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Spotify Car Thing Review | PCMag

Spotify Car Thing Review |  PCMag

Between streaming audio and giving turn-by-turn directions, smartphones have become essential for most motorists. And overall, it’s easier than ever to connect your phone to your car in a safe and convenient way (I swear by my Honda Fit’s Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integrations). If you don’t have access to simple connection options and still want to stream music while you drive, you might be tempted by Spotify’s $89.99 Car Thing accessory, which clicks onto your dashboard and has both a color touchscreen and a dial to Spotify controllable playback. While the Car Thing is easy to use and pretty to look at, it relies heavily on your smartphone, doesn’t have a navigation mode, and doesn’t offer voice features that you can’t already get through the Spotify app. For much less money, a simple car phone holder provides the same utility as your vehicle with your existing handset.

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Many mounting options

The Car Thing looks a bit like a small smartphone: it’s a black device with a plastic housing and a glass front panel measuring approximately 3 by 5 by 1 inches (HWD). On the front is a 4-inch 800 by 480 pixel touchscreen, with a large rubber dial and a smaller black plastic button on the right. The top edge of the unit has an array of five buttons (four for presets and one for settings), as well as four pinhole microphones. A small rubber label with the Spotify logo protrudes from the left edge.

The back is mostly flat, with a raised section taking up about a third of the space. This prong contains a USB-C port for power and has a metal panel behind the plastic housing that facilitates connection to the magnetic puck-shaped holder.

Spotify Car Thing

The Car Thing comes with several mounting options (Photo: Will Greenwald)

You get several holders with the Car Thing, in addition to the magnetic holder that clicks into all of them. There is a vent clip with two sets of flexible pins, a CD holder with a flat insert that fits into any CD player with a lock, and a self-adhesive holder with an adhesive strip that attaches to the dashboard. My Honda Fit doesn’t have a CD player and the adhesive mount didn’t stick too well to the textured surface of my dash, but the vent clip stayed in place despite my non-standard vents. The magnetic holder clicked firmly into place and the Car Thing stayed in the test despite being easy to remove.

In addition to the mounting accessories, the Car Thing comes with a cigarette lighter adapter with two USB ports, a USB-A to USB-C cable and two small adhesive cable clips to prevent the wire from dangling. You can also power the Car Thing directly if your car has a USB port; it worked with no problem with the one in my vehicle.


Easy installation

First, you need a Spotify account to use Car Thing, so if you don’t already have one, you’ll need to create one.

To start using the Car Thing, I placed it on the mount and plugged it into my car’s USB port. It turned on and asked me to scan a QR code on the screen with my phone. The code launched the Spotify app and guided me through pairing the Car Thing with my phone via Bluetooth. It then told me to connect my phone to my car’s sound system via a different Bluetooth connection or with an aux cable. I chose the former method because you don’t get a cable in the box, and the iPhone 12 I used to test doesn’t have a headphone jack.

With these steps completed, the Car Thing has been successfully linked to my Spotify account; it automatically turned on and connected to my phone every time i started my car. My phone then connected to my car via Bluetooth, which it was already set up for.

Spotify Car Thing

Voice control prompt (Picture: Will Greenwald)

If you’ve paid attention to the installation process, you may have noticed that the Car Thing only connects to your phone, not the car itself. Your phone handles all audio, from receiving it through the Spotify app to sending it to your car’s speakers. In other words, the Car Thing only acts as a control panel for the Spotify app on your phone.

The control panel looks and feels good, and I had no trouble using “Hey, Spotify” commands to search for music. But you can also set the same voice control function in the Spotify app on your phone.


Clumsy operation

The interface of the Car Thing is simply defective. It displays large tiles for your favorite music, and you use the dial to scroll left and right through your options, eliminating the hassle of fiddling with the touchscreen while you drive. However, this is not an improvement over the Spotify app’s Auto mode, which also offers simplified menus. Unfortunately, the company discontinued this feature last year, but is currently testing a new one(Opens in a new window)

Spotify Car Thing

The watch face is quite large and takes up part of the screen (Photo: Will Greenwald)

The screen looks reasonably bright for its size and is bright enough to be seen comfortably even when driving under clear skies in the middle of the day. It’s not particularly colorful, but you can spot album covers without any problem. But while the tiles are easy to read for different artists, songs, and other content, their large size makes the interface feel cramped, as does the watch face that overlaps the right edge of the screen.

The system also feels quite unintuitive to navigate via touch, especially if you want to access your library for specific playlists and podcasts. To do that, you’ll need to turn the knob to the right, past the Home section with recommendations and the oddly named Voice section that shows your voice search history, before reaching the Library section. You can say, “Hey Spotify, show me my library” to get to that section, but at that point you might as well use your voice for everything.

However, voice control can be cumbersome. When you ask for something, the screen still shows the search results even after the audio starts playing. If you want the full screen view with playback controls, you have to press the back button on the Car Thing twice (pressing once will take you to the home screen).

You can set any of the four preset buttons to what is currently playing by holding it down until it is saved. Make sure the Shuffle feature is turned on if you want a random playlist or radio station; otherwise, the unit will store the currently playing song in the playlist and continue with the rest of the songs in order. Enabling Shuffle for one playlist will enable it universally, so if you want to listen to the playlist in its normal setup, you’ll need to uncheck the Shuffle option (at which point all presets will revert to non-randomized mode). There’s also no way to add presets through the Spotify app when you’re browsing on your phone.

The Car Thing offers a simple interface for managing calls, but this integration still relies entirely on your phone’s connection to your car. And if you’re using your phone to navigate, the Car Thing can’t help you, as it doesn’t show maps or directions. For that functionality, you’ll probably want a phone holder to use next to the Car Thing, but that could make an already cramped dashboard almost unusable and very distracting, so we don’t recommend that setup. And if you already use a phone holder for navigation, you probably don’t need the Car Thing.

Spotify Car Thing

The preset buttons are clunky to use (Photo: Will Greenwald)


An expensive alternative to a phone holder

The Spotify Car Thing is a decent accessory if you’re a heavy Spotify streamer and don’t use your phone in the car for directions. However, if your vehicle supports Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, you won’t gain much more than the Car Thing’s physical control button. For vehicles without access to those systems, a simple phone holder is also sufficient. While a mount isn’t as slick as the Car Thing, you can still use one to easily control Spotify with your voice and see directions and other information from your favorite navigation service.

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