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I want Spotify’s Car Thing, but without the Spotify

Spotify’s first hardware product is both a seamless way to play music in the car and an expensive way to keep you locked in.

I want Spotify’s Car Thing, but without the Spotify

I don’t need much convincing to understand the appeal of a device like Spotify’s Car Thing.

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In-car infotainment systems are often cumbersome to navigate and don’t play well with streaming music services, and lots of older cars still don’t have touchscreen systems at all. And while Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto do a fine job bringing smartphone apps to car dashboards, in most cases they still require plugging in your phone on every trip. Even using your phone with a car dashboard mount can be a pain, and smartphone menus are too complicated to navigate safely while driving anyway.

Car Thing eliminates those annoyances with a simple, $90 aftermarket device for playing music and podcasts from your phone. Mount it to a vent or your car’s CD tray, and it presents a small touchscreen interface for navigating the Spotify catalog. If your car supports Bluetooth audio, your phone can stay in your pocket while Car Thing provides the controls.

But while I appreciate what Spotify is trying to accomplish with Car Thing—which publicly launched in February and received a major feature update last week—it also represents one of the biggest pitfalls of modern gadgets: Its purpose is not merely to make streaming audio more seamless in any car, but to lock users into Spotify’s ecosystem through hardware. You can’t even use the device without a $10 per month Spotify Premium subscription, and its ability to control other audio sources is extremely limited.

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I’d happily pay for a small touchscreen device that makes streaming music as easy to control as the car radio, but I’d greatly prefer if that device wasn’t forever tied to Spotify.

Frictionless music

If you are committed to Spotify for the long haul, Car Thing does its job well enough, though its various input mechanisms have a learning curve.

The device has a four-inch touchscreen for selecting menu items and controlling playback, but you can also use the rubber knob on right side to scroll through menus, change your phone’s volume, and play or pause with a click. A small button underneath the knob mainly serves as a home and back button, while four buttons on top allow for toggling between playlist presets. (Holding any of those buttons assigns it to whatever playlist is currently running.)

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[Photo: courtesy of Spotify]
This is a lot to take in at first—especially if you’re used to exclusively swiping around on modern smartphones, but eventually you get the hang of it, and being able to switch between stations without looking at the screen is both easier and safer than using a phone.

My main nitpick is that the interface is very much playlist-centric, much like Spotify itself. While you can use “Hey Spotify” voice commands to load specific albums, browsing your album collection requires scrolling to the furthest end of the main menu, and wading through large thumbnail views for each album feels inefficient. (I also wish Spotify brought along some version of its excellent Spotify Stations app for quickly selecting from a list of online radio stations)

[Photo: courtesy of Spotify]
Car Thing is also limited in what it can do beyond playing music and podcasts. An update this week added the ability to pick up phone calls through the touchscreen and control basic media playback from other apps—I haven’t gotten either feature to work yet—but you’ll still need a phone for turn-by-turn navigation, listening to text messages, or initiating phone calls.

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While some folks may be afraid to leave a vaguely phone-like device sitting in their cars, Car Thing is smaller than a typical smartphone, and it’s easy enough to detach from its magnetic mount and stow in the center console. I felt fine leaving it in my CD tray during lunch outings and other quick trips, and appreciated not having to take out my phone or plug anything in while pulling out of my garage.

Stuck with Spotify

The main issue with Car Thing is inherent to its core purpose: Without Spotify, the device is practically worthless.

That of course is fine if you’re a devoted Spotify subscriber, but I prefer to play the field when it comes to music services. I have my own music collection running off a Plex server at home, a pile of songs purchased on Bandcamp (some of which aren’t available on Spotify), and an appreciation for alternative music sources such as Relisten for live concerts and Poolsuite for indie summer vibes.

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I’m admittedly an edge case, but your commitment to Spotify could also waver for more mainstream reasons. Maybe you’re missing Neil Young and other artists who left the platform in protest of Joe Rogan’s podcast, or you’re fed up with Spotify’s delays in adopting lossless audio support. You might also be better off with Apple Music if you’re bundling it with other Apple services, or YouTube Music if you’re bundling it with YouTube Premium. In those cases, Car Thing becomes a high-tech way to increase users’ switching costs.

What I’d really like, then, is similar hardware to Car Thing, but with wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, or on-screen Alexa for running a wider range of apps. This does exist in some fashion, but with bulkier hardware and without Spotify’s useful dials and buttons.

With Car Thing, Spotify has shown that dedicated car audio hardware can make sense. It just has to hope that the likes of Apple, Google, and Amazon don’t realize that for themselves.

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