Personal Tech | February 24, 2022 7:24 am

Review: The Spotify Car Thing Is a Fun Little Device With One Big Blind Spot

Great design, slick functionality, but a bit myopic

The Spotify Car Thing, a new smart player for vehicles from the streaming platform. We reviewed and tested the device to see if it's worth buying.
Everything you need to install Spotify's new Car Thing. But should you?
Spotify

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This week, Spotify made its Car Thing available to the public. Yes, that’s the actual name, Car Thing, a moniker the company told me started as a placeholder but was eventually adopted as the real title for the streaming company’s first physical device.

As the name implies, Car Thing is a smart audio player for your automobile. At least, it’s one part of a smart audio experience — you’ll need a smartphone with a mobile data connection and a Spotify Premium account to play music or podcasts as it’s not a standalone device. In essence, it’s a beautiful remote control you attach to your dashboard that will supposedly create a better audio experience for those without the benefit of modern interfaces like Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. 

I’ve been champing at the bit to test out Car Thing for myself since Spotify first released its first foray into hardware last year — initially for free to a small percentage of the millions of people who signed up for a waitlist. As of Tuesday, the device is now available to purchase for $89.99, but I got my hands on one that I’ve been testing out for a week.

The Spotify Car Thing, a smart device that connects to the dashboard of your car and makes it easier to play audio through Spotify
The Car Thing features a touchscreen, a big knob and a variety of buttons.
Spotify

I was excited, mainly, because of what Spotify was promising and continues to promise: “a more seamless and personalized in-car listening experience, no matter the year or model of [your] vehicle.” On the setup page for Car Thing the company writes, “If you can currently play music in your car with your phone, you’ll be able to do it easily with Car Thing, too.” But herein lies my biggest problem with the device: this isn’t actually accurate, and I wish they wouldn’t promise this.

To connect Car Thing to your car, you’ll need to plug it into a power source (via an included 12-volt adapter or USB cable) and then connect your phone, which will pair with the device, to your car via Bluetooth or aux cable. (To mount Car Thing to your car they include a CD mount, dash mount and vent mount. Your choice there.) The problem here? Most old cars that desperately need a device like this won’t have Bluetooth or an aux cable, including my 2004 Volkswagen Jetta. 

But here’s the thing, I can play music in this car with my phone. I just use an FM transmitter that plugs into my 12-volt socket and includes two USB ports. So I thought, eureka! I could turn on my FM transmitter, connect my phone to it via Bluetooth like normal, then power the Car Thing on via the USB port, and I’d be all set. Except Car Thing doesn’t recognize USB ports on other 12-volt adapters, just the adapter included with the device.

As it stands, the device doesn’t work on all cars “no matter the year.” In fact, it doesn’t work on most old cars. When I reached out to the company to see whether they considered this problem and the potential of building in radio connectivity (or something else) to bypass it, they said they’ll be rolling out new updates in the future. They didn’t say whether or not they’ll ever make it work for older vehicles.

A hand holding up the Spotify Car Thing in a car, the screen showing an error that the device cannot connect to other 12-volt adapters other than the one included in the box
The Car Thing gets angry when you try and use other adapters.
Alex Lauer

So you can’t use it on older cars before Bluetooth and aux connections became standard, and you don’t need to use it on new cars with premium audio interfaces, so the Car Thing is specifically eyeing the middle ground: those who own cars from the early 2000s up to cheaper modern models. Admittedly, that’s a ton of cars. They are also, for now, focusing on people who mainly use Spotify to play audio in their cars, as the device only works with that app at the moment. (Although in a CNET feature, Spotify told the outlet they will be unlocking access to other audio apps, like Audible, in “a few weeks” through a software update.)

However, if you do own a car in this range, listen almost exclusively to Spotify and wouldn’t mind slapping on a 5-inch by 3-inch screen to your dash, the Car Thing is demonstrably a fun little device — specifically because it’s so much more than just a touchscreen. Crucially, it also features a big ol’ knob (which reminds us of the great Mustang Mach-E screen, showing that people really do need tactile functionality paired with their in-car screens), as well as strong voice controls (even in a loud setting like a car) and buttons along the top that can be programed as shortcuts. 

If this whole thing seems like an odd proposition — a $90 device that’s basically a more aesthetically pleasing (and arguably safer) version of mounting your smartphone to your dash and playing Spotify — just take a step back and look at Spotify’s larger mission. They want to make your audio listening experience so simple and pleasurable that you can’t live without it. On their affordable streaming platform, they’ve gathered so much content that it’s hard to quit even if people despise Joe Rogan; and they’ve made it feel like those without Spotify are missing out on some cultural event. Now, they want to extend that simple and pleasurable experience to your car, a domain that, for many, lacks audio finesse.

The question is: will you pay $90 or just keep playing Spotify on your phone the way you’ve been doing for years?