free" ad-supported version out there which I've never used - I went straight in at the deep end! This version comes with limitations and does not allow for, what I believe to be the killer function of Premium Spotify, offline listening of your music. However, limitations aside, it provides a free, legal library of music. Free and legal are two words which have not been seen together very often in the last few years - at least when it comes to music.
There are many reviews of the free version - which incidentally requires an invite from a friend already using the service - so I'll leave that side of it to the experts.
Spotify is a Music Library service which provides the user with "instant" access to "millions" of music tracks. I've quoted two words in that last sentence from the Spotify website and will explain their inclusion in my review below.
INSTANT: No way to argue with this. Playing a track is as instant as I imagine you will ever be able to get when streaming over a mobile network. It really is very impressive! Spotify state that a connection of 256 kbits/second is required for streaming. UK mobile operators claim 3G network speeds in the Megabits - so they should easily be able to cope with streaming music with Spotify - in ideal circumstances. 2G speeds are not fast enough to cope - and the Spotify application refuses to attempt streaming when you have this level of mobile coverage.
I must just mention the speed when streaming music using the PC Application - it's awesome! You could be forgiven for believing that the music is stored on your own computer - instead of, in reality, being streamed halfway around the world before reaching you!
This speed is not, however, a trade off with the quality of the sound on offer.
Spotify state that most tracks are encoded at either 256kbps or 320kbps (using the Ogg Vorbis q9 Codec - in case that matters to you!). This, when you consider that 128kbps is often described as near "CD-quality", is more than adequate for the average user using average headphones. It is certainly a vast improvement over the sound offered by FM Radio.
Now, the bit-rate at which a track is encoded is not the only factor which defines the quality of the sound - so simply stating that 320kbps is a very high number won't be much help. Also any opinion I give of sound quality is obviously going to be subjective - so I'm not going to dwell too long on my impressions.
MILLIONS: I follow Spotify on Twitter and they are constantly tweeting that their library has been updated. These updates aren't just adding a couple of new albums to the library - they're adding 50, 60, 70 thousand tracks at a time! If you imagine these updates are occurring 3 or 4 times a month - then you get an idea of the vastness of the library.
That isn't to say that there aren't tracks I've been unable to find. I'll qualify this by saying that I'm quite a big Pop Music fan - I like most of the songs in the Top 40 and I'm a big Radio 1 fan. I'm not into alternative music in a big way so I'm unable to really comment on anything other than the most popular, mainstream music. Bearing this in mind there have been some obvious omissions while I have been searching for music.
Certain current albums don't exist at all in the Spotify library. As an example - the debut album by JLS was released in the UK on 9th November 2009 - it reached Number 1 in the Album Chart on 15th November 2009. As of writing, Sunday 29th November 2009, the album is not in the Spotify library. Individual tracks which have been released as singles are in the library. Presumably this is for licensing reasons although I'm not sure. Perhaps there is a train of thought which follows that if an album is available from a service such as Spotify as soon as it is released - then people are less likely to go out and buy it.
Spotify's own FAQ article states that certain artists are missing altogether from their library for licensing reasons. These include "Metallica, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin".
This is countered however by albums that are released into the Spotify library before their official release date. Most recently both the Cheryl Cole album '3' and the Robbie Williams album 'Bodies' were released on Spotify the week before their official release date. This definitely adds value to the service and would make it a must-have for some individuals.
Spotify state that their goal "is to let everyone listen to whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want". Well we've covered the "whatever" above - but what about the whenever and wherever? This is where the offline capabilities of Spotify come into play.
You are able to mark entire playlists - and therefore individual tracks - for offline listening. The application then downloads the track to your device - either over 3G or Wi-Fi. It copies the file from the Spotify servers to your own mobile phone - meaning no data connection is subsequently needed to listen to it. You will probably want to have an "unlimited" data package if you are going to attempt to download these tracks using 3G - and even then few, if any, "unlimited" packages are truly that. You are allowed 3,333 tracks to be marked for offline listening at any one time - probably best to do this over Wi-Fi if circumstances allow!
At an average of 3 minutes per song - 3,333 tracks is just shy of 7 days of uninterrupted, advert-free, portable, legal music (6.94 days to be precise)! This is brilliant for people wanting music on holiday - perhaps in a foreign county with no access to a mobile network or Wi-Fi - or simply where the mobile fees are too high to make it feasible to listen to streamed music. Even just for people on the move - on a train journey where network coverage is patchy - or on the London underground where an entire journey is out of signal.
You shouldn't be fooled into thinking that these offline tracks are yours to keep for as long as you want them. Rather they are yours to keep for as long as you pay the Spotify Premium Subscription fee. If you cancel your premium account, the end of your last billing cycle will mark the end of your ability to listen. Similarly you will be unable to listen to your offline tracks if you do not go online at least once every 30 days - this is so the software can verify that you still have a valid subscription.
The tracks marked for offline listening can be changed, replaced and removed as often as you like - and can all be done seamlessly while on the move directly from the mobile application - no PC is required.
However, I have found that searching for tracks and adding them to a playlist on my mobile is a slightly more tedious adventure compared with using the PC application. A combination of factors conspire to make this the case:
- I find using a keyboard attached to a PC faster than typing using a touch screen phone. This is probably the most fundamental reason why I prefer searching for tracks on my computer.
- Tracks, Artists and Albums are displayed in separate tabs on the mobile version as opposed to the PC version where all results are displayed in one place (I suppose this could be a double-edged sword and suggest it is down to a single users preference).
- Only 5 results are shown at a time on the mobile version, compared with maybe 30, 40 or 50 at a time on the PC version.
- Several tracks can be added to a playlist at a time by dragging and dropping on the PC version - this must be done individually, one at a time, on the mobile version.
Search 'operators' are available in both the mobile and the PC version to make searching a little easier. For example, "Pixie Lott OR Lily Allen" "Robbie Williams NOT Angels". Search 'parameters' can also be used to build complex search queries. For example "year: 1990-1996" "genre: Dance".
However, I feel that these search enhancements are a poor replacement for an Advanced Search function - and are probably under-utilised by the average user.
Just a few other points to mention. Each Premium Spotify account can only be logged into and listening to music in one place - or on one device - at any one time. As an example, if I'm using Spotify at work on my mobile phone and my partner logs onto the PC version of Spotify at home - then my music is paused on my phone until they have finished. I'm not sure if there is a way to alter which device has priority - but it would be useful for me, when I'm sat at my desk at work(!), if there was!
Album Art is automatically displayed while streaming and downloaded when a track is marked for offline listening. This is not really a new or exciting feature but it just adds to the legitimacy of the product - and further separates it from tracks which are "acquired" in other ways using the internet.
Lastly - the big question which seems to hang over Spotify is can and will it last? Is the business model feasible looking forward? I for one certainly hope so. In the short time that I have had my hands on an Android Mobile Device, Spotify has become one of my most used and loved applications. The concept of instant, unlimited, portable music has been around for a while but to see it in practice working so smoothly is fantastic. I've got pretty much an unlimited library of music in my back pocket for less than the price of a single tangible album each month - bargain!
So... can you... you there... reading this review... access this wonderful service from your very own Mobile Phone? Well, I'd love to be able to give you a long list of devices that Spotify works on. However, it doesn't seem to be that simple. I personally run Spotify on my HTC Hero - which runs on the Android Mobile Operating System. This is one of three platforms which Spotify works on - along with Symbian and iPhone. So theoretically, if you have a phone running one of these then you're in. However, Spotify recommend that you visit m.spotify.com from your phone to confirm functionality.
I have an unlocked white HTC Hero running on o2 with an "Unlimited" Data Package.
This phone is definitely designed to be used with an unlimited data package. It is designed to be connected to the Internet all the time. Most of the time you will not realise that the phone is busily downloading data behind the scenes. It is only when you see the weather icon changing on your home screen to reflect the Rain Showers outside, or when you receive a call from your best friend and their Caller ID picture has been automatically pulled in from Facebook - that you get an idea of how often the phone is receiving updates.
This means that the phone feels 'alive'. Rather than being a lump of metal and plastic which sits on your desk waiting for someone call you or send you a text message, instead this phone looks out into the world of the Internet and pulls in information for you.
A lot of this information is pulled from social network websites - the main two integrated into the phone are Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook integrates with the Address Book on the phone - and it works really well. When you add a contact to your address book the phone takes a guess as to which of your Facebook friends this contact should be linked with. If it guesses more than one friend then you are given the option to choose. Their Status Picture and Birthday are then pulled over and attached to the contact. Next time you receive a call from this person - Hey Presto - their status picture fills up most of the 3.2 inches of screen. It should be noted that the quality of the picture displayed is not the best. It appears grainy and perhaps a little pixelated. A better quality Caller ID image can be obtained by using the camera on the phone to take an image specifically for that purpose. However the image is more than satisfactory when displayed next to a contacts name in the Address Book application.
Other data pulled from Facebook, such as Status Updates and upcoming Birthdays, is displayed in an 'Updates and Events' tab in the Address Book. I find this useful - to a certain extent - but you have to remember to look at this tab to view the Updates. There are no notifications for any information pulled into here. For example, Birthdays are not copied into the Phone Calendar. So unless you go into the 'Updates and Events' tab every day - you may miss a friend's Birthday for example.
Twitter integration is much more 'in your face'. Recent Twitter updates are displayed in a 'Widget' which you can place on any of your seven home screens. You are also actively notified of any updates through the HTC Twitter application called Peep. I found this application to be a very hungry beast. It ate through my battery and devoured the phones resources so much that I have swapped it for a Twitter application from the Android Marketplace called Twidroid Pro. This provides the same functionality, and then some, as well as notifications - but at a fraction of the cost in terms of battery usage. The lag in the phone associated with using HTCs Twitter application has also been eradicated.
Moving onto the Android Marketplace as briefly mentioned above and a few applications I have loaded onto the Hero to enhance its functionality.
- Spotify Premium: Portable, huge library of streaming music. Phone and music working in perfect symphony!
- ASTRO: File Browser to get under the skin of Android .
- beebPlayer: The BBC iPlayer wrapped up nicely.
- Shazam - Play a few seconds of a song to the phone and it will identify it immediately. A real show-off application.
- Google Voice Search - Works with any search function on the phone.
- Co-Pilot Live - Cheap and cheerful Satellite Navigation designed for Android.
As detailed above, the phone has a 3.2 inch capacitive screen. This is the same technology used for the iPhone screen and differs from other 'resistive' touch screen phones in that it does not rely on the user pressing the screen. Rather it is a 'touch' screen in the truest sense of the word. The slightest touch with a finger will activate a screen object. I have used a resistive phone in the past - the HTC Touch Diamond 2 - and the responsiveness of that screen and the force required to use the screen - is one of the main reasons why it is now on my list of previously owned phones.
I will qualify the brilliance of the phones screen by talking about an issue I have had with its responsiveness around the very edge. I have read of other owners of the phone having the same issue so I am sure it is not just a fault with my handset. If the phone is being used without being held - for example, flat on a desk - then the touch screen does not respond well around the outer edges. This can be very frustrating when typing a text message - where the keyboard letters run right up to the edge of the screen. This entire issue can be negated simply by holding the phone - or at least placing another finger somewhere on it. Additionally if the phone is plugged in - either charging or connected to a PC with the USB cable - then again there is no issue.
I would say that this is my only issue with the design or hardware of the phone. The 'chin' or 'lip' at the bottom of the phone has received some criticism but I think it adds to the look of the phone and makes it stand out from other straight-up-and-down candy-bar style phones. It also has practical uses in that it can make it easier to grip when taking it out of your pocket - as well as fitting nicely along the face when using it for calls.
The buttons at the bottom of the phone add useful functionality - and are not surplus to the use of the touch screen. I like having a physical Call Answer and Call End button. If the phone ever did lag - or the screen become completely unresponsive - while I was receiving a call then it is good to know that I have good old-fashioned buttons which mean I would not miss a call.
The 'back' button is another carefully thought out addition. This is most useful while surfing the Internet. It is good to be able to move back to the previous page instantly - rather than having to manoeuvre a menu to find this option. It is also used natively in many Android Applications.
The buttons are prominent enough to be able to feel for without looking at the phone - and are spaced out enough to ensure only one is pressed at a time - even for people with larger fingers.
Alongside the buttons is a trackball which I use very infrequently. Its use does not feel smooth enough to be reliable. For example while browsing down web pages using the trackball the display will sometimes randomly jump a great distance. The one place I do still use the trackball is when highlighting text - it can be difficult to select a specific place in a string of letters and the fine movements capable by the trackball are useful in this situation. Again though it is liable to jumping several letters at a time, which can be frustrating.
The screen has an 'oleophobic' coating which is designed to be oil and therefore finger print resistant. In practice, this does not mean that the screen won't get covered in fingerprints which are really visible and off-putting in certain light. It does mean however that these can be removed really quickly and easily simply by wiping the screen down your shirt arm or trouser leg. This coupled with the scratch-resistance of the screen, means that it really is unnecessary to invest in a screen protector. In fact - I did try one at first and noticed that the sensitivity of the screen was reduced. I also noticed the effect of the 'oleophobic' coating - as it was much harder to remove fingerprints from the screen protector than it was to remove them from the screen itself.
The phone has an LED indicator on the front of the phone above the display. This can be personalised to blink while certain notifications are active. It is useful to have a visual indicator of an event - simply in case any audio notification is missed - or even if no audio notification is wanted. For example, I receive probably in the region of 100 Emails per work day and as such do not want my phone blurting out a noise 10 or 15 times an hour. Therefore I have my Email notification set to LED indicator only - and the flashing green LED subtly advises me that I have a new Email waiting to be read. The LED indicator also advises of battery charging status - with a constant orange indicator advising that the battery is charging and a constant green indicator advising that the battery is fully charged.
Battery charging was something I felt I was doing a lot of during my first few weeks using the phone. This was partly because there is so much to do with the phone that I was playing with it a lot at first to tweak it to be just how I wanted it. Also, at first I felt compelled to set the automatic data updates for things like Weather, Facebook and Twitter to occur as frequently as possible. I soon realised however that having Facebook update once every 4 or 6 hours and the weather update once or twice a day was more than adequate. I noticed a great increase in battery life after changing these frequencies.
Additionally it was reported that the inbuilt Text messaging Application was causing the phone to stay 'awake' even when it appeared to be on standby. This was reducing the battery life dramatically. This has since been fixed by HTC in a software update. However in the meantime it was suggested that the HTC Application be turned off and an alternative Text Messaging application installed. I opted for 'Handcent SMS' on the recommendation of a friend. Even since the HTC update I have stuck with Handcent SMS as my default messaging application as I find it much more customisable. It also has an option to 'popup' a text message on the screen and allows me to reply directly from this popup. This is a great feature which is preventing me from returning to the HTC application.
Typing on this phone - in any application - is a dream! Not being able to "feel" my way round a physical keyboard has been one of my biggest issues with touch screen phones in the past. It has been too easy to hit the wrong key while using an on screen keyboard. HTC have eradicated this problem completely using an advanced predictive text system. As an example - I'm trying to type the word "sophisticated" and instead I hit the keys "dopjudtovsyed" because I've got fat fingers! The phone is clever enough to realise that this is not a real word and instead look at the letters close to the ones I hit. It automatically inserts the word "sophisticated" into my text message - brilliant!
As I mentioned above I have turned off the integrated HTC Twitter application Peep and I feel that this has provided the greatest boost to my battery life.
Overall, now my initial 'playing' with the phone has died down to normal usage, I would say that I can comfortably get 36 hours of battery life from a full charge - which I feel is more than adequate especially for a 'smart phone' with a large bright display.
The user interface HTC have applied to the phone is used to set it apart from other Android based phones on the market at the moment - and I think it works. Sense UI, as the interface is known, runs over-the-top of the perhaps, dull and lacklustre standard Android Operating System (OS) - and it disguises it so well that you may never have to come face-to-face with an Android menu or 'widget'.
Widgets are paramount to the Sense UI. They are basically little interactive icons, or pictures, which are placed wherever you want them to be over the seven - yes that's seven - home screens. The Android OS comes with some standard widgets such as 'Calendar' and 'Analogue Clock'. HTC takes these widgets to the next level in terms of looks and functionality. Taking the Clock widget as an example, the HTC variant has 12 different ways of displaying the time.
Other widgets provide easy - one touch - access to turn WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, Airplane Mode and Mobile Internet on and off. The WiFi and Mobile Internet are amongst my most frequently used widgets and I have them placed on my first home screen for easy access. Incidentally this first home screen - the middle of the seven - is the screen which is displayed by default when the Home button is pressed.
The other six home screens can be accessed by swiping to the left or the right - three either side. Having so many widgets - both Android and HTC variants - combined with seven home screens, leads to endless possibilities when it comes to arranging and tweaking your layout. I am constantly moving widgets around, turning them on and off - and even adding new widgets from the Android Marketplace - to suit my current needs.
Shortcuts to specific applications can also be added as widgets - again on my first home screen I have placed four shortcut widgets to the Browser, my Gmail Inbox, Handcent SMS and the Camera application.
Talking of the Camera, the HTC Hero packs in a 5 Mega Pixel let down. You need the steady hands of a brain surgeon in order to get a blur free shot - and even if you happen to have a spare pair of surgeon's hands lying around - you need to be not too far away from the sun in order to have enough light - the phone lacking a much needed flash as it does. The shutter button being the trackball can make it very awkward to take a snap - particularly a one handed one. Excessive bending of your thumb or index finger is required - which doesn't help in keeping the phone steady. All that being said - when a good picture is taken it does look very good on the screen and can easily be shared in an Email, MMS or by uploading to your favourite social network.
Overall this is undoubtedly the best phone I have ever had the pleasure of owning. Any negatives far outweigh the pleasurable and reliable experience of using this phone. An update to the Android OS is to be released in the next few weeks which will enhance all areas of the phone - as well as including built-in Satellite Navigation software. I will add to this review when HTC release this update.