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Spotify Hops the Pond from Europe, Hoping to Change Online Music Biz in the U.S.

For those of us who spend a lot of time listening to music on our computers or phones but don't have the money to pay for all the music we want to hear (and don't want to go the illegal route), online music streaming services are the way to go. Up until now the major options have been sites like Pandora Radio, Last.FM, Slacker, Rhapsody and Zune Pass. But soon, we might be seeing a game changer: Spotify has hopped across the pond from Europe.

Spotify began accepting U.S. users last week. The service is more like Zune Pass and Rhapsody than Pandora, Last.FM or Slacker, which are more like customizeable radio stations than services that stream songs you can choose from. Pandora, Last.FM and Slacker are good if you don't want to create your own playlists and for discovering music similar to what you already listen to. But you can't just select an album and listen to it from beginning to end or pick songs from it to add to playlists and save specific tracks unless you pay for the services individually.

From playing with Spotify over the past few days, I'd say it blows Rhapsody out of the water, and I wouldn't be surprised if the company even put Rhapsody out of business. The more apt comparison is between Spotify and Microsoft's streaming music service, Zune Pass. Here are some thoughts on the two:

  • The Zune Pass interface on the desktop is the best of the bunch, and it's one of the main reasons I picked Zune over Rhapsody last year. Rhapsody's desktop application seems as though it was made in the late '90's and no one bothered to update it. Spotify's desktop is miles ahead of Rhapsody's, and seems not unlike the sleek, simple and easy-to-use iTunes interface. But it's not as visually stimulating as Zune Pass, which could be the most modern and cool program to play with that I've ever used.
  • Zune Pass is also excellent for taking what you have added to your playlists and translating that into recommendations of other music you might like. It also helps you find new bands to like in certain nested genres of music, something you cannot do on Spotify. This is baffling to me — all Spotify has is a list of popular artists, albums and tracks, sortable by what is popular where. It makes no sense that you can't sort by genre. I'm not the kind of person who has my finger on the pulse of music news, so I use this function on a daily basis.
  • Both Zune Pass and Spotify do have functions that allow you to look at lists of bands similar to the ones you're listening to at that moment, and both do a nice job with giving you artist bios. But you can't get podcasts on Spotify, which you can get on Zune Pass. Spotify does, however, search out all audio files on your computer when it starts up, organizing them for you nicely, which Zune Pass doesn't do.
  • Spotify is also a second or two faster to start producing sound when you click play, but the difference only occurs when playing the first track. Zune Pass also seems to be a good bit louder than Spotify when cranked up to the highest volume. This matters to me since the speakers on my laptop aren't that awesome and I don't want to always wear my earbuds.
  • Assuming you want to listen to more than the free 10-hours-per-month on Spotify, Spotify is cheaper, and far cheaper if you only listen on your computer. You save about $10 per month if you're going month-to-month on both Spotify and Zune Pass and only listening on your computer. If you upgrade to premium on Spotify, which gets you higher quality sound and the ability to listen on your phone, you still save about $5 a month, unless you get Zune Pass for a year, in which case you only save about $2 each month.
  • Spotify also supposedly has 15 million tracks available, more than Zune Pass does (10 million) or Rhapsody (12 million). But out of the couple dozen popular bands I scanned through, the only band that had significantly more songs on Spotify was Snow Patrol, which had two whole albums from last year that were not on Zune Pass. I don't listen to any particularly obscure artists though, so for those that do, this might be more of an issue.
  • It's a bit strange that you can't buy a track on Spotify outright even if you wanted to. For those few extra dollars, Zune Pass gives you ten tracks each month that you get to keep, and you can also buy tracks at regular prices if you want. You can also burn tracks to CD with Zune, something you can't do with Spotify.
  • If you are super social with your music, Spotify blows Zune Pass and Rhapsody out of the water. On Spotify, you can have a peek into what your Facebook friends are listening to. The service also has a lot of buzz, and I don't doubt it will be the next big thing in music, just like it has become in Europe.
  • Zune Pass, foolishly, only can be used on Windows Phones, which I happen to have, while Spotify can be used on most new smartphones. Zune Pass on Windows Phone 7 is a really sharp mobile music app, living up to the standard its desktop application sets, but while Spotify's mobile app was panned by a lot of the tech blogs I read, I thought Spotify's Android app was O.K., if a bit plain. Its main weakness is that you can't sort by genre or discover new music as easily.

I'm going to be sticking with Zune Pass for now. Although it's more expensive, if you have a Windows Phone like me, and like the interface and need help finding new music, Zune Pass gives you more. That said, I'd be surprised if Spotify doesn't become the king of the hill in this space fairly quickly, and if I owned Rhapsody stock I'd have sold it long ago. Spotify has the buzz, is easy to use, is cheap, is compatible with all sorts of devices, has more track selection and is a decent music management application. If it spiffs up its mobile app and makes music discovery easier, I'll come back for a second look.

What's your favorite online music streaming service? Let us know by posting a comment below.