Spotify vs MOG: Free music streaming showdown [update]

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In the battle to win over music fans, the hot new marketing technique in the world of streaming music is to simply give away your product for free. The latest to the game is MOG, whose  free option went live on Friday, giving users the ability to jam out to their favorite tunes without forking over a dime. (Another similar service, Rdio, also announced a free offering in the pipeline, but it isn’t yet available.) MOG’s move to free comes after the recent US launch of Spotify, which has a strong following throughout Europe. Plenty of online print has been devoted to comparing the premium (paid) services these two streaming competitors offer. But now that MOG has joined the freebie clan, we thought we’d put its free offering up against Spotify’s. Let the unpaid-for games begin!

What you get for free

Spotify makes it crystal clear the limitations put upon users who choose to not give them money: unlimited listening time for the first 6 months; after that, you get 10 hours of music per month, then your tunes go silent.

All Spotify members have access to the service’s 15 million (or so) songs — the largest library available from a streaming service, except, perhaps, Grooveshark, which is riddled with an annoying assortment of re-mixes that, in my experience, make it more difficult to find what you’re looking for, not easier. In addition to Spotify’s expansive library, users can also port MP3s from their computer into Spotify’s player, which is especially good if you have a lot of obscure tracks. That said, Spotify has an impressive list of hard-to-find tracks and artists in their database, so the local importing option may be a moot perk for some users.

MOG also has a solid library, with more than 11 million songs available — about a third less than Spotify, yes, but I was still able to find everything I was looking for on MOG. And when it came to obscure bands, MOG shined. Even music from a number of my friend’s bands were automatically suggested to me upon logging in, as I signed in with my Facebook credentials, and MOG matched up who I followed on that social network with what’s available in its library. It does not, however, allow MP3 importing.

The big question right now is how much music you get for free through MOG — a detail so important that it alone could determine which service cheapos (like myself) use as their go-to music source.

In place of a set listening time, MOG offers users a “full tank” of music, which is depleted as you listen. But that’s not the whole story. MOG also gives users the ability to “earn music” and up their listening time. Clicking the “earn music” link on the MOG dashboard gives you the option to either invite friends to the service, or create playlists and share them with others through email, Facebook or Twitter . The more you do either of these, the more listening time you get, though exactly how much remains a mystery. In other words, get MOG more customers and you’ll be rewarded for it.

On top of this, MOG also gives you more music time by listening to more music — a perk that is equally as vague as the rest of its whole earning music game. To top off the enigmatic feature, MOG will also refill your tank just because it likes your taste. “Sometimes you might do things like add Bob Dylan to a playlist, and because we like Bob Dylan, we’re just going to give you free music,” David Hyman, MOG founder and CEO, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There will be serendipity, and you’ll get free music for events that you wouldn’t expect.”

Aside from allotted listening time, the other major difference between the two free offerings is sound quality. Spotify gives free listeners tunes with a quality of 160 kbps, and doubles the streaming rate to 320 kbps if you choose to pay. MOG, on the other hand, has a default streaming rate of 320 kbs, regardless of whether you pay or not.

What you have to pay for

Both Spotify and MOG offer two levels of paid service; a lower level for about $5 per month, or a $10 per month option. With both services, $5 per month gives you the ability to listen to an unlimited amount of music on your computer without any annoying ads. (Unlike Spotify, MOG’s free option starts out ad-free, but ads start running after 60 days.) Spotify’s $5 customers also gain access to the radio option, which automatically chooses music for you, rather than requiring the creation of playlists (a feature similar to Pandora). MOG offers its radio feature to paying and free users alike.

Opt for the $10 per month option, and the features lists for both services expands dramatically. And, once again, the offerings here are similar for both MOG and Spotify: the ability to play music on a wide range of other enabled devices (like Roku box, Logitech Squeezebox, Sonos, etc.), as well as to access the service through the available mobile applications, both of which enable users to download tracks to their smartphone or tablet for offline listening — a great feature for commuters who travel outside the range of cell service.

Spotify also allows for offline listening from the desktop at the $10 pay level, as well as an increase in the streaming rate to 320 kbps.

Obviously, the added benefits of unlimited music and the ability to listen on mobile devices are the primary reasons to pay for either Spotify or MOG. And if you have the cash, I’d recommend doing so, no matter which service you choose.

User Interface

Not long ago, the differences between Spotify’s and MOG’s UIs were quite noticeable. But MOG recently revamped its player in such a way that it looks nearly identical to Spotify’s app, with a dark grey color scheme, and similarly positioned feature options, like playlists, track selections, etc. While MOG’s UI has a more polished look, I found both service’s interfaces equally pleasant and intuitive. Searching for new tracks was easy with both options, as was creating playlists — something you’ll be doing a lot of with either service. Both also offer pre-made selections, like “top picks” and “editor’s picks.”

Right now, the main difference between the two UIs is how you access them on your computer. Spotify only offers a desktop client, for either PC or OS X. Alternately, MOG is primarily a web-based service, which you can access from any computer, anywhere. I say “primarily” because MOG just announced that it has a desktop client, too, which looks identical to the web-based version. But for now, it’s only available for OS X users — Windows guys, like myself, have to wait for their turn.

Of course, both Spotify and MOG have mobile apps, too. But seeing as we’re focusing on their free options, and neither company offers mobile support for free, we’ll leave those comparisons for another day.

Social options

Spotify and MOG both incorporate a high level of social functionality to their services. Both allow you to share songs and playlists with friends over Twitter and Facebook, as well as email and, in the case of Spotify, SMS text messages.

On Spotify, you can also connect with friends and subscribe to each other’s playlists. To be able to look through other users’ playlists, however, you must get their permission. MOG makes this form of music discovery much easier, with the ability to peruse friends’ playlists requiring no such authorization, as well as the ability to follow other users so that their new playlists show up in your feed automatically, making MOG much more like a true social network than Spotify.

Conclusion

If you’re going to go the 100-percent free route, then MOG seems to be the better option, as it doesn’t simply limit your listening time to a set monthly allotment, as is the case with Spotify. That said, we don’t actually know what the that allotment is, especially if you don’t want to play the sharing game MOG wants you to play to earn more music time. It’s possible that MOG will give less than 20 hours worth to those who choose to passively use the free service, which would definitely count as a strike. But I wasn’t able to reduce my “tank” significantly in a day’s worth of use.

Another major selling point for free MOG is the radio play option, which isn’t available to Spotify customers who don’t cough up some cash.

UPDATE: A Spotify spokesperson has contacted us to point out that, contrary to my earlier report, Spotify currently gives US users 6 months of 100-percent free music, then allots 10 hours of music per month. (I had incorrectly reported that it offers 20 hours per month of free listening time, which is what the company offers to European customers only.)

This detail, I believe, shifts the balance of value slightly in Spotify’s favor. Originally, I said that MOG was the better deal between the two services, as it gives users the ability (albeit an ambiguous one) to increase their music “fuel tank” without having to pay. That’s still cool, if a bit frustrating. But you can’t beat unlimited, free listening, which Spotify will give you for 6 months. The 10 hours per month that follows, however, is so little it forces you to at least use another service concurrently, since that amount would maybe get you through two work days before the time runs out. That, or pay.

Spotify also told us that it will be launching its radio service for free customers “in a matter of days,” effectively lowering MOG’s upper hand on that point, too.

In other words, Spotify is the better deal for 6 months; after that, MOG regains its throne. At least, it would seem that way with what I currently know about free MOG. Six months from now, once more details emerge, it’s possible Spotify will maintain its dominance in the world of free music streaming. MOG’s “earn music” scheme could very well turn out to be bunk.

Realistically, both Spotify and MOG offer a generous amount of music and features, at no cost. Plus, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you from using both services, though that requires the obnoxious task of re-creating your playlists on both services, which might be worth $5 or $10 per month of your time to avoid.

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