Spotify’s car thing is mind-boggling, but works as advertised

The Spotify Car Thing looks super cute, but it’s not the end of my car’s infotainment problem! Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

I love my old car. It’s officially a teenager – 13 to be exact – but the entertainment arrangement in the dash makes it look a lot older. I have been using the Android Auto app on my smartphone as my car’s ‘infotainment’ system for a long time. Years ago, I ripped the 30-pin proprietary iPod connector out of my glove compartment to expose the AUX port, and later bought a Roav Bolt with the built-in Google Assistant for hands-free connectivity.

Everything worked so well. I would start the car, my Android phone would connect to the Bolt via Bluetooth and the Android Auto app would appear on my phone screen. I then connected the Popsocket to the holder and tapped the play button on the phone to get started on the go. Android Auto provided the perfect marriage between music playback and Google Maps, which I constantly need because I have no sense of direction, even after living in the San Francisco Bay Area all my life.

But then Google announced that it Android Auto phone app was going to be phased out and I panicked. Then I looked at Spotify’s Car Thing, a Bluetooth accessory for your phone that plays music. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this $80 device, which only exists to stream Spotify — there was definitely more to it, I thought. Reader, there is none.

An iPod, but make it Spotify

Car Thing fits perfectly in your ventilation grille with a magnetized adapter. Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

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I have been a Spotify Premium user since the beginning. My algorithm has been fine-tuned for the many stages of my life over the past 10 years, and I feel closely locked into my Spotify profile — the same way someone would have felt back in the day with their curated CD mixes and iTunes playlists.

This is why I thought I would take advantage of Spotify’s Car Thing. It’s something for a service I’ve been paying for almost 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 was approved and smashed the buy button.

The Car Thing can be mounted on any vent with a strong magnet, although a CD slot is included if you prefer to mount it that way. The device has a screen of 3.97 inches, which is not much bigger than my first Android phone, the HTC Incredible. It also has a giant dial in the right corner and a small button on the bottom. It is powered via USB-C from your car’s 12V socket with a USB-A adapter, which includes an additional USB slot in the adapter to charge your phone. There are also five additional buttons on the top of the Car Thing that have a navigation function. I’ll get to that in a minute.

To its credit, Spotify has created a display that is easy to see even in the glare of the sun. The screen brightens and dims automatically, just like your instrument panel would.

A remote control for your music

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

To set up Spotify Car Thing, you need to connect your device through your car’s speakers. Some newer cars have Bluetooth, which makes it easy (nice for those folks). But my car only has AUX, so whenever I want to go for a ride with the Car Thing, I have to physically connect a headphone adapter to the AUX cable ejected from my glove compartment before I can take off. It adds minutes to my driving time that I’d rather not have to deal with and almost completely knocks me out of this gadget.

Yet I persisted. Spotify Car Thing and I have taken several trips around the Bay Area together. Over the course of about 100 miles, I found myself enjoying having the app I use most often in the front and center behind the wheel. But once you’re driving and you decide to change the atmosphere, the Car Thing suddenly feels too complicated to use. You really have to rely on Spotify to deliver the playlist you want before you hit the road.

Those four buttons at the top I mentioned earlier? They’re shortcuts that can be customized so that if there’s a playlist you update regularly (mine is called ‘Everyday I’m Shufflen’), you can pin it. You can also pin a favorite podcast (have you heard of gadgets?). Spotify will lead you to a list of playlists by default. I got playlists for commuting, but I work from home and only use my car to drive around town to run errands, so those playlists aren’t for me.

The most frustrating thing about Car Thing is that the volume knob is not intuitive to use while rocking to a playlist. Because I listen in my car via the AUX, the volume is already at the loudest. And when I want to browse songs, I need two clicks on the back button to activate the mode that scrolls through the playlist. Annoyingly, I can’t even use it to skip to the next track, which would be a much simpler mechanism than tapping the screen. It’s a tricky balancing act when trying to steer the car down the highway.

Spotify does have a kind of digital assistant. You can say “Hey Spotify” to skip a song or queue a particular album. To its credit, it’s been the only assistant so far to understand when I asked it to play my “Everyday I’m Shufflen” playlist. The Google Assistant is constantly struggling with that particular task, and it was nice to see Spotify’s assistant behind the wheel capable, and that’s the only 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 capability is available in the settings panel, accessed via the fifth end button on the top of the device (in the same row as the presets).

I use Spotify for music but not for podcasts, which unfortunately means I can’t use Car Thing to listen to my favorites. Car Thing will remain inactive if you want to pipe podcasts from a third-party app on your phone (and the same for music, but if you bought Car Thing you probably already stream on Spotify). Because I had my phone physically strapped to the car speakers, I was still able to 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 stop and manage if you wanted to do it safely.

Everything about Spotify

Unfortunately, Car Thing did not solve my problems. When in use, I drive with two devices mounted against my air 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 just a Bluetooth accessory for your phone to play your Spotify library, and that’s about it. For a car device, you want some navigation capabilities, and I’m not sure Spotify would ever integrate that into its offering (or work with a third-party mapping app) to make Car Thing more useful. But in the current version, I still have to put my Android smartphone against a ventilation grille to see where I’m going and what the traffic is like. It’s almost comical, and it’s certainly not what I expected when I started looking for a more streamlined infotainment option.

If you’re a Spotify Premium user and deeply entrenched in its ecosystem – I mean you like the playlists it delivers every week, and you don’t use other apps to deal with media – then Car Thing might be worth a try. . And to be fair, Spotify makes no promises about Car Thing – just that”Car Thing has one job and doing great.” But the days of single-use devices are behind us, especially when it comes to music. The iPhone made the iPod obsolete, and it’s clear that Car Thing isn’t reinventing the wheel there.

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

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