Spotify’s Car Thing Is Baffling, but Works as Advertised

Spotify’s Car Thing Is Baffling, but Works as Advertised
The Spotify Car Thing looks super cute, but it is not the end-all be-all to my car's infotainment issue! (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

I love my old car. It’s officially a teenager — 13, to be exact — but its in-dash entertainment setup makes it seem a whole lot older. For the longest time, I’ve been using the Android Auto app on my smartphone as my car’s “infotainment” system. Years ago, I yanked out the 30-pin proprietary iPod hookup in my glovebox to expose the AUX port, then later bought a Roav Bolt with the Google Assistant built in for hands-free connectivity.

Everything worked so well. I’d start up the car, my Android phone would connect via Bluetooth to the Bolt, and the Android Auto app would appear on my phone screen. Then, I’d hitch the Popsocket to its holder and tap the play button on the phone to get started on the road. Android Auto offered the perfect marriage of music playback and Google Maps, which I constantly need because I have no sense of direction even after living in the San Francisco Bay Area all my life.

But then Google announced that its Android Auto phone app would be phased out, and I started to panic. That’s when I looked into Spotify’s Car Thing, a Bluetooth accessory for your phone that plays music. I wasn’t quite sure what I expected from this $US80 ($110) device that exists solely to stream Spotify — surely there was more to it, I thought. Reader, there is not.

An iPod, but Make It Spotify

Car Thing fits squarely into your air vent with a magnetized adaptor.  (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo) Car Thing fits squarely into your air vent with a magnetised adaptor. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

I’ve been a Spotify Premium user since its early days. My algorithm has become finely tuned to the many stages of my life these past 10 years, and I feel intricately locked into my Spotify profile — the same way a person might have felt with their curated CD mixes and iTunes playlists back in the day.

This is why I thought I would benefit from Spotify’s Car Thing. It’s a thing for a service I’ve been paying for nearly 10 years. Spotify requires you to sign up for an invite list to get the chance to buy Car Thing, so I did. About a month later, I got approved and smashed the buy button.

The Car Thing mounts to any air vent with a strong magnet, though there is a CD slot insert included if you’d rather mount it that way. The device has a 3.97-inch display, which isn’t much bigger than my first Android phone, the HTC Incredible. It also has a giant rotating dial in the right-hand corner and a small button on the bottom. It’s powered up via USB-C through your car’s 12V socket with a USB-A adaptor, which includes an extra USB slot in the adaptor for charging your phone. There are also five additional buttons at the top of the Car Thing that serve a navigational function. I’ll get to that in a minute.

To its credit, Spotify made a display that’s easy to see even in the glare of the sun. The screen automatically brightens and dims, just as your instrument panel would.

A Remote for Your Music

Car Thing can take you through your latest playlists, artists, and even your favourite podcasts.  (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo) Car Thing can take you through your latest playlists, artists, and even your favourite podcasts. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

To set up the Spotify Car Thing, you’ll need to connect your device through your car’s speakers. Some newer cars sport Bluetooth, which makes it easy (nice for those people). But my car only has AUX, so whenever I want to take a drive with the Car Thing, I have to physically plug in a headphone adaptor to the AUX cable snaked out of my glove compartment before I can take off. It adds minutes to my drive time that I would rather not deal with and almost entirely turns me off to this gadget.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Spotify Car Thing and I took several drives together throughout the Bay Area. Over the course of a 161 km or so, I found I liked having the app I use second most often front and centre while behind the wheel. But once you’re driving and you decide to change up the vibe, the Car Thing suddenly feels too complicated to use. You have to really trust Spotify to deliver the playlist you want before hitting the road.

Spotify Car Thing sure has a lot of buttons for being a car accessory.  (Image: Spotify, Other) Spotify Car Thing sure has a lot of buttons for being a car accessory. (Image: Spotify, Other)

Those four buttons on top I mentioned before? They’re shortcuts that can be customised so that if there’s a playlist you update frequently — mine is called Everyday I’m Shufflin’ — you can pin that. You can also pin a favourite podcast (have you heard of Gadgettes?). By default, Spotify leads you to a list of playlists. I was met with playlists for a commute, but I work from home and only use my car to drive around town running errands, so those playlists aren’t for me.

The most frustrating part of Car Thing is that the volume dial isn’t intuitive to use while you’re rocking out to a playlist. Because I listen through the AUX in my car, the volume is already the loudest it can go. And if I want to shuffle through songs, it takes two clicks of the back button to activate the mode that scrolls through the playlist. Annoyingly, I can’t even use it to skip to the next song, which would be a much easier mechanism than tapping the screen. It’s a tricky balancing act when attempting to steer the car down the freeway.

Spotify does have a digital assistant of sorts. You can say, “Hey Spotify” to skip a song or queue up a particular album. To its credit, it’s been the only assistant thus far to understand when I ask it to play my “Everyday I’m Shufflin’” playlist. The Google Assistant constantly struggles with that particular task, and it was nice to see Spotify’s assistant was capable behind the wheel, which is the one place I really rely on that kind of hands-free interaction.

You can turn off the microphone if you don’t want to use Spotify’s assistant. The ability is available in the settings panel, which you access through the fifth end button on top of the device (on the same row as the presets).

I use Spotify for music but not for podcasts, and unfortunately that means I can’t use Car Thing to listen to my favourites. Car Thing stays dormant if you want to pipe in podcasts from a third-party app on your phone (and the same thing for music, though if you bought Car Thing presumably you stream on Spotify already). Since I had my phone physically tethered to the car’s speakers, I could still listen to my Pocket Casts downloads without any interruption. You’ll have to do that manually, so it’s one of those things you’d have to pull over and manage if you wanted to do that safely.

All About Spotify

Unfortunately, Car Thing did not fix my problems. When using it, I drive with two devices mounted against my vents. Very futuristic!  (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo) Unfortunately, Car Thing did not fix my problems. When using it, I drive with two devices mounted against my vents. Very futuristic! (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

My biggest annoyance with this accessory is that it doesn’t do everything I need it to. Car Thing is merely a Bluetooth accessory for your phone to play back your Spotify library, and that’s pretty much it. For a car device, you want some navigational capabilities, and I’m not sure if Spotify would ever integrate that into its offerings (or work with a third-party maps app) to make Car Thing more useful. But in its current implementation, I still have to place my Android smartphone against an air vent to see where I’m going and what the traffic is like. It’s almost comical, and it’s most certainly not what I expected when I went in search of a more sleek infotainment option.

If you’re a Spotify Premium user and you’re deeply embedded in its ecosystem — I mean, you love the playlists it delivers every week, and you don’t use other apps to engage with media — then maybe Car Thing is worth a try. And to be fair, Spotify makes no promises about Car Thing — just that “Car Thing has one job and does it awesomely.” But the days of single-use devices are behind us, especially when it comes to music. The iPhone made the iPod unnecessary, and it’s clear that Car Thing isn’t reinventing the wheel there.

I’m still on the hunt for an app that can replace Android Auto on my phone when Google phases it out for good. Until then, my trust Roav Bolt will have to get the job done.