Now that Spotify is available on both sides of the pond, it's about time we took a quick look at it. Free streaming music apps don't get much better than Spotify. Right now you can stream any track in the Spotify library for free with a pretty decent desktop Mac app.
It's not available in the Mac App Store, but that doesn't matter -- it's just a simple old-style app install, drag-and-drop like any other app (remember when Mac programs were called applications and they were all installed like that?).
Once installed you can sign-up for a free ad-supported Spotify account. If you've never used Spotify before I suggest you start there, you can always upgrade to "Unlimited", which gives you unlimited streaming without adverts for US$4.99 a month; or "Premium", which gives you ad-free unlimited streaming plus offline caching and Spotify access on your smartphone for $9.99 a month.
Log into the Spotify app on your Mac and you're presented with a fairly familiar interface. Search in the top left, find an artist you want to listen to and hit play. Where Spotify differs from most of the other free streaming music services is that it allows you to pick and choose tracks, not just artists or genres -- it's not just radio-style streaming, it's like playing music in iTunes. Spotify will also play local music files, so your entire iTunes library is also accessible from within the app -- you don't have to forgo your original music collection or juggle two programs.
Spotify is relatively social too -- you can share playlists with anyone with a Spotify account. Recently there's been a bit of controversy over the company's use of Facebook integration. Spotify was essentially spitting out status updates about each track you played to your Facebook account. Thankfully you can switch that off -- and I suggest you do -- to avoid annoying the hell out of your friends.
Spotify also provides radio-style streaming, if that's what you're after. Pick from a list of genres or styles of music and Spotify will chew through a curated selection of tracks. If you're interested in reading-up on a key artist, Spotify also includes biographies on some of the bigger artists. Each artist page also includes links to similar artists, but if you're after music discovery Spotify is relatively weak compared to some of the other streaming services available like Last.fm, Pandora, MOG or Rdio. The recent unveiling of Spotify's App Finder, which essentially allows you to use curated plug-in-style apps within the Spotify desktop client, should help the service improve in that regard. There's already an app for Last.fm available, so with a bit of luck Spotify could end up as one of the best one-stop-shops for both music discovery and playback. If you're a Spotify user who's interested in testing out the App Finder early, Spotify's made available a preview client, which you can test out right now.
Spotify is a new comer to the States, but it's the dominant music streaming service in Europe and for good reason. It combines a decent sized library, the ability to play your own local tracks, and free, ad-supported, streaming. With the single track and artist selection that you're used to in iTunes, it could best some of the more popular streaming services in the US, if you're after a pick'n'play-type experience. Whether you're a die-hard iTunes user, or you're hooked into Rdio, Mog or Pandora, it's worth grabbing yourself a free Spotify account and giving it a whirl, if you haven't already.