Spotify's Car Thing is easy to bring into any vehicle, except you need to gauge what you would actually need it for because its purpose isn't always clear relative to other ways to listen to tunes.
- Nice design and build
- Easy setup
- Solid integration
- User-friendly interface
- Voice control
- Real purpose not always clear
- Only for Spotify Premium members
- Only integrates through your phone
- Shaky mounting options
- Weird connection issues
There would've been a time when a device like Car Thing made a lot of sense. Bluetooth connectivity came long before Android Auto and CarPlay ever did, and Spotify launched its service in the U.S. back in 2011. In-car infotainment does continue to stumble along, but has made big strides and it's within that prism that Spotify's Car Thing comes into broader focus.
Do you need another screen in your car? Do you even want another screen in your car, even if you are a Spotify Premium subscriber? While small, Car Thing has to fit in somewhere to make a better case for seeing and touching it while driving.
Spotify Car Thing: Price and availability
Spotify initially did a "limited" launch for Car Thing in April 2021, with general availability coming in February 2022. That made it much easier to find, and it often comes at $90. It will likely be steady there for a while, but price drops are probably coming along the way. It only comes in one model, so there are no variants. It's also currently only available in the U.S.
Spotify Car Thing: What's good
Oftentimes, the smaller the device made for your car, the easier it is to integrate, and Spotify Car Thing isn't hard to bring in and leave in place. The device also isn't all that complicated, both in setup and execution. It comes with three ways to mount it in your car. You can either slip it over an air vent, stick it to the dash with an adhesive or mount it in front of the CD player. If you still have one of the latter in your car, it's just a mount with hooks that lock into the CD player slot. A cool idea and one I didn't expect to come in the box.
Each of these has a disc-shaped surface that connects to the device through magnets. The device itself only has one USB-C port and needs to plug into the included 12V socket charger on the other end for power. If you are going to use a third-party one you like, it needs the juice to power Car Thing. Spotify included two USB-A ports in its own charger, so you can always charge something else at the same time.
Car Thing does ultimately run through your phone, so it needs to connect to Bluetooth, which it starts to enable upon scanning the QR code in the quick start guide. I went through the Spotify app to do it and was up and running in only a few minutes. Very foolproof and easy for anyone to follow and set up, which is a big plus for anyone who might be intimidated by bringing a tech device into the cabin.
Its size, which measures a very modest 4.5-inches wide and 2.5-inches tall, makes it easy to position where you want, though its smaller 3.97-inch touchscreen won't dominate your dash in any major way.
While Car Thing is largely just an extension of the app on your phone, it does a couple of things that can prove useful. Four buttons up top align as presets you can choose for playlists or albums. Play something and hold down the button you want to assign to it, and that's it. Any of those buttons you press will start playing that playlist, album, or radio station, and if you set playback to shuffle, it will just start with a random track.
The fifth button is a shortcut to the settings, and the key there is the microphone. Car Thing has its own voice assistant, where saying, "Hey Spotify," hands-free can make the device play what you want. Some commands are basic, like "pause music," "skip this song," and "play (whatever) playlist." It's pretty responsive, and I liked it for its utility as a hands-free way to try discovering something new, though results are mixed at best.
I also liked the dial and back button for their simple navigation. The dial is great for moving quickly through a playlist or just moving through the interface — not unlike the rotary dial some cars use to navigate an infotainment system. Press it to make a selection and the back button to return to the previous screen.
The tight integration with your phone also means Car Thing will play content you've saved to the device. If you're driving through a dead zone or trying to save data, any saved playlists or albums will play data-free through the device.
Even apart from that, I liked how Car Thing kept Spotify active and visible on its screen, while my phone could run Waze or Google Maps for navigation. I can see the allure for rideshare drivers, just as much as I do for anyone driving a vehicle that doesn't have Android Auto or CarPlay in it.
Incidentally, Car Thing also acts as an extension of the phone and app when Android Auto is running, too. It may seem like overkill, given Spotify is easy enough to navigate on a larger infotainment screen, but again, if you always wanted Spotify to stay visible, that kind of setup won't be a problem.
Spotify Car Thing: What's not good
A major factor here is Car Thing only works with Spotify Premium accounts, so if you're listening on the free tier, this device does nothing for you. On the Family tier, only the primary account holder can use it, limiting the scope of its utility. And if you have any ideas of somehow integrating this with your computer or whatever other devices you use to play Spotify, forget it. That's not happening. Only tablets will work apart from phones.
Get past those prerequisites, and you encounter other challenges. One is the mounting itself. Car Thing includes a disclaimer noting how placing it in front of an air vent could pose problems for the microphone. Moreover, too much heat or AC might also not be good for it. Not every vent is made the same way, so your results may vary. The other mounting options aren't as sturdy as I would like, which I found a disappointment for a device that feels pretty feathery, otherwise.
The other is Android Auto, whose presence almost renders Car Thing as an unnecessary want more than an essential need. As I covered earlier, the two work together just fine, but you would have to feel like Spotify on Android Auto — and by extension, Google Assistant — aren't doing something right for you.
Testing out the Car Thing was largely an exercise in discovering what its true purpose was. For older vehicles, it makes total sense. If you don't have Android Auto, nor any way to integrate Spotify into your car, this thing may feel like it solves a real pain point while driving with tunes playing.
For vehicles with Android Auto, and especially those who can deploy it wirelessly, Car Thing feels like an add-on that you shoehorn into the mix for purely selfish reasons. You want another screen in the car or prefer its layout to that of the phone or infotainment display. I don't necessarily need to touch the device if I can play, pause and skip tracks using my steering wheel controls.
I also experienced a couple of connectivity issues while driving that I couldn't figure out. For whatever reason, the device just wouldn't connect to my phone, even though everything was fine. Admittedly, there's a wonky element to Car Thing that I couldn't shake, be it from the aforementioned connectivity trouble or the relative challenges with the mounts and interface.
Spotify Car Thing: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if...
- You are a Spotify Premium subscriber
- You drive an older vehicle (with Bluetooth)
- You want your phone free to display something else
- You're cool with adding another screen to the car
You shouldn't buy this if...
- You are fine with Android Auto
- You are fine using your phone on a dock
- You aren't sure what you would do with it
- You only listen to Spotify's free tier
Despite its lack of focus, Spotify wasn't wrong in attempting something like Car Thing. I think it would've been better served to create something that would have Spotify built-in with the ability to store music offline. Or at the very least, to include features that would be exclusive to such a device that could integrate with Android Auto.
As is, its focus is both singular and unclear because it's hard to see how it improves the listening experience for those who already have ways to do it while driving. Car Thing is definitely niche, but probably not in the way Spotify might've had in mind.
Ted Kritsonis loves taking photos when the opportunity arises, be it on a camera or smartphone. Beyond sports and world history, you can find him tinkering with gadgets or enjoying a cigar. Often times, that will be with a pair of headphones or earbuds playing tunes. When he's not testing something, he's working on the next episode of his podcast, Tednologic.
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