The three giants of the streaming music industry are all broadly similar. They have similarly large libraries, nearly identical monthly fees, and similar feature sets. So how do we decide whether Spotify, Google Play Music or Apple Music is the best streaming service?
Spotify is the current gold standard for a streaming service. However, the service’s apps are far from perfect.
Spotify’s best features include an absolutely expansive library, a huge collection of user playlists and a fairly intelligent radio station algorithm. Personalized weekly playlists, generated by the Spotify algorithm based on each user’s previous listening, are another standout feature. The service is enhanced by support from a huge range of third-party devices, like car radios and home entertainment systems.
Support for exercise is also well done. There’s a “Running” feature that’s somewhat hidden in the application which plays workout-specific music based on your current steps per minute. As someone who doesn’t listen to music while running because the BPM and my steps per minute rarely match, this feature was awesome. Once you’ve dialed in a BPM you’re comfortable with, it makes keeping pace far easier.
But the service is hamstrung by clunky, sub-par apps and a buggy, inconsistent web interface. The mobile app is crowded with a pile of small but annoying user interface decisions. Accessing what you’ve listened to recently is unintuitive, as is moving around the app from song to artist to album.
Search is a particularly bad mess. Searching for a song and playing it from the search menu works fine, but it has some oddities. For example, after the song you’ve searched for is finished, the next song up is the next best match for your search, whether it’s an exact repeat of what you just heard or a truly terrible cover by a no-name four-piece. The app also saves partial search strings instead of the auto-completed variations, leaving your search history filled with “cla” and “jac” instead of “The Clash” and “The Jackson Five.” It’s an amazing service, but the app needs some love.
Apple Music might be Spotify’s most significant competitor at the moment. With a similarly-sized library, Apple is left to compete on secondary features. Even with the bloated mess that is the current incarnation of iTunes, Apple Music’s user interface is broadly better than Spotify’s current offerings.
The feature sets between the apps are very similar, with playlists, social sharing and the ability to save and follow artists. Purchased music from your iTunes library is folded effortlessly into the app, which is great for folks with big collections. A nice bonus to the automated systems is access to Beats 1, a radio station mixed by a live DJ. It’s youth-oriented but reliably listenable.
Apple Music also integrates with Apple’s devices at a deep level. It’s the only application that offers Siri support: you can ask Siri to play the Beastie Boys, and it will pop right up. While this distinction is wholly dependent on Apple’s own restrictions, it’s still a valuable option for Apple device users. With a Mac and an iPhone, I’ve found Siri integration to be a huge plus. But Windows or Android users won’t get the benefits of this major differentiator, which limits Apple Music’s appeal for those users.
Google Play Music
Google Play Music is the lesser-known quantity in streaming music. It exists as a robust free service and a monthly subscription service with a broader feature set.
Google Play Music offers a broadly similar music library when compared with Apple Music and Spotify, but it’s missing some of those services’ better features. For example, Google Play Music lacks the ability to effectively build automated playlists in the way that Spotify and Apple Music do. It can suggest similar artists based on your listening, but that’s all. It’s the kind of feature that users from other services might be accustomed to. Its absence feels like a notable deficit.
However, Google Play Music does offer a collection of excellent activity-themed playlists. This comes from their acquisition of Songza which collected playlists based on what you were doing while listening.
Google Play Music also includes a subscription to YouTube Red, the premium version of YouTube. This removes ads from YouTube videos, enables background app video and grants access to subscription-only YouTube Red Originals.
Despite struggling against a mediocre user interface, Spotify still remains the best streaming music service for most people. Apple Music is a close second, but its best features are restricted to iPhone, iPad and Mac owners. With enough time and attention from Google, Google Play Music will reliably grow into a serious competitor in the marketplace, but the feature set still needs to be expanded.