Right now, we’ve seen rumors, job openings, blog posts, FCC filings, and more rumors about Spotify’s in-car music player over the course of a few years. In fact, I was convinced that it would never be something the public could actually use. When the company first unveiled a piece of hardware called ‘Car Thing’ in 2019, it was clear that the test was ‘to help us learn more about how people listen to music and podcasts’. It also explained that there were “no ongoing plans” to make that device available to consumers. Now Spotify is ready for selected users to get their hands on a refined version of the in-car voice-activated player.
In 2019, the company tapped almost entirely on Car Thing. First and foremost, it is a dedicated player for Spotify’s music and podcast library. Like most things these days, the device can be controlled by voice (“Hey Spotify”), but it also has a rotary dial, a touch screen and preset buttons for physical interaction. Car Thing connects to your phone via Bluetooth and is powered by the 12 volt port. The device can connect to your car radio wirelessly via Bluetooth or wired with an aux or USB connection. In either case, your phone is the internet connection and ticket for Spotify content, while the Car Thing is usually a controller and display. The company includes CD player, dashboard and vents in the box for you to choose from.
The gadget is noticeably smaller than a smartphone, although it looks a bit like it due to the touchscreen. It also reminds me of the satellite radio receiver I used in the days before the merger of Sirius and XM Radio. Four preset buttons on the top let you store your favorite music, podcasts and news for one-touch access. Spotify says those four items are also saved for offline playback. You can press and hold one of the buttons to save what is playing or use a voice command to set them up hands-free. You can also say “Hey Spotify” to play each of the presets if you can’t or don’t want to press any of the buttons.
To navigate your content library, you can turn and press the rotary knob or tap the screen to view specific track details for a playlist, album or podcast. Below the dial is a back button that takes you to the Now Playing screen, returns to the home page, or closes the player interface. Like Spotify’s Car View, the user interface on the player has been simplified, with album art and basic controls with bold fonts for visibility. Overall, the interface design is very similar to the company’s mobile apps.
Spotify shows its voice control with Car Thing. The company just added its own voice assistant to its mobile apps last week, and that technology gives you the ability to use this hardware hands-free when needed. You can ask the helper to play or show everything from artists and songs to podcasts and playlists. “Hey Spotify” is useful for searching and playing what you’re looking for without reaching for the device, but it can also help you store songs in your library. The company says Car Thing’s four microphones ensure that the voice setup hears your commands even when music is playing or the windows are turned down.
In terms of content, Car Thing displays separate tabs for playlists, artists, albums and podcasts that you have stored in your library. Home screen shortcuts are personalized and updated throughout the day based on your listening activity. And of course, you’re free to search for anything in Spotify’s huge collection of music and podcasts if you’d like to stream anything else.
Spotify is adamant about a “limited release” of Car Thing, which doesn’t mean the company is now focusing on making hardware. It explains that it “saw a need from our users, many of whom were missing out on a seamless and personalized in-car listening experience.” The company says that Car Thing provides “a superior listening experience” regardless of the year or model of your car. Spotify also explains that the hardware isn’t just a way of collecting user data. While the company collects voice and usage information (including audio recordings) to improve its hardware, it says it doesn’t collect more data than it does in its mobile apps.
“The limited release of Car Thing is not intended to compete with in-car infotainment systems,” Spotify explains in a blog post. “Instead, it is another step in our ubiquitous strategy of creating a truly frictionless audio experience for our users, wherever they are and however they listen.”
Car Thing is currently only available in the US as a limited product launch. And to get one, you need an invitation. Sign-ups are now live on a website dedicated to the device. Spotify will make the hardware available for free during this early period, but users will have to pay shipping costs. The company says it is doing this because Car Thing is its first hardware and wants to learn it as much as possible in the early stages. As you would expect, you need a Premium plan and a phone with cellular data or Wi-Fi connectivity to use Car Thing. Free users are not eligible for this ‘limited release’.
Spotify says if the device becomes a full-fledged product, you can pay around $ 80 for it. There is no confirmation that this will happen, or a timetable for more news on the matter. However, the company explains that it wants to create wider availability in the future – including more languages and regions. But since this is just an “exploration”, it starts with English.
Written by B. Steele for Engadget.