If you're not ensnared in the bear trap that is iTunes, and you own a phone that doesn't have a lower case 'i' at the start, you might be wondering what to do about music. With Windows Phone 7 launching this week, Microsoft has finally brought its Zune store to the UK, and with it, the streaming and download service Zune Pass.
Spotify is well established in the UK, with a multi-tier service that offers music for free -- ad supported -- and extra services if you're prepared to cough up £10 per month for its most feature-packed option. It's £1 more than Zune, and you don't get ten free downloads like you do with Microsoft's version, which is a shame.
Let's have a look at both offerings and try to determine which one is worthy of your monthly subscription.
This category is hard to call. If you have a powerful computer, the Zune software is likely to be an attractive and well-designed option. If you're languishing on some HP junk that your company bought second-hand from India where they'd finished using it as a doorstop, you might prefer the Spotify app, which is lightweight and responsive on every PC we've tested it on.
That said, the Zune software does much more. It syncs photos, music and video with a compatible device. It also allows you to rent movies, subscribe to podcasts and manage your video collection. It has a mini-player, which is really useful, and graphically, we think the Zune software is much more modern. Spotify is basically a clone of the illegal download service Napster, before the P2P service went legit.
Winner: We're going to give this one to Zune, because overall, it's better. See the 'speed' section for our thoughts on using the software.
There's no hiding the fact that Spotify's Android app is utterly awful, and those who use Spotify on the iPhone tell us it's not much better on the Apple device, either. Using it on the Samsung Galaxy S, we're lucky if we can make it through a whole song without the software going daft. Generally, it seems the app likes to sign you out on a whim. When it does that, the music stops playing, and you have to go through the tedious sign-in process again.
Obviously, Zune is assisted by the fact that it's a Microsoft product that only works on Microsoft products, but hey, that model works well for Apple, so why the hell not? On a Zune or Windows Phone, the Zune software syncs the music directly, so there's none of the messy third-party software you need to play music with Spotify. On the other hand, there's no Zune app for other platforms and, for some reason we can't fathom, you can't actually buy a Zune in the UK.
Winner: Draw. On the devices that support Zune, the Microsoft contender is far superior. But Spotify works on more handsets, including those running the new Windows Phone 7.
Spotify streams music at 320k using OGG for premium subscribers, and Zune uses WMA two-pass encoding at 192k.
Ignore the technicalities of the encoding, though. Both sound quite similar, and we didn't have a technical problem with either.
Winner: Draw -- we can't tell the difference, but someone with a £500 HDMI cable might be able to.
In Spotify, searching for a song produces results quickly, and it's very clear what music is available. That's not always true for the Zune software. Searches complete quickly, but it can sometimes get confusing as to what is and isn't available. Also, tracks can take several seconds to start playing with Zune. This delay doesn't exist on Spotify.
Winner: Spotify. Its basic software is incredibly snappy, and we just can't say the same about Zune.
Spotify Premium costs £9.99 per month (there is a £4.99 option, but it's not comparable to what the Zune Pass offers, so we'll ignore it). The Zune Pass costs £8.99 per month
With Spotify, your monthly tenner gets you advert-free streaming, the ability to download tracks to your PC and play them offline, and the option to use the Spotify mobile app.
Zune is slightly better in that, like Spotify, it works on a PC -- but you also get ten free songs per month as part of the Zune Pass.
In Spotify, music purchases are powered by 7Digital. Eminem's Love the Way You Lie costs £1.29. On Zune, Microsoft continues the MS Points lunacy, obfuscating the actual cost behind a daft points system so you never really understand how much you're paying. Online convertors tell us the same track is 99p on Zune. Compare these prices with Amazon, where you can buy the song for £0.89.
Both Zune and Spotify use 320k MP3 downloads, whereas Amazon uses 256k VBR MP3s.
Winner: Neither, really. Get your music from Amazon and import it for the cheapest results. We'll grudgingly give this to Zune, though, as it is the cheapest of the two.
Spotify has the advantage of being available in more places than Zune. Its recent inclusion on Sonos has been a fantastic, and much-requested, development. You can now access your playlists and Spotify's massive music library from your multi-room audio system, and that's pretty cool in our opinion.
What Spotify wins with Sonos, however, it loses in podcast support. The Zune software allows you to subscribe to podcasts, and frankly, we don't understand why Spotify doesn't offer this. In addition, we'd like to see both services support the BBC's 'listen again' functionality.
Zune also supports video, but as this is mostly a music round-up, we're not going to dwell on that too much.
Winner: Zune. Because podcasts and video integration are likely to appeal to more people.
Napster is a footnote here, but for two good reasons. The PC software is the worst cack we've ever used and it doesn't support 'licenced' copying of music to your mobile device. If Napster created an Android app and made its software more like Spotify, it would probably be better than both Zune and Spotify. It's also cheaper, at just £5 per month, with 5 free MP3s thrown in, too, which makes it a bargain.
We didn't really expect this, but there is simply more to Zune than we thought. The library seems good, although we don't know how many tracks Microsoft has rights to in the UK. Spotify is still a decent service, but for £1 more per month, you get less. We love that Zune gives 10 free MP3s per month to Zune Pass subscribers, which alone makes the service worth paying for. Music is also cheaper on Zune, which we think is likely to be important.
At the end of the day, Spotify works on more devices. For that reason, and in spite of our fond feelings towards Zune, we suspect it will remain the more popular of the two services. Zune is certainly much better than we ever believed possible.