At this point, we’ve seen rumors, job listings, blog posts, FCC filings and more rumors about Spotify’s in-car music player over the span of a few years. In fact, I was convinced it would never become a thing the public could actually use. When the company first revealed a piece of hardware called “Car Thing” in 2019, Spotify was clear the test was meant “to help us learn more about how people listen to music and podcasts.” It also explained that there weren’t “any current plans” to make that device available to consumers. Now Spotify is ready for select users to get their hands on a refined version of the voice-controlled in-car player.
Back in 2019, the company pretty much tipped its hand entirely on Car Thing. First and foremost, it’s a dedicated player for Spotify’s music and podcast library. As most things are these days, the device can be controlled by voice (“Hey Spotify”), but it has a dial, touch screen and preset buttons for physical interaction as well. Car Thing connects to your phone via Bluetooth and it’s powered by the 12-volt port. The device can connect to your car stereo wirelessly via Bluetooth or wired with an aux or USB jack. In either case, your phone is the internet connection and the ticket to Spotify content while the Car Thing is mostly a controller and display. The company includes CD player, dash and vent mounts in the box for you to choose from.
The gadget is noticeably smaller than a smartphone, though it kind of resembles one due to the touchscreen. It also reminds me of the satellite radio receiver I used in the pre-merger days of Sirius and XM Radio. Four preset buttons along the top allow you to save your favorite music, podcasts and news for one-touch access. Spotify says those four items are also stored for offline playback. You can press and hold one of them to save whatever is playing or use a voice command to set them 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 through your content library, you can rotate the dial and press it or tap on the screen to see specific track details for a playlist, album or podcast. Underneath the dial is a back button that takes you to the Now Playing screen, returns to Home or to closes the player interface. Like Spotify’s Car View, the UI is simplified on the player, serving up album art and basic controls with bold fonts for visibility. Overall, the interface design is very similar to the company’s mobile apps.
Spotify is showing off its voice control abilities with Car Thing. The company just added its own voice assistant to its mobile apps last week, and that tech gives you the option to use this hardware hands-free when needed. You can ask the helper to play or show anything from artists and songs to podcasts and playlists. “Hey Spotify” is handy for searching and playing what you’re looking for without reaching for the device, but it can also assist with saving songs to your library. The company says Car Thing’s four microphones will ensure the voice setup hears your commands even when music is playing or the windows are rolled down.
In terms of content, Car Thing displays separate tabs for playlists, artists, albums and podcasts that you’ve saved to your library. Shortcuts on the Home screen 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 massive collection of music and podcasts if you need to stream something else.
Spotify is adamant a “limited release” of Car Thing doesn’t mean the company is now focused on creating 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 offers “a superior listening experience” no matter the year or model of your car. Spotify also explains that the hardware isn’t solely a means of collecting user data either. While the company does gather voice and usage info (including audio recordings) to improve the hardware, it says it isn’t collecting any more data than it does inside its mobile apps.
“The limited release of Car Thing is not meant to compete with in-car infotainment systems,” Spotify explains in a blog post. “Instead, it’s another step in our larger ubiquity strategy — creating a truly frictionless audio experience for our users, wherever they are and however they choose to listen.”
Car Thing is currently available as a limited product launch in the US only. And to get one, you’ll need an invite. Sign-ups are live now at a website dedicated to the device. Spotify is making the hardware available for free during this early period, but users will be required to pay shipping costs. The company says it’s doing this because Car Thing is its first hardware and it wants to learn as much as possible in the early stages. As you might expect, you’ll need a Premium subscription and a phone with mobile data or WiFi connectivity in order to use Car Thing. Free users aren’t eligible for this “limited release.”
Spotify says if the device becomes a full-fledged product, you can expect to pay around $80 for it. There’s no confirmation that will happen, or a timeframe for further news on the matter. However, the company explains that it would like to open up wider availability in the future — including more languages and regions. But since this is just an “exploration,” it’s starting with English.
Written by B. Steele for Engadget.