Spotify’s car is confusing, but it works as advertised


Photo of Spotify car

Spotify Car Thing looks super cute, but that’s not the end of it all in terms of information and fun in my car!
Photography: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

I love my old car. He’s officially a teenager – 13 years to be exact – but his fun setting in the instrument seems a lot older. I have been using the Android Auto app on my smartphone for the longest time as the “infotainment” system of my car. A few years ago, I pulled out a 30-pin proprietary iPod dock in my glove compartment to detect the AUX jack, and then I later bought Roav Bolt with built-in Google hands-free connection assistant.

Everything worked so well. I would start the car, my Android phone would connect via Bluetooth to Bolt, and the Android Auto app would appear on my phone screen. Then I would attach Popsocket to its holder and touch pput a button on your phone to hit the road. Android Auto has offered the perfect blend of music playback and Google Maps, which I constantly need because I don’t have a sense of direction even after living my whole life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But then Google announced that it was Android Auto the phone app would be phased out and I started to panic. Then I looked Spotify’s Car Thing, a Bluetooth accessory for your phone that plays music. I wasn’t quite sure what I expected from this $ 80 device that exists exclusively for streaming Spotify – there was certainly more to it, I thought. Reader, no.

IPod, but let it be Spotify

Photo by Spotify Car Thing

Car Thing fits exactly into your vent with a magnetized adapter.
Photography: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

I’ve been a Spotify Premium user since its early days. My algorithm has become finely tuned to the many stages of my life these past 10 years, and I feel intricately locked into my Spotify profile—the same way a person might have felt with their curated CD mixes and iTunes playlists back in the day.

This is why I thought I would benefit from Spotify’s Car Thing. It’s a thing for a service I’ve been paying for nearly 10 years. Spotify requires you to sign up for an invite list to get the chance to buy Car Thing, so I did. About a month later, I got approved and smashed the buy button.

The Car Thing mounts to any air vent with a strong magnet, though there is a CD slot insert included if you’d rather mount it that way. The device has a 3.97-inch display, which isn’t much bigger than my first Android phone, the HTC Incredible. It also has a giant rotating dial in the right-hand corner and a small button on the bottom. It’s powered up via USB-C through your car’s 12V socket with a USB-A adapter, which includes an extra USB slot in the adapter for charging your phone. There are also five additional buttons at the top of the Car Thing that serve a navigational function. I’ll get to that in a minute.

To its credit, Spotify made a display that’s easy to see even in the glare of the sun. The screen automatically brightens and dims, just as your instrument panel would.

A Remote for Your Music

A photo of the Spotify Car Thing from another angle

Car Thing can take you through your latest playlists, artists, and even your favorite podcasts.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

To set up the Spotify Car Thing, you’ll need to connect your device through your car’s speakers. Some newer cars sport Bluetooth, which makes it easy (nice for those people). But my car only has AUX, so whenever I want to take a drive with the Car Thing, I have to physically plug in a headphone adapter to the AUX cable snaked out of my glove compartment before I can take off. It adds minutes to my drive time that I would rather not deal with and almost entirely turns me off to this gadget.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Spotify Car Thing and I took several drives together throughout the Bay Area. Over the course of a 100 miles or so, I found I liked having the app I use second most often front and center while behind the wheel. But once you’re driving and you decide to change up the vibe, the Car Thing suddenly feels too complicated to use. You have to really trust Spotify to deliver the playlist you want before hitting the road.

A diagram of the Car Thing

Those four buttons on top I mentioned before? They’re shortcuts that can be customized so that if there’s a playlist you update frequently—mine is called Everyday I’m Shufflin’—you can pin that. You can also pin a favorite podcast (have you heard of Gadgettes?). By default, Spotify leads you to a list of playlists. I was met with playlists for a commute, but I work from home and only use my car to drive around town running errands, so those playlists aren’t for me.

The most frustrating part of Car Thing is that the volume dial isn’t intuitive to use while you’re rocking out to a playlist. Because I listen through the AUX in my car, the volume is already the loudest it can go. And if I want to shuffle through songs, it takes two clicks of the back button to activate the mode that scrolls through the playlist. Annoyingly, I can’t even use it to skip to the next song, which would be a much easier mechanism than tapping the screen. It’s a tricky balancing act when attempting to steer the car down the freeway.

Spotify does have a digital assistant of sorts. You can say, “Hey Spotify” to skip a song or queue up a particular album. To its credit, it’s been the only assistant thus far to understand when I ask it to play my “Everyday I’m Shufflin’” playlist. The Google Assistant constantly struggles with that particular task, and it was nice to see Spotify’s assistant was capable behind the wheel, which is the one place I really rely on that kind of hands-free interaction.

You can turn off the microphone if you don’t want to use Spotify’s assistant. The ability is available in the settings panel, which you access through the fifth end button on top of the device (on the same row as the presets).

I use Spotify for music but not for podcasts, and unfortunately that means I can’t use Car Thing to listen to my favorites. Car Thing stays dormant if you want to pipe in podcasts from a third-party app on your phone (and the same thing for music, though if you bought Car Thing presumably you stream on Spotify already). Since I had my phone physically tethered to the car’s speakers, I could still listen to my Pocket Casts downloads without any interruption. You’ll have to do that manually, so it’s one of those things you’d have to pull over and manage if you wanted to do that safely.

All About Spotify

A photo of the Car Thing and my phone doing its deed

Unfortunately, Car Thing did not fix my problems. When using it, I drive with two devices mounted against my vents. Very futuristic!
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

My biggest annoyance with this accessory is that it doesn’t do everything I need it to. Car Thing is merely a Bluetooth accessory for your phone to play back your Spotify library, and that’s pretty much it. For a car device, you want some navigational capabilities, and I’m not sure if Spotify would ever integrate that into its offerings (or work with a third-party maps app) to make Car Thing more useful. But in its current implementation, I still have to place my Android smartphone against an air vent to see where I’m going and what the traffic is like. It’s almost comical, and it’s most certainly not what I expected when I went in search of a more sleek infotainment option.

If you’re a Spotify Premium user and you’re deeply embedded in its ecosystem—I mean, you love the playlists it delivers every week, and you don’t use other apps to engage with media—then maybe Car Thing is worth a try. And to be fair, Spotify makes no promises about Car Thing—just that “ Car Thing has one job and he does it great. ” But the days of disposable devices are behind us, especially when it comes to music. The iPhone has made the iPod unnecessary, and it’s clear that Car Thing isn’t inventing a wheel here.

I’m still looking for an app that can replace Android Auto on my phone when Google cancels it forever. Until then, my trust, Roav Bolt will have to get the job done.


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