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Spotify’s Car Thing debuts as a limited release for selected US users

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It’s free, but users have to pay for shipping

Spotify’s Car Thing is only being released in limited quantities.
Photo by Ashley Carman / The Verge

Spotify’s first gadget has landed. Car Thing, a Spotify-only, voice-controlled device for the car, is launching today in limited quantities to invited users. It’s a dedicated, Bluetooth-connected device for controlling Spotify without the need for a phone screen, which seems to be meant for people who drive older cars without built-in infotainment systems or phone connections.

Before getting to the device details, let’s focus on the basics. Car Thing is only being released as a “limited product launch,” so you can’t buy one outright. Instead, you can sign up for the waitlist and hope Spotify reaches out. It’s only available for US customers, and you have to subscribe to Spotify Premium to qualify. Another thing to know: if you’re chosen to try Car Thing, the device is free, but you have to pay for shipping. Spotify declined to comment on how many units it’d be giving away. The company’s also billing the gadget as an “exploration,” so it’s unclear how serious the team is about the product and its future.

The device is shockingly small and lightweight. It has a thin profile and features two prominent buttons on the front, a small one that serves as a back button and a larger knob that lets you interact with whatever’s on-screen. There’s no speaker, so it’s easiest to think of the device as, essentially, a Spotify remote. Yes, you could use your actual phone to play Spotify content, but instead, Spotify is betting that you’ll want voice controls and a dedicated interface to control your audio.

The Car Thing requires a power connection to turn on.
Photo by Ashley Carman / The Verge

I’ve tested Car Thing for a couple days and found the voice controls to be easy to use and relatively intuitive. I drive a 2009 Honda Fit and already keep my phone mounted to the dash for navigation, so I ended up mounting the Car Thing on my vent. This meant I had two bright screens facing me throughout my drive. (I do have a screen built into my car, which you’ll see in photos, but I don’t use it for anything because I prefer Google Maps.)

The voice controls mostly worked — for some reason it only got tripped up on a Kid Cudi request — but I grew frustrated with the steps it took to control music. When a song that I didn’t like played, it took longer to say, “Hey Spotify, skip” than it would have to just tap the skip button on my phone. I generally felt like I could more efficiently navigate Spotify just by using my phone at stop lights. The device does shine, however, when you ask the voice assistant to start a playlist, and it registered those commands easily.

As for the hardware itself, Car Thing pairs with a phone over Bluetooth. It needs this phone for a data connection, so yes, users will require a decent amount of data to stream. In a press briefing, Spotify noted that right now, there’s no way for users to pull only from their downloaded content, although that functionality could come in the future. Depending on a car’s connectivity, users can either rely on an auxiliary cable for sound or keep their phone paired to their car’s Bluetooth to play audio content over the speakers. The Car Thing doesn’t have a speaker itself, and it’s basically controlling the Spotify app on your phone. It’s a strange setup.

The device comes with a 12V adapter into which you’ll plug the provided USB-A to USB-C cable. Car Thing does not include a rechargeable battery and needs to be plugged in at all times. The device also ships with three different mounts: a vent mount, a dashboard mount, and a CD player mount. You can clip a magnetic attachment to these mounts, which then lets you take the Car Thing off easily. (Also worth noting is that the dash mount doesn’t come with a suction cup and instead requires that you stick it to your dash with 3M adhesive backing.)

The Car Thing comes with three different mounts.
Spotify

Once mounted, you can interact with Car Thing in three ways: through your voice using a “Hey Spotify” command, through its tactile buttons and knob, or through its touchscreen. It also features four preset buttons on the top of the device, which you can set to specific content.

Now that I have a Car Thing, can I see it being a success? I guess it depends on how comfortable people are with a Spotify-owned microphone in their cars and whether they think the device offers a more meaningful experience than their built-in infotainment systems. Because my car is older, it did provide a hands-free interface for music while also adding another screen to my setup. But I also feel uneasy about a Spotify microphone being within earshot of all my conversations. (The device does feature a digital setting to turn the microphone off, probably to address concerns like mine, but still.) Spotify’s voice privacy page says it only records and stores what users say after its “Hey Spotify” wake phrase is spoken, but I still don’t love the idea of an always-listening microphone near me. The privacy page mostly details the company’s interactive voice ads, which I have yet to come across.

Broadly, I’d assume people with modern infotainment systems likely won’t need or want a Spotify-only Bluetooth remote, whereas people like me, whose cars are older, might end up wanting to stick with whatever system they’ve already figured out. One thing that Spotify might accomplish with Car Thing, however, is getting users who default to the radio to switch to Spotify instead. It’s clearly making a play for the space with its Your Daily Drive playlist, which updates daily with music and spoken word content, as well as its push into podcasts. I default to the radio often because it’s the easiest thing to put on. Car Thing, if I keep it in my car, would admittedly change that and give Spotify more of my listening time, and that’s likely all Spotify wants.