Check out our comparison of the Spotify Radio and Pandora mobile apps for the latest on the two streaming services’ mobile offerings.

Spotify has had a hefty place in the music listening market for a couple years now. Where Grooveshark and Pandora once reigned supreme, Spotify has challenged their empires. We realize there are many more options out there for music listening, like Rdio, but these don’t offer as complete a suite of services as the big three music streaming titans. We compare how they stand up against one another.

Updated on 12-5-2013: This article was updated by Thor Benson on Dec. 3, 2013 to reflect changes to the services. 

Music catalog

When it comes to depth of library, Spotify is hard to beat. The company says its catalog already includes more than 20 million songs, and users can upload their own catalogs to the service as well. Pandora, by comparison, has somewhere around 900,000. 

Grooveshark is a different beast entirely: because its catalog is made up of user-uploaded songs, it could potentially have an infinite number of available tracks. It also means many of the more obscure tracks and mixes show up on Grooveshark, but not on Spotify or Pandora. The downside to a user-generated catalog is that naming for songs artists and albums is highly inconsistent, and the quality of the tunes is all over the place. On top of that, there’s the potential illegality of Grooveshark as a whole (neither Spotify nor Pandora have such legal woes.) In fact, an RIAA spokesperson emailed me to make sure I knew that “the vast majority of songs streamed on Grooveshark are not licensed, making the service unauthorized and illegal.”

“That’s why they’re not featured in the Android Marketplace, or Apple’s app store,” the spokesperson continued. “That also means that with the paid version of Grooveshark, that money is going straight into the operators’ pockets and not to artists and songwriters, as opposed to Pandora and Spotify who do pay music creators.”

In other words, if you are worried about supporting artists and record labels, don’t use Grooveshark.

That said, if we were judging simply on the number and variety of songs — a perfectly valid benchmark — Grooveshark would have it in the bag. But we’re not, so we have to give this one to the more tightly controlled Spotify, and its 20 million high-quality tracks.

Winner: Spotify

Social features

Since the only real social feature to Pandora is the ability to connect with Facebook and see what your friends are listening to, we’re not even going to pretend they have a dog in this fight. So the social battle really comes down to Spotify and Grooveshark. In Spotify’s corner, users connect with each other via Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Windows Live Messenger. Spotify users can quickly, simply, and easily share playlists with their friends through Facebook, Twitter, email, and SMS text messages. And with an even deeper level of integration for Facebook, pretty much everything you do on Spotify can be seen by your friends, if you like. (We’ll get into this more later.) In short, Spotify has an extremely respectable set of social features, and by far the most polished functionality in this area.

That said, Grooveshark still has Spotify beat at this game. Users can connect with both Facebook and Google. Just right click on any song or playlist, and you can share it via email, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Reddit, an embeddable widget, or just link to it in with an automatically generated URL. With Grooveshark’s unique Community feature, it’s easy to add friends, comment each other’s tracks and see other activities.

Winner: Grooveshark

Music discovery

Discovering new music is one of the best, and most interesting, parts about fully-connected music streaming services. Both Spotify and Grooveshark show users the most popular songs on the site. And Spotify makes suggestions for music you might like, but these are often way off the mark and seem to have nothing to do with what you actually listen to on a regular basis. (Sorry, Spotify, I actually hate Bruno Mars with the fire of a thousand suns). Grooveshark’s Community and sharing features make discovering new music fairly easy, especially if you have some super in-the-know friends. The same goes for Spotify and its Facebook integration. Grooveshark also has a “related artists” feature.

The hands-down winner in the music discovery category is Pandora. As you likely already know, Pandora doesn’t offer the ability to listen to exactly the song you want, when you want it. Instead, it allows you to create “stations” based on a particular song or artist. From there, songs are played automatically (like a regular radio station) that are tailored to suit your taste. This is made possible with the Music Genome Project — the heart of Pandora — which analyzes over 400 different attributes to every song in the Pandora catalog to help deliver music that you will like, without you having to know about it already. Spotify offers a continually improving radio mode, but it still pales in comparison to Pandora’s advanced algorithm.

Winner: Pandora

Free versions

As I mentioned before, all three services have a free option. In the world of music streaming, however, you get what you pay for.

Spotify offers unlimited free listening on the desktop (with sequential ads), but you have to pay to use most Spotify features on your phone. 

Grooveshark has pretty much the same situation as Spotify. You can listen to it as much as you want on the desktop, but you have to pay to listen to it on your phone. You can listen to their stations for free with the mobile app, but they’re not that great. We want streaming. The nice thing is you can upload your iTunes library to Grooveshark and play it with the app.

Last is Pandora, which falls somewhere in the middle. The free version is ad-supported, so users have to deal with periodic interruption. And users are limited to a total of 40 hours per month of listening time on mobile. Update: Pandora lifted its 40-hour limit on mobile earlier this year, making it an even stronger contender on the go. And they can access Pandora for free on their mobile device, which is something neither Grooveshark nor Spotify offers to such a degree. If we’re talkin’ free versions here, Pandora gives you the most on mobile.

Desktop Winner: Spotify

Mobile Winner: Pandora

Paid versions

Once you commit to actually spending money for the music you listen to (crazy, I know), a whole world of opportunity presents itself. Spotify offers two levels of paid service: a $4.99 per month offering, which allows unlimited listening time, access to Spotify radio mode and completely removes all advertising from the service; the $9.99 per month offering gives you all that, plus enhanced sound quality, desktop offline mode, and the very awesome ability to play Spotify on your mobile device (both streaming over Wi-Fi or 3G, or downloading tracks straight to your device for offline mode). It is this last feature that gives Spotify the edge.

For $9 per month, users are upgraded to Grooveshark Anywhere, which simply adds the ability to access Grooveshark on a mobile device — any enabled Blackberry, Nokia, or Palm handset. Grooveshark has an Android app, too, but it’s not available in the Marketplace due to legal complications. And there is no official iPhone app (it was also removed from the App Store), so iPhone users have to jailbreak if they want access to Grooveshark.

Pandora is the most straightforward, when it comes to a paid subscription: $36 per year for unlimited playtime and no ads. While this is far cheaper than the other services, you don’t really get that much more for your $36. And because of the mobile and desktop offline modes offered to paid Spotify customers, I have to give that service the gold medal, even if it is the most expensive.

Winner: Spotify

Platforms

Grooveshark has the most options when it comes to platforms: the standard website access, a desktop client, and apps for the various mobile devices. Unfortunately, it also has the least polished user interface of all the services. Now, some of you may not care about this at all, especially since the functionality is still strong, despite how it looks. But for a lot of people, design can make all the difference in terms of how they feel about using the service.

Spotify comes in two flavors: desktop and mobile app. Both of these have absolutely beautiful UI and work smoothly and easily. The desktop client works very much like iTunes, so most people should find using it intuitive and fairly straightforward. I also found the mobile app quite easy to use. And, as I mentioned above, the offline feature and ability to stream cleanly over 4G is really what gives Spotify its award-winning value, since listening to music on the go is essential.

Pandora also also comes in web, mobile, and desktop varieties. All three versions work fine, and have elegant, easy-to-use designs. Pandora is regularly updating the way users interact with their service, and they seem dedicated to remaining a player in the market. If they would just let us skip more songs in the free version, we might have given it to them. Actually, probably not, because streaming just rocks.

Winner: Spotify

Conclusion

Spotify took several categories, more than either Grooveshark or Pandora, which makes it my winner in the streaming showdown. And I must admit, it really is all that the hype builds it up to be (and possibly more). That said, Grooveshark is a very, very close second. It doesn’t have the buffed UI or the Apple-approved iPhone app to make it popular with the mainstream crowd. But it has solid functionality, and a lot of sweet features. Pandora certainly seems like the loser in this whole bit, but that’s mainly because it serves a different purpose than the other two, which it does better than any other service: letting you listen to consistently good music, without having to either own the music already or do any of the time-consuming curation required of Spotify and Grooveshark — a major downside to both services.