Hands On With Spotify For The Browser: Speed Sizzles, But Discovery Fizzles

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It’s speedy, and for a streaming music service like Spotify making the jump from desktop software to the browser, that’s of the utmost importance. This is just an early beta of what will rollout next year, so I’ll forgive the missing features and say I was impressed with the feel. But discovery still has a long way to go to unlock the potential of near infinite music.

To set the stage, in September I broke the news that multiple industry sources had confirmed Spotify was building a browser version. Yesterday, the company supposedly closed a massive $100 million+ round of funding valuing it at over $3 billion. And today, The Verge revealed that a test of the browser version’s beta is now available to some users. Spotify has confirmed with us that it will be rolling out the beta over the next few weeks and months, and it will have more news in Q1 of next year.

The browser version could be a big boon to Spotify because it means you can listen to your playlists or nearly any song no matter what computer you’re on. That includes work or public computers you can’t install software on, or the ability to play form your ad-free subscription while on friend’s laptop at their house. If Spotify is going to convince people to pay $5 or $10 a month, they’re going to want access from anywhere. That’s what the browser version delivers.

So what’s it like? I wrangled an invite link to try it out. This link play.spotify.com is currently giving some people access too, so give it a shot. But here’s what I think about Spotify for the browser.

It performs a lot like the desktop software, which is good news. My biggest worry was that the time it took to search the world’s catalogue of music or start playing a song would be annoyingly slower than on the downloadable version. That’s not what I found. It’s built on Flash, and with a decent wi-fi connection I saw tracks starting to play in less than a second. The only delay is a few seconds when you first open it up.

As for the design, it’s got cascading navigation similar to Spotify’s iPad app. That means if a band catches your eye off the homepage and you click, their artist page will slide out on top. If you don’t dig them, the edge of your previous screen is still visible, which makes it quick to jump back there.

Navigating to Search, What’s News, Radio, and Playlists is much easier than on the desktop, as the little iTunes-style links have been replaced with bigger buttons. The permanently visible “Now Playing” section is bigger and easier to control too. You won’t have to squint to find the pause button. A nice little bonus is the song name and track time appear in the browser tab.

Oddly, there seems to be no way to view album art full-screen. Also, why don’t music services have a “laid back mode designed to help you DJ without sitting down at your computer. I’d love a view with huge cover art, controls, and play queue, but with search and navigation minimized.

One noticeable absence is the Play Queue section, which lets see what you’ve got coming next and as well as your listening history. Another is the Spotify third-party app platform. You won’t find Pitchfork’s curated playlists or Last.fm’s personalized recommendations. However, I’d imagine the app platform may be ported to the browser version eventually.

Unfortunately, those apps were a solution to Spotify’s biggest problem: discovery. When you have most of the world’s catalogue of music at your fingertips, it can induce decision paralysis. “If I could listen to anything, what would I listen to? Ummmm.” Spotify’s browser version is sadly not as helpful as it should be.

Here you get all the same What’s New suggestions from the desktop, including new recommended albums, trending playlists near you, new releases, and 5 top tracks near you and in your country.

A nice addition to the What’s New section is top tracks in the world. There you’ll find your favorite horse dancer PSY’s “Gangnam Style” to contrast with America’s love of country music. The browser version currently lacks the Top Lists section, though. This let you go past the top 5 tracks and explore the top 100 songs or albums in any country or the world.

What most disappointed me is that there’s no truly innovative new discovery options which I’d heard were in the works. There’s not even ones stolen from Rdio’s game-changing Heavy Rotation section, which shows what you’ve been bumping lately. A core joy of on-demand music services is getting your fix of that song you can’t get out of your head. Without an option to view your listening history, you’re forced to add those earworms to a playlist or search for them every time you log on.

There’s also no improved way to follow influencers. I see celebrities, artists, and music experts becoming asynchronous DJs for the masses through on-demand services. Instead of tuning into a radio station, you’ll subscribe to one of these people’s playlists and check out whatever new tracks they add. The 555,000 people who follow Sean Parker’s playlist “Hipster International” shows there’s clearly demand for this. Finding people like Sean is not any easier on the browser version. You know what would be lovely? Recommendations of who to follow based on my listening habits.

I wrote this review after playing with Spotify’s browser app for a few hours, but remember this is a beta — not something you’d typically review. And while I’m judging it against the desktop software, Spotify doesn’t necessarily do the same. A little box in the corners tells me to “Install Spotify on your Mac for the full Spotify experience”.  Apparently this is Spotify Lite.

Still, with any luck there’s a reason we’re not seeing play queue, listening history, apps, better music discovery, and simpler influencer following. Spotify is hopefully in the process of overhauling these features so when they debut, this won’t just be an incomplete port of the desktop software. Instead it could be a portal that expands our musical consciousness. Our ancestors could only dream of exploring the greatest sounds from the corners of the earth at a moment’s notice. It’s time for Spotify to make that dream come true.