Apple Music vs. Spotify: A Comprehensive Review & Comparison
When Spotify finally launched on US shores in the summer of 2011, the way we think about music changed forever. The industry had been through hell and back throughout the 2000s, following the rise of music piracy and Napster in the beginning of the century and continuing with the use of both Limewire and torrents. For a moment, however, it seem as though digital stores like iTunes had revitalized the music scene, allowing songs to be purchased for $.99 through Apple’s storefront (and later raised to $1.29 for most popular songs). Despite streaming giants like Pandora, an internet radio service, and Rhapsody, which in many ways served as precedent to Spotify’s business, it wasn’t until 2011 when music streaming began to blow up. Suddenly, it didn’t make sense to purchase digital singles for a buck or two when, for a monthly fee similar to the cost of an album, you could listen to practically every song in the world, allowing you to create and curate your own library, playlists, and more. The addition of a mobile app on both iOS and Android made it easy to take your music on the go.
Of course, once Spotify launched, it was only a matter of time before rivals began flooding in from the woodwork. Rdio was an early competitor, though it was eventually sold to Pandora when it became obvious the company couldn’t compete to scale. Google launched their own music streaming service, the poorly-named Google Play Music All Access (later shortened to just Google Play Music), which still operates today alongside YouTube Music and YouTube Red. Tidal also made waves when they launched under the helm of Jay-Z and the promise of high fidelity audio, though despite the launch of timed exclusives like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Jay-Z’s own 4:44, the service has struggled to maintain users and subscribers. Pandora expanded their service to include a $9.99 plan featuring on-demand listening. Even Amazon has created their own music streaming service to compete in the market, with a limited version available for Prime members and a fully-featured version available for a monthly subscription.
Despite the competition, only one real service has emerged to battle Spotify on a similar level. Apple Music launched in June of 2015, nearly four years after the launch of Spotify in the United States, and the music giant has managed to take the green giant head on, earning about half the amount of paid subscribers Spotify has in a much smaller time period. With apps for both iOS and Android and years of creating legions of followers, Apple certainly has the opportunity to eat into Spotify’s market share, and for most mobile users, these are the two streaming platforms to choose from on your phone. With both services quickly growing out their feature sets, libraries, and promising exclusives to subscribers, it’s no wonder that users can be confused between which platform offers what.
While the choice between Apple Music and Spotify might come down to personal preference, each service offers their own specific features, exclusives, and designs. With the success of each platform in mind, let’s dive into each service and find out just which one is worth your hard-earned cash. Both services have trials available, with Spotify offering one free month and Apple Music offering three. So grab your phone and follow along. This is Apple Music vs. Spotify.
About Our Review
We’re using the Android versions of both applications, running on a Galaxy S7 edge with Android 7.0 installed. It might seem counterintuitive to review an Apple application on Android when Apple tends to focus on the iOS versions of their applications (for obvious reasons), but as of the April update to Apple Music, the two versions of the app are nearly identical in both features and design. Same goes for the Spotify app on both iOS and Android, with only small design variations based on system icons on each operating system. Basically, no matter what phone you’re using, you’ll have a similar experience with both Spotify and Apple Music on your platform. We also used the desktop version of Spotify, in order to properly look at the social aspects included in the app.
We’re also using the premium versions of both applications, despite Spotify’s free radio tier and Apple Music’s own free tier for listening to the music already available in your iTunes library. For this test, we want to help our readers make a decision on which streaming service to subscribe to, though we will cover the free tiers in our pricing section.
Though it may not seem like it, the design of a music streaming app is one of the most important aspects to nail. If your app is confusing, poorly made, or hides important features, you may never be able to get subscribers to stay locked into your platform. Both Spotify and Apple Music feature pretty distinct layouts and designs, with some similarities but plenty of differences in design choices, including color themes, highlight shades, track layouts, and more. Overall, both apps are well-designed, but each have distinct flaws that are worth noting when comparing the two platforms. Let’s take a look at the design of each app.
Upon signing into the application, Spotify will load into a homepage, displaying suggested playlists, radio stations, and more to follow. You can subscribe to these to keep them in your feed, or simply play them back on request. These stations and suggested artists and playlists can also be tuned to your preferences within settings and when you first sign up for Spotify. Using this home page, it’s easy to browse through new releases, mood-based playlists, and more—all of which we’ll cover later on in our features section. Along the bottom of the app, you’ll find five categories: Home, Browse, Search, Radio, and Your Library. Each of these are pretty straightforward, but it’s a good way to organize your music. Since the app is built to follow design languages on multiple operating systems, the overall appearance of Spotify doesn’t match what we’ve seen from other Android or iOS apps. Despite that, the design language of the app has greatly improved over older versions of the app from a few years ago, and everything feels clean and smooth.
The app features a dark-themed layout, which, as we’ll see in a moment, is exactly the opposite of Apple’s approach to design. Though Spotify used to feature green highlights, those appear to be more or less gone from the app now, replaced by white and gray variant highlights. It helps give the app a bit more of a modern feel than the older green icons that used to fill the app. The listing pages for artists and albums still feature some of that green, with currently-playing tracks highlighted with a not-too-bright green accent, and the “Shuffle Play” icons matching. It’s a good design, with solid animations between pages and expansive album artwork.
The Now Playing tab, arguably the most important part of any music-related application, looks great here too, with a slight gradient highlighting the background of your currently playing tracks, easy-to-read text, and a focus on the album artwork. You can view your queue from the top-right corner of the display, easily add songs to your library, save entire albums using the menu button included within the UI, and perform all the standard playback options: play, pause, next and previous songs, shuffle and repeat. You can also easily stream music to any computer, televisions, and WiFi-enabled speakers, making it easy to share music on louder or better speakers than what your phone offers.
Finally, the Settings menu is accessible through the Your Library tab, and allows you to change a bunch of the options available within Spotify. You can toggle offline mode on or off, allowing your phone to stream only the music you’ve downloaded straight to your phone, enable or disable gapless playback, normalize volume on your device, and more. There are enough settings to be confusing upon first glance, but overall, it’s a nicely laid-out application with some great design choices. Spotify’s early software was weak and buggy, but their app has gotten really good lately—with good looks to boot.
If Spotify’s design is dark and subdued, Apple’s color scheme and design for Apple Music is bright and saturated, featuring a largely-white color scheme for most menus and displays and a pastel-red color for highlighting menus, icons, and buttons. The app is unmistakably Apple design for better and for worse, and though the app can be a bit difficult to navigate. The app is included by default on all iPhone and other iOS devices, though accessing it on Android means a download from the Play Store. The app’s design does vary a little between platforms, with a sliding menu icon on Android instead of the bottom navigation bar, as is standard for most apps on iOS. The difference between the two apps is largely cosmetic, with the goal of making each user feel at home on their platform of choice.
The app opens on the “For You” page, remarkably similar in almost every way to the “Home” page we’ve seen on Spotify. Here, you’ll see recently played albums, playlists for the day, album suggestions, “artist spotlight playlists,” and of course, new releases—though it’s worth noting that one of the two new highlighted new releases was Thom Yorke’s album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, originally released in 2014 and, presumably, simply new to Apple Music, not new to the music scene as a whole. The menu icons (again, either along the bottom of the app on iOS or on the side sliding panel on Android) allow you to access your personal library, browse through music, and access the Radio section of Apple Music, along with a settings option. Library, in particular, syncs any and all iTunes purchases from your library to your phone, making it easy to listen to your library over the years without having to sync your device (or, on Android, do any number of workarounds to access your music).
Looking at the layout of pages within the app, it’s clear that Apple has taken a slightly different design philosophy than Spotify. The pages have various differences between them. Albums have included blurbs written about the notoriety or importance of the album—Wilco’s landmark 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for example, speaks about the relation to Bob Dylan on the album, the inclusion of psychedelia, and the vocals of frontman Jeff Tweedy, whose lyrics and voice make the album what it is. On something with a bit more pop, like Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album E•MO•TION, the writing speaks to her ’80s influence, the production work of Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij on the album’s “Warm Blood,” and Sia’s co-writing credit on “Making the Most of the Night.” While including paragraphs about specific albums and bands, along with their history, isn’t anything new to music subscription services—Google Play Music does this as well, albeit pulled from the web instead of included an original piece of writing—it’s a really nice inclusion.
The playback display is nearly-identical on both iOS and Android, with a bright white background, a large display of the album art for your individual song, and those same pink-red highlights we mentioned earlier. The Now Playing screen is much cleaner than Spotify’s own playback screen, with a limit on the included buttons. Each piece of album artwork minimizes a bit when a song is played, making for a nice effect on the screen. While Spotify includes a small preview on the right and left of the upcoming or previous album art, Apple Music keeps their playback screen focused on one song, and if we’re being honest, it makes the app look a lot cleaner. The display can be minimized by sliding your finger down on the screen, and maximized at any time by sliding back up from the bottom of your screen within the app.
As far as settings goes, there’s not much here that makes the app anything special. There’s some standard download options, explicit content toggles, and some About pages for update and privacy information. When compared to Spotify, Apple Music looks a bit more refined on the Now Playing and track list pages. The included additional information is a nice touch, and the playback display is a bit better. Of course, some of the other pages, including the “For You” homepage don’t quite have the same design touches we like seeing on other platforms, including Spotify’s own. It’s a draw between both apps on design (though Spotify is definitely the better Android app), but you’ll want to try out both just to see which design speaks to you more.
Design is important, but it’s the features and the library size and exclusives that make people start paying for your service. Both Spotify and Apple Music go above and beyond in terms of features, radio stations, and more, but each have their special exclusive features that drag consumers to one side of the aisle or the other. Are any of these exclusive features worth it? Let’s take a look.
By far, Spotify’s best feature is the inclusion of social features and music discovery. Spotify allows you to sync your Facebook account to allow social sharing among your friends and family members. People who have friended you on Facebook can see what you’re listening to within the app, allowing you to easily share playlists, albums, song selections, and more, with the people you’re closest with. Spotify doesn’t require you to use these social features—you can very easily turn them off within settings, and you don’t have to sign in with your Facebook account at all—but the community and social inclusion is a big part of what makes Spotify the music player choice of millions of users.
Here’s the major downside to Spotify: while the desktop version of Spotify supports “Friend Feed,” an easy way to see what your friends are up to on the service, the mobile app—arguably the more important version of Spotify, since so much daily music listening is done throughout the day, when you’re on the go, or in traffic—doesn’t support this feature. You can’t easily access what your friends are doing on the service, essentially rendering the activity feed as something you can only see when you’re on your desktop computer. Now, because you can view your friends list from within the Spotify app, it is possible to simply open your friends list, tap on the name of the friend whose music and activity you wish to view, and then view their account from there. Unfortunately, all this will do it make it easy to view their last three albums played, along with their list of public playlists (which you can view from within the mobile app). It’s unfortunate that Spotify still has this limitation, especially since apps like Rdio had social integration on mobile years ago, prior to Spotify even becoming the mega-giant music service it is today.
We’re still big fans of the social aspect of Spotify, however. On the desktop app, it works really well, with a constantly-refreshing feed of your friends current activity. It makes it easy to see just what your friends are listening to at any time, and you can easily play their selection from your desktop device by tapping on the play button on the side column. If the song they’re listening to comes from one of their public playlists, you can easily view that playlist right from within the desktop app. As we mentioned previously, you can control your Spotify account to disable Facebook integration, or use a “private session” to listen to a specific track, album, or artist you don’t want others to see. That way, if you’re still embarrassed about your love of pop music when your friends are into grunge, you can hide your true music tastes from the ones who will judge you the most.
In addition to friends, Spotify also allows you to follow artist, allowing you to get updates on their activity, new songs and albums, and more. Those artists will appear in your artists feed on Spotify, where you can easily access their Spotify listings to view songs, albums, and more right from their own pages. Following an artist makes it easy to be notified when that singer, songwriter, or band has a new single out, or even when an upcoming concert is happening near you, making it a one-stop shop for updates on your favorite bands and what they’re up to while making new music or putting on shows.
Though these social features are some of the best additions to Spotify’s own apps, there’s some other miscellaneous features and functions built into Spotify on both the desktop and mobile apps, as well as the web player that makes your Spotify account accessible from any computer, even ones you can’t install the app onto for security reasons (typically because of limitations with work computers and other software-limited devices). Spotify’s desktop app supports playing your own local files through the app, with the ability to add a source from your computer to build playlists and add local bands or remixes from your personal collection to your Spotify library. To play the files back on your mobile devices, however, you’ll need to have a premium account. Spotify supports a wide variety of podcasts, so if you’re unable to find a podcast-only player on your devices you like, you can use Spotify’s apps to listen to your favorite shows. Unlike local music playback, you don’t need a premium account to listen to shows like My Brother, My Brother and Me or This American Life—you can do that right from your computer. Finally, the desktop and mobile apps support crossfading your music, if you’d rather there not be silence breaks between songs. This might sound odd, especially for albums or tracks that blend into each other—think the back half of Abbey Road, for example—but for parties and other moments where you don’t want odd silences between your tracks, it’s a near-perfect feature.
If we’re being honest, Apple Music isn’t quite as feature-packed as Spotify. Or rather, it is, but not with features we think truly matter to most music-lovers out there. One of the most important features to people who live, breathe, and sleep music is the ability to discover new tracks, and most melomaniacs will admit the best way to do this is to see what your friends are listening to—especially if your friends have similar music taste to your own. Apple’s promised social features coming to Apple Music in iOS 11, launching later this summer with the next revisions of iPhones, has promised to add the ability to see and follow friends’ music collection, and their tracks, playlists, and more will appear right on the For You homepage within the app. We’re not quite sure how you’ll find your friends on the app—Facebook integration seems unlikely—and we’re also not sure when the feature will arrive on the Android version of the Music app, but regardless, if you’re looking for social integration in Apple Music, it’s coming before the end of September. We just hope these new social function are better than Ping, Apple’s last attempt at a social network inside of iTunes.
Though Spotify has launched their own series of radio shows, Apple Music’s own radio broadcasts are far and away the better efforts between the two streaming services. When Apple built their subscription service for streaming, they did so off the back of Beats Music, a streaming app that was inherited by Apple when the company bought the headphone-maker for $3 billion dollars in 2014. When Apple relaunched Beats Music as Apple Music—an all new service, don’t get us wrong—they did keep the Beats branding around for one major feature: Beats 1 Radio. Beats 1 operates as an always-on, 24/7 radio station with DJs including Zane Lowe (from BBC Radio 1) and Ebro Darden. The station focuses on playing a wide variety of music, as well as promoting new albums and other releases. Notably, Drake often uses the station to drop new singles during his own show, OVO Radio.
Apple Music syncs with your iTunes library, and the cost of a subscription also includes iTunes Match and iCloud Library, allowing you to access DRM-free files across every single one of your devices, while also supplying you with higher-quality rips of tracks you might’ve taken from CDs years ago at lower bitrates. The improved quality is a major bonus to Apple Music fans, although unfortunately, you’ll have to rely on playing those tracks from either your desktop PC with iTunes or your mobile smartphone. There’s no web app available for Apple as of writing.
Here’s one major thing Apple Music offers that Spotify does not: original television productions. Yes, that’s right—Apple has ventured into video production with the Apple Music app, and we still haven’t gotten quite used to it. In addition to interesting Behind-the-Scenes documentaries and featurettes, including videos featuring the production of Haim’s second album Something to Tell You, a recording of Taylor Swift’s 1989 world tour in promotion of the album of the same name, and Drake’s 2016 short film Please Forgive Me.
But while films and related documentaries about music make sense for the platform, subscribers also gain access to Apple’s current flagship television show, Planet of the Apps. Nothing can quite prepare you for how strange Planet of the Apps even is, a take on “Shark Tank” crossed with “The Voice.” The basic premise of the show revolves around iOS app developers pitching applications to a panel of celebrity judges, including Will.i.am and Gwyneth Paltrow, among others, while they ride down a slow-moving escalator (I suppose this being a take on the “elevator pitch” of yore). The judges then take an app developer under their wings as they give advice on how to develop the app for a mass market, and the app is launched and available for download on the iOS App Store for actual users to try out and test.
It’s one of the strangest experiments we’ve seen in modern television, and it doesn’t quite work as you might hope. If Apple’s exclusive television shows were the main selling point for you over Spotify, we’d recommend skipping out on them entirely. Apple’s second exclusive show, Carpool Karaoke, hosted by James Corden and based on the sketch of the same name off his own late night show, premieres on August 8th. Whether or not it’s as bad as Planet of the Apps remains to be seen, but so far, Apple can’t quite stand up to the internet giants of original programming like Netflix and Hulu.
Library sizes have become less and less important as most bands and musicians have agreed to host their music on some form of streaming service. These typically include Spotify and Apple Music as two of the most prominent subscription service, largely due to Apple’s longtime prominence in the music market since the early days of the iPod and MP3s, and Spotify’s subscriber and user count. Subscription services like these have largely become the way to listen to music in 2017, so it makes sense that record labels and even the most stubborn of musicians have agreed to host their music on these services.
So while competing on the size of their libraries has become a bit passé, it’s easy to see why some services, including Apple Music, have begun competing on the front of exclusive releases.
For a couple years, Apple Music was the place to access Taylor Swift’s catalog, which was limited on other services like Google Play Music and outright removed from Spotify. Swift added her music back to Spotify (and added 1989 to all other services) earlier this summer, ending one of the major exclusive deals Apple Music had in place with one of the biggest pop stars in the game. But Apple’s been all about timed-exclusives since it launched two years ago: Frank Ocean’s long-awaited Blonde premiered as an Apple Music exclusive, where it stayed until September, nearly a full month after release, when it expanded to other platforms. The same went for Drake’s Views, Future’s EVOL, and the other 2016 album by Frank Ocean, Endless. At the same time, Apple competitor Tidal had been competing with exclusives of their own, including collections by Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Rihanna.
While nearly every exclusive album Apple Music has pushed out eventually comes to other platforms—typically within a month or less—it became obvious that streaming exclusives only hurt the consumer, with plenty of users turning to piracy to find these albums instead of waiting for them to expand to the streaming service of their choice. Apple said at the beginning of this summer they’d be pulling away from these exclusive album deals, citing record labels’ complaints presumably regarding piracy, along with a general dislike from plenty of artists. Lady Gaga, for example, told Beats 1 radio—the radio station owned and operated by Apple Music—that she “told my label that if they signed those contracts with Apple Music and Tidal, [she]’d leak all [her] own new music”.
So, with exclusives slowly leaving the Apple Music world, what’s left? The service still boasts a collection of over 40 million songs, and looking through their collection with random artist selections found most musicians were featured on the platform. Thom Yorke recently added his solo work The Eraser and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (mentioned earlier in this article) back to the platform, along with his side project Atoms for Peace, whose 2013 release Amok was pulled from streaming services back in 2014. Streaming services like Google Play Music seem to only have the singles from that album and the remixes from Yorke’s solo albums, while Spotify has absolutely nothing for either band outside of some unofficial remixes. Other artists, though, including Garth Brooks and Tool, remain with either specific streaming services (Amazon Music, in the case of Brooks) or offline altogether (in the case of Tool).
Unlike Apple Music and Tidal, Spotify has stuck strong to their stance that exclusive album deals are bad for users, avoiding the issue altogether and following in the footsteps of Google’s own non-exclusive strategy. Though this guarantees Spotify stays out of the war between Apple Music and Tidal, and quite possibly saves money in the result, it also means you don’t get that feeling of “this is something only I get on my platform” you might get while checking out Views or The Life of Pablo before those albums made their way to different streaming services. Overall, this is probably a win for consumers—you don’t feel like you need to sign up for Spotify to listen a new album by your favorite band—but we still can’t escape some small part of our brain that wishes you could simply score some wins over other platforms.
Spotify claims a library of “over 30 million” songs, and while this might sound far lower than Apple’s own offerings, the simple truth is you won’t notice much of a difference between these platforms. Nearly every track we tried search for on Spotify that was available on Apple Music was also on the free streaming service, with the exception of some examples we mentioned above when discussing Apple Music’s own library size. The recent re-addition of Taylor Swift back to Spotify filled a large library hole for tons of users, and it’s good to see Spotify adding missing popular music back to its collection. And while Apple Music might claim to have a larger library, we simply don’t think it matters all that much. “Forgotify” is a service that will play you a never-before-streamed track through the service, and they have a collection of millions of tracks that haven’t been played all the way through before.
Spotify is missing some of the same tracks Apple Music is missing, including the aforementioned collections of Garth Brooks and Tool, but the bigger truth here is this: Spotify’s free tier is doing the company damage in terms of growing the library. While the company overall has a library size that offers most users exactly the music they’re looking for, Spotify’s adherence to not giving up the ad-supported playback that gives artists fractions of a penny for each song stream means that labels and artists are both more hesitant to add songs and missing albums to the service over other platforms like Apple Music. This is a case of Apple’s own relationship with the record label doing them a huge favor—artists like Thom Yorke feel more secure in adding their music back to Apple Music while limiting it elsewhere because Apple’s been there for those artists since 2001 with the launch of the iPod and the iTunes store two years later. While it’s certainly nice to know Spotify has no plans to dump their free tier—often referring to the service as “free forever,” it’s nothing less than unfortunate that this same plan is making Spotify miss out on specific albums.
Both Spotify and Apple Music use the same pricing variations across platforms, making the choice between which to sign up for more of a choice between design, features, and library exclusives than price itself. Both Spotify’s premium plan and Apple Music’s subscription run a standard $9.99/month, making it match most other standard subscription platforms available, including Google Play Music and Pandora. Both of these platforms also include a student plan for anyone with a college email, with the ability to access a reduced $4.99/month price for up to four years while you’re studying. Finally, each of these also include family plans that allow up to six users to use the individual platform under one bill, making for some great savings depending on the size of your family or friend group looking to split the bill. No matter which platform you choose, both Spotify and Apple Music’s family plans offer each individual user their own libraries, so you and your parents don’t have to share the same tastes in musical genres.
Apple Music allows for a subscription to be gifted via online gift cards, and buying a 12-month subscription gift saves you $20 in the long run over the typical $9.99/month plan. Spotify gift cards are available in stores, though there doesn’t seem to be any real savings from their gift subscriptions.
It’s worth noting, of course, more than half of Spotify’s own users are on the free tier offered by the company. Spotify’s ad-supported free account allows you to access any song on demand from your PC, while limiting your phone to the application’s shuffle mode, which allows for all users to stream any artist, album, or playlist in a limited shuffle mode on mobile phones. It’s an incredibly important feature over something like Apple Music, which, while allowing for users to access their existing iTunes libraries, can’t quite match the same functionality as Spotify’s own free tier. We can’t understate how incredibly important that free tier is—no other streaming music software has something like it, and even with the limitations, it’s still a useful tool for anyone looking to stream music without paying a monthly fee.
Spotify and Apple Music are, largely, at the top of the streaming game right now, and it’s easy to see why. They both have large libraries with nearly-unlimited song and album choices, multiple options for streaming music from devices, and exclusive features that make both apps appealing for different reasons. Each app’s design is clean and easy to use, and both even allow for local music to be added for playback at any time. They even compete on pricing with each other, with three different pricing tiers for students, normal users, and families—plus the additional free ad-supported tier offered by Spotify.
Is there a clear winner? In our eyes, not really. Each platform has enough distinct features that we think users looking for a streaming service will be able to make the better choice for them. Spotify wins in terms of cost (mostly due to the free streaming ability), usability (with a web player and an improved Android app) and the included social features, but Apple Music offers more exclusives, a larger library, a better free trial, and the inclusion of already-existing iTunes libraries—a major win for music lovers who have been building their libraries for years. Apple’s iOS 11 update is bringing those same social features to Apple Music, and though we’ll have to wait to see just how well those social functions work within the new app, and when they come to the Android application. The distinctive designs between the two apps just widen the gap between the two applications, making it easier for users to choose between the two platforms.
If you’ve come here hoping for us to pick a winner for you, we think Spotify pulls ahead of the competition by a nose, though that isn’t to say Apple Music is worse off than the music streaming giant. Rather, we think the features offered by Spotify, including the free tier, crossfade between songs for automatic DJing at parties, the web player, and the inclusion of Facebook friends and social features make it the better application for most users. Apple Music has plenty of great things going for it, including iTunes Match, iCloud library, and Beats 1 Radio, but until that iOS 11 update rolls out, Spotify is the better choice between the two apps. We’ll have to wait and see how the newest update to Apple Music works, but for now, if you’re looking for the best music streaming app in the game, you’ll want to download Spotify from the App Store or Play Store, along with the desktop version from Spotify’s own website. The best part of Spotify: if you try the app and it isn’t for you, the free tier is still available for all users.