'Hey Spotify, let's play first:' Two weeks with Car Thing
After years of rumors, confirmations and vague descriptions, Spotify has finally made the first piece of hardware it can choose from. Although the company revealed the full details of Car Thing earlier this month, it is now only a "limited release." I have used Car Thing in my car for two weeks (obviously), and can tell you one thing-this dedicated Spotify player is actually more like a controller for an app on your phone.
Spotify first tipped its hand on an in-car music player in 2018. It offered a few Reddit users the opportunity to try a compact device that reportedly featured voice control and 4G connectivity. The company didn’t comment at the time, and it’s unclear if any units of this first circular device ever made it out into the wild.
In 2019, reports indicated Spotify was ready to ship an in-car player. All the details from those rumblings turned out to be an accurate description of the Car Thing released this month. The Financial Times report mentioned voice control features, but added new info about preset buttons for playlists and Bluetooth connectivity. Around the same time, the company began adding Car View to its apps: a feature that switches to a simplified player interface when it detects your phone is connected to your vehicle over Bluetooth.An image of Spotify's Car Thing the company released in 2019.Spotify
A few months later in May 2019, the company officially revealed the name Car Thing along with renders of a device with an updated design. Spotify explained that testing for its first piece of hardware was underway, and on top of confirming previously reported specs, added that Car Thing would be powered by your vehicle’s 12-volt outlet and would connect to your phone. The company was pretty much silent on the project until it popped up again in January. Car Thing made an appearance at the FCC with a very different design in early 2021. And while we didn’t know it at the time, this would be the device that (some) users would finally get the opportunity to use.
Car Thing is a device that’s slightly smaller than an iPhone 11, in almost every dimension. It’s a thin display with a sizable dial on the front. The dial serves as an alternative to navigating the touch screen, allowing you to scroll through menus by rotating it. Pressing the large round button shows tracks in an album, playlist or podcast. Just below the dial is a back button that takes you back to the Now Playing interface, returns to the Home screen or closes the audio player — depending on where you’re starting.
Four preset buttons line the top edge for quick access to playlists, albums and podcasts. These can be set with a press and hold or by asking the on-board voice assistant to do it for you. “Hey Spotify, save this to preset (1-4)” does the trick. Ditto for playing one of the saved slots. You can either press the appropriate button or make the request with your voice. When you save a podcast, Car Thing will automatically play the most recent episode when you tap the preset button or ask for it to be played. Four microphones are positioned beside the preset buttons to hear those commands when the music is blasting or you have the windows rolled down. There's also a Settings button on the far right of the top that gives you access to a very limited menu. One handy tool it does offer is the ability to disable the microphones.Billy Steele/Engadget
Around back, there’s a single USB-C port for the power adapter. It’s located in the middle of the device rather than along the edge like your phone, so I always needed to plug in the cable before attaching it to any of the mounts. It would be very difficult to try and do so if Car Thing was already in place on the dash.
The Car Thing definitely reminds me of the XM Radio receiver I used in my ‘99 Pontiac Grand Am. That was long before the Sirius-XM merger. Back then, you used a radio frequency to connect the satellite radio receiver to your car and affixed a magnetic antenna somewhere on the outside. Just like Car Thing, these compact devices offered a way to get “new” content streams without having to upgrade your stereo deck. Plus, the overall design and size is similar. Of course, what Spotify offers with voice control and a touchscreen is better-suited for 2021 than the physical buttons and monochrome displays of the early 2000s.
Initial setupBilly Steele/Engadget
There are a few steps to get Car Thing up and running, but the entire process takes less than five minutes. First, I had to select which mount to use. Spotify includes three options in the box for the dash, air vent and the CD slot. The choice will depend on your preference and the design of your car’s interior. I went with the CD slot since it put Car Thing closer than the other two options, and situated it in clear view.
As you can see from my images, this nearly blocks the small display in my 2006 Honda Element — most notably the clock. It also looks a bit cumbersome having a secondary device mounted in front of your built-in stereo. In the end, I decided easily glanceable and reachable was better than having to reach around the wheel to get to a vent or using adhesive to stick something on the dash.
If you opt for a location that’s near an air vent, Car Thing will alert you to potential interference. When the device detects air blowing near its microphones, both a spoken and visual prompt let me know that I might have trouble using voice features. The device will also recommend trying another location or a different mount. I didn’t have any issues with Car Thing not hearing my commands — even if I had air blowing right at it.
The next step is to plug Car Thing into a power source. For me, this meant the 12-volt outlet. From there, I navigated the Car section of the Settings menu in the Spotify app to proceed. The software will guide you through the process of connecting Car Thing to your phone via Bluetooth. This is an essential step since the player will always need to connect to your phone to get any data. Your phone is the brains behind everything Car Thing does, including providing connectivity.
The setup asked if I was connecting to my car via Bluetooth or an aux cable. But even after chose one, I didn’t have to change anything if I moved from a 2021 Honda Pilot, where my phone was connected via Bluetooth, to the older Element where aux cable is my only option. Once things are connected and in sync, the music can begin. From this point on, whenever I got in my car and connected my phone via Bluetooth or cable, Car Thing would automatically turn on and do its thing since if I left it plugged into the power source.
Old car, new tricksBilly Steele/Engadget
When it comes to content, there’s no setup aside from assigning the four preset buttons. Since Car Thing relies on your phone, everything from your Spotify account automatically shows up. Just like in the app, the Home screen displays recommendations based on recent activity. At the top of the screen, there are tabs for voice search (and recent search results) and Your Library.
This main interface places emphasis on album and show artwork, giving you a side-scrolling collection of squares as your main navigation. Again, you can move through these and any other menu with either swipes or by rotating the physical dial. Each section of the Home screen only shows five items before moving to the next section. There’s an option to show more before going to the next area, so you’re not just stuck with a few of the most recent items.
Spotify has offered voice search for a while inside of its apps, so it’s no surprise that it's more robust voice control on Car Thing works well. The four microphones along top did a great job picking up my voice, and they did so with music playing as promised. I didn’t encounter any issues with playing specific albums, songs, playlists or podcasts. I did however have some trouble with commonly mispronounced or weirdly spelled artists like Sunn O))), PVRIS and Bon Iver.
Oddly, the Car Thing showed PVRIS as the spelling of what I asked for, but began playing a French song with “Paris” in the title. As for Bon Iver, the voice assistant mistook my North Carolina accent as Boney Bear and played Boy & Bear the first five tries. Eventually, I got it. No issues at all with Gotye, HAIM or SBTRKT though. As is the case with other voice assistants, it helps to be specific, and some of my frustrations were because I was admittedly vague.
I also had issues when multiple artists had the same name (Knives vs. NYVES) in addition to when the spelling and pronunciation varied. Perhaps it would help if Spotify could realize that I’ve listened to the latter and never the former. In some instances like ††† (Crosses), the artist's name is in parenthesis, which probably helped with the voice search when the written moniker is just symbols. I don’t think any of my annoyances were a hardware issue and are more likely to do with Spotify’s voice assistant. And that technology can be easily updated to catch some of these more obscure pronunciations.
Just like Car View, the player interface on Car Thing is simple. There’s album/podcast artwork with the artist and title along with larger controls along the bottom for shuffle, skip, play/pause and save from left to right. Album and playlist menus are also basic, with emphasis on song and episode titles.
I’ll admit that I was ready to dismiss Car Thing at first blush. It seemed unnecessary, even in my Honda Element, when I already had my phone that works just fine as a music player — and it has its own virtual assistant. Heck, Spotify's own app has voice control. But once I began to use the device, I started to understand its purpose. While it seems only Spotify die-hards would be interested in something like this, it does offer an upgrade for older cars. I’m never getting built-in voice control in the Element, and the ability to keep Waze on my phone and Spotify on another display definitely reduced the need to fiddle with either while driving. If you’re OCD about cords and clutter, Car Thing will take some extra planning, but there are tidier solutions than what I’ve been testing.
The bigger problem is that Spotify will even provide it to the public. The company has not yet stated exactly how many people will be included in the "limited release"-this is an invitation-only period where users can register for a chance to get a unit. Spotify did explain that if it does go on sale, you can expect to pay around $80 for it, and it hopes to open up wider availability in the future. At present, as the company's first foray into manufacturing hardware, Car Thing is still an "exploration" and an interesting proposal.