Every so often an application comes along that simply blows you away and the free version of Spotify is definitely one of the best music apps I've ever used. You know you're dealing with a serious piece of software when a band as big as U2 decides to launch an exclusive preview of their album on it. The closest equivalent I can think of is Pandora (which is now unavailable in Europe) but this is on a whole new level and far better.
At the moment, the free version is in beta stage and you need an invite from the developers or a friend to use it. Spotify is basically like having access to a huge amount of commercial music, in a format as elegant as on iTunes, but available to you for free, wherever you go. It's simple to use, beautifully presented, the amount of music available is unbelievable and the quality of streaming is superb.
What's the catch? You just have to put up with a few non-obtrusive ads inside the Spotify interface and occasionally in between songs. At the time of writing, the free version is in beta so you'll have to sign-up with your e-mail address and await an invitation. Alternatively, if you know someone who's already got an invite, they can invite you in if they've got a few invites left. As a new user, I have no invites as yet but I suspect that this increases the longer you use the service. If you can't wait that long to try it out, you can buy a one day pass for about $1 or a month's pass for around $10. The slight advantage of signing up to either of these is that both are completely ad free.
When you open Spotify initially, you may be offered the chance to preview a big new album by paying for the premium service (at the moment it's U2's new album). You can ignore this though and go onto the main interface where you're presented with all the latest big releases. So, fancy listening to Coldplay's new album? No problem, just click on the album cover and it will start streaming almost instantly with the track listing right in front of you. Or, fancy listening to the Manic Street Preacher's entire back catalogue? Just search for them and you have everything they've ever done, with album art, album reviews and track listings ready for you to listen to!
The quality is ridiculously good for a streaming app - in fact, I think it's better than my own MP3 collection. Spotify uses the Ogg Vorbis q5 codec which streams at approximately 160kb/s compared to my own MP3s at a measly 128kb/s. The Spotify FAQ says that you can also buy tracks if you want to download them onto your Mac although this is only available for selected artists and probably varies depending on the country you are using it in.
There's also a radio function on Spotify which allows you to listen to artists by genre and time period but I found this to be the least useful part of the whole app. The artists it throws up seem very obscure and there didn't seem to be anyway to quickly scroll through them. It does however allow you to come up with some very odd playlists possibilities - Techno with 60's anyone?
What I'm really loving about Spotify though is that I'm already discovering music that I wouldn't normally. For instance, I wouldn't personally buy or even download the Coldplay album but erm, a bit like Steven Gerrard, I am partial to a bit of them and I've enjoyed listening to their album on Spotify. Similarly, I'm discovering tracks from artists I'm a big fan but I've never heard before. This is because Spotify highlights tracks by the artist you're listening to that feature on other albums - such as charity tracks they've recorded or special collaborations with other artists.
There aren't a lot of social networking features in Spotify although this is not something I use very much anyway. For those who do, you'll be pleased to hear that the developers have added support scrobbling to Last.fm.
Music applications simply don't get better than this. Spotify is surely the future of music distribution and it's all for free. If you're not bothered about owning the music you listen to or extensive social networking elements, you will love it. Let's just hope that the developers can keep the record labels, artists and bands happy otherwise it may sufffer the same demise as Pandora did in Europe.
By the way, if you want to learn more about how it all started and how it works, there's an interesting interview in The Local with the Swedish founder Daniel Ek.